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BusINess » Business Consumer » Tom Hayes and Sean Fadden

Tom Hayes and Sean Fadden

(Photograph by Kyle Telechan.)

(Photograph by Kyle Telechan.)

Cigarettes have been thoroughly demonized during the last few decades, but somehow cigars’ reputation has survived these anti-tobacco times intact. A symbol of refined prosperity, cigar aficionados have managed to avoid accusations of snobbery—and being a public-health threat.

Tom Hayes and Sean Fadden enjoy smoking cigars, and for the last 18 months or so, they’ve also enjoyed selling them. In October 2008, they opened Omni Tobacconist in Schererville, catering to aficionados living in Northwest Indiana and beyond. The timing may not have been perfect—the recession was peaking and unemployment began to soar in late 2008—but the uncle-nephew team has stuck with it and slowly attracted a clientele.

“We’re still building a customer base,” Fadden says. “Each month we see new customers, we see more customers.” That’s partly due to the posh lounge available to customers, and partly due to the huge selection of cigars from around the world. There are more than 5,000 cigars in the store’s cedar-shelved humidor, comprising dozens of styles from 20 brands, mostly manufactured in Central American countries like the Dominican Republic or Nicaragua. In other words, Hayes and Fadden are trying to make Omni Tobacconist not just a store, but a destination.

“Our selection is extensive,” says 26-year-old Fadden. “And our lounge is probably one of the nicest lounges in the area—comfortable and spacious.”

Private memberships provide access to individual lockers. “It’s a laid-back, relaxing atmosphere,” says Hayes, who is 52 and, like Fadden, lives in Munster. “It has a nice seating area, Wi-Fi and big-screen TVs.” Coffee and soft drinks are available; no liquor license right now, but they may soon try to obtain one.

The co-owners are happy to expand the store’s cigar offerings upon request. “We’re trying to accommodate everyone that we can,” Hayes says. “Our preference is to cater to people as they request things. We look to bring in anything that is going to be beneficial to our business and customers.” (Omni Tobacconist also stocks premium cigarettes, and hookah and pipe tobacco.)

To attract adventurous smokers interested in trying new cigars, Hayes and Fadden started the Omni cigar club. There’s no cost to join; members, who are almost completely men—Hayes says there’s still an unfortunate stigma attached to women who smoke cigars—meet on Tuesday nights, and choose a different cigar-of-the-week, which is discounted. “True cigar smokers are willing to give it a shot and see what’s out there, Hayes says. “They’re interested in trying new things, regardless of price.”

Omni’s selections range from $1.25 to $50 per cigar, a wider price range than ever due to the recession. Lower-priced lines have been added recently in recognition of the fact that although they stir passions, cigars are still a luxury many cut back on in tough times. The good news is, you don’t need to spend a lot to find a high-quality cigar that might become a favorite. “There are guys who can smoke a cigar and explain exactly what they get out of it,” Hayes says. He and Fadden are happy to pair customer taste preferences with what’s in stock. “Between the two of us, we have quite a bit of knowledge.”

But curious customers can also learn about new cigars during monthly in-store events highlighting specific manufacturers’ products. April’s event featured deals on CAO cigars, along with a raffle and a fund-raiser for Multiple Sclerosis research and programs; May’s event featured Joseph R. Gannascoli, a Sopranos TV alumnus, and his signature line of cigars, “Cugine.”

But occasional celebrity events aside, Hayes and Fadden believe that what makes Omni Tobacconist distinctive in the region’s retail tobacco industry is the fact the business is a family affair. The two men split most of the store hours (the store is open seven days a week), and Hayes’ sister and his two sons also help out occasionally. “We just wanted to do our own thing,” Fadden says. “To have a family business, and hopefully be successful.”

But they’re well aware that success isn’t a sure thing in a competitive marketplace. “Our competitors have been around for 10 years or more,” Hayes says. “The competition is pretty rough. Everybody knows the pricing.”

The co-owners are hoping their comfortable lounge and family vibe provide the added value necessary to ensure the future viability of their business. “We enjoy sitting around watching sporting events,” Hayes says. “When you come into our store, it’s us—everybody gets treated the same.”

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