Over the past two-and-a-half years, Victoria Sylvestre has gone from teaching at Carrboro High School to co-owning five stores centered on the sale of electronic cigarettes and flavored e-juices.
Sylvestre and her husband Marc own The Vapor Girl, which has two locations in Chapel Hill and stores in Durham, Burlington and Pittsboro.
Yes, Sylvestre said, people ask her how, as a former teacher, she can sell vaping items such as e-cigarettes and e-juices.
“I’m helping people,” she said. “It goes completely and utterly along with everything I have worked for my entire life – to help people.”
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The responses demonstrate the varying opinion on the rapidly expanding vaping industry. Opponents point out the unknown impact on people’s health and to studies that show increasing e-cigarette use among teens.
But the Sylvestres and other proponents describe vaping as a tool that helps people to stop smoking cigarettes or reduce their nicotine consumption.
“We call it harm reduction,” Sylvestre said.
The American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, however, have contested such claims. The organizations have expressed concern about the health implications of inhaling chemicals found in e-juices and the electronic delivery method being a gateway product for non-smokers.
The American Journal of Public Health recently published a study that concluded “smokers who have used e-cigarettes may be at increased risk for not being able to quit smoking.”
The e-cigarettes industry success’ took federal regulators by surprise as the market rocketed from $100 million in 2010 to nearly $2 billion in 2013. For The Vapor Girl, revenue has risen from $20,000 a month in December 2012 to about $120,000 in March 2015.
In April 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released proposed rules that would extend the agency’s authority to regulate additional tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes and e-juices.
The FDA hopes to publish the final rules this summer, said spokesperson Michael Felberbaum.
Trying her first e-cigarette
When people smoke, tobacco is burned and smoke is inhaled. With vaping, a tank containing a solution with nicotine, typically extracted from tobacco, is heated by a battery in an e-cigarette, creating vapor. Other common e-juice ingredients include vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol and food grade flavoring.
In The Vapor Girl’s North Fordham Boulevard retail space in Chapel Hill, glass cases display e-cigarette starter kits that costs from $22 to $60, while more advanced and decorative hardware ranges from $40 to $100. A third display area has coils, tanks and other parts and pieces for people who like to build their own devices.
“These are where everything becomes a hobby or a life,” said Sarah Zimmerman, who manages all five stores.
In the back of the room, small glass bottles with e-juices sit on stacked shelves. There, consumers can sample some of The Vapor Girl’s 270 flavors, which are mixed in the Sylvestres’ adjacent production facility and available in five levels of nicotine: from to zero to 2.4 percent.
The flavors range from fruits and soft drinks, to desserts and punches. A common criticism of the vaping industry is that such flavors appeal to children. The couple said they don’t sell to anyone under 18, which they at first did voluntary. It’s now a requirement of the state.
For 21 years Sylvestre worked as an art teacher. Her husband was an artist and a stay-at-home dad for the couple’s three boys. Sylvestre taught in Stanly County before starting at Chapel Hill in 1999. She moved to Carrboro High when it opened in 2007.
Around late 2011, Sylvestre smoked two packs of cigarettes a day when she wasn’t teaching and about a pack a day on school days.
In November 2011, she tried her first e-cigarette that she ordered online to help her quit smoking, she said.
She loved it, she said, but the devices and juices weren’t ideal. She taught herself to mix e-juices and searched for better, prettier e-cigarettes online. She found wholesalers in China making more sophisticated devices, but they weren’t sold in the U.S.
Starting The Vapor Girl
Previously, the couple worked together on pottery, art and graphic design businesses. So, a month after trying vaping, Sylvestre tiptoed downstairs and said to her husband, “Honey, do you think we can start a business with this vaping stuff?”
She designed a website and named the online business The Vapor Girl, her handle on vaping forums. Her first challenge was finding a credit card vendor that would take her business.
Popular vendors didn’t and still won’t do business with The Vapor Girl, the couple said.
In the early days of electronic cigarettes, retailers established negative reputations after people bought the devices and retracted the credit card payment because they were dissatisfied with the low-quality products.
“A lot of charge backs for merchandise,” Sylvestre said.
Sylvestre found a credit card company that would process the payments, but with a 20 percent rolling reserve, which meant that they kept 20 percent of the money for 18 to 24 months as insurance for charge backs.
Eventually, she got the money, but she also found a better vendor with more standard fees.
The Vapor Girl was able to start taking credit cards and opened for business on Valentine’s Day 2012.
“Initially, I would run out into the living room, like “Got another sale!” she said.
After her mother died in November 2012, Sylvestre decided not to go back to a teaching job in which she hadn’t had a raise in years and had to pay more for health insurance, she said.
The Sylvestres, who both quit smoking but continue to vape, did all the work themselves. They had to hire their first employee after Sylvestre’s husband had emergency surgery, a weeklong hospital stay and an ongoing recovery process.
They converted their Chapel Hill garage into an enclosed room and moved the business there.
In July 2013, the couple visited Wilmington, encountered many vaping shops and decided to open their own in Chapel Hill. The following September, they opened a production facility on Fordham Road and a store in the Falconbridge Shopping Center. They soon opened a retail location at the production facility.
The shops paid for themselves right away, the Sylvestres said, and they opened stores in Pittsboro in June 2014, in Burlington in February and in Durham in March. The Vapor Girl also sells e-juices from their online store and the owners are exploring wholesale opportunities.
In general Sylvestre keeps up with the rapidly evolving products and handles social media. Marc Sylvestre is now focusing on the advocacy side on the business.
“We want to start our own North Carolina trade association, so we can start communicating with politicians,” explain what their products do and stay abreast of any upcoming regulations, he said.
FDA and e-cigarettes
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is accepting public comments supported by research and data regarding electronic cigarettes and public health. The deadline to submit is July 2. Go to http://bit.ly/ecigscomment for more information.
See how e-cigarettes work at newsobserver.com/small-business.