Havana Knights: Coffee, cigars ‘the greatest marriage ever,’ new owner says

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 26, 2009

By Noelle Edwards
Some people would say Salisbury is not a likely candidate for a cigar lounge.
In fact, some people would say starting such a niche business anywhere during a recession is not a smart move.
But Dunkan Echevarria is not some people.
He hand-picked Salisbury not just as the place he wanted to open his cigar shop Havana Knights but the place he wanted to live.
He used to operate two stores in Miami related to interior design, which he has spent his life doing.
He also was involved in staging and “flipping” houses ó buying a property and quickly reselling it for profit.
When the recession hit, it hit him ó and Miami ó hard, he said.
He closed one store to focus on the main one, but things were still stressful.
“I knew that I was fighting a battle I was not going to win,” he said.
That was about two years ago. In December, a cousin who lives in Salisbury invited Echevarria to spend a week here to get some rest. Echevarria had been having stress-related health problems that sent him to the hospital.
He immediately fell in love with the city.
“It was so beautiful in its newness to me,” he said.
He’s traveled all over the world, including to Mexico, where he gets onyx for design accessories he uses, and to Indonesia, where his personal line of products are manufactured.
He said in all the places he visits, he looks for a place that feels comfortable, like home.
“Here, I found it in spades,” he said.
He started thinking about how he could spend more time in Salisbury.
Then on Jan. 20 his best friend died of a heart attack related to stress.
That decided it. He told his family his life was too fast-paced and he had to make some changes.
“The way it’s headed, it’s just going to overpower me,” he told them.
So he, his mother, his business partner and a personal assistant packed up and moved to Salisbury.
“I just feel as if I needed to slow my life down ó just a skosh,” he said. “My stress levels have come down to that chill level I was looking for here.”
His mother couldn’t be more thrilled. He said she calls Salisbury “paradise on earth.”
She is an avid horticulturist, and he said she told him, “This is the soil of my land, the soil of the land I left behind,” referring to the home of her youth, Cuba.
Echevarria was looking for a link to his history too.
The cigar business provided that. He said the cigar industry deals with roots. The greatest cigar businesses in the world are owned by families, he said.
He found out his family in Cuba was prominent in the cigar business, and his grandmother worked for a great cigar roller in Cuba.
“It’s so beautiful to know there’s people of the earth that produce these wonderful cigars,” he said.
Echevarria called cigar lounges “the great equalizer. It’s probably one of the last few fraternities that are out there.”
He said a cigar lounge provides a place for men and women of different backgrounds to come to one place and spend time together and talk without being threatened by each other.
And he does mean men and women.
He has a line of cigars made by a woman specifically for women to smoke, and he has another line coming in.
The flavors are milder, and cigars tailored to women are often smaller.
“I envision finesse,” Echevarria said. “I envision refinement.”
He asks customers what alcoholic drink and what food they like to gauge what cigars would probably suit them.
“I can engage you in 30 seconds or less,” he said.
Echevarria said he expected to meet with some resistance to the idea of a cigar shop in Salisbury.
That hasn’t been even a little bit true, he said.
“I think that I have yet to trip over a stone here with anybody,” he said.
People were contacting him early, wanting to know when he would open.
He expected to be grilled at the City Council meeting where he appeared, but that didn’t happen, he said.
“Nothing but an amazing open-armed receival,” he said. “I really was not expecting people to reach out to me like this. … I think I’m actually going to be the poster child for life in Salisbury every time I go back to Miami.”
Much as he loves Salisbury, it isn’t his only focus.
He’s also working on starting a store in Asheville. He plans to open two or three more in other areas of the state in the next few years.
The store in Asheville will be reminiscent of the gentlemen’s clubs of the 1950s, a true cigar bar, he said.
He can’t call the shop in Salisbury a cigar bar or 60 percent of his sales would have to come from alcohol, which really isn’t his focus.
So in Salisbury he opted not to sell alcohol at all and to focus on the cigar retail business.
He does have a bar area where he sells coffee.
“We do make a mean cup of Cuban coffee,” he said. “It’s jet fuel, man. It’s jet fuel.”
He doesn’t smoke cigarettes and only started smoking cigars about eight months ago.
“Coffee and cigars is the greatest marriage ever,” he said.
He said he is more productive now than when he lived in Miami because he was used to having to work so fast and get so much accomplished every day.
“The days seem so long to me,” he said.
Technically, Havana Knights has been a business entity since June. Echevarria said he had to establish the company before July 1 to be grandfathered in under the statewide smoking ban.
Otherwise, he would have been able to open a cigar shop only in a stand-alone building.
It passed a final inspection to open Thursday.
Echevarria said he wanted to make sure everything was done right, even if it meant taking longer.
“I’m not in a gigantic rush,” he said.
Even so, he was able to open faster in Salisbury than when he opened shops in Miami because it’s been easier to work through the logistics in a smaller town.
He said he’s excited about the opening and thinks other people are as well, the economy aside.
“There’s a lot of great people who I think have been waiting for this,” he said.