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Mike Cafagno, owner of the Tobacconist of Greenwich, is no stranger to awards — his shop has been recognized by the world’s most luxurious cigar brand, Davidoff of Geneva, as the merchant with the largest volume of Davidoff sales in a calendar year since 2012.
This year, Cafagno earned what is considered by industry standards to be the most prestigious award from Davidoff, the Appointed Merchant of the Year, given to the merchant with the largest volume of purchases encompassing the entire Davidoff portfolio.
But this time, when he stood on stage at the black tie event in New Orleans, it meant a little more, and not just because it was a more prestigious award. Cafagno was paying tribute to the man that made his success possible, the late Jimmy Lacerra, the original owner of the shop at 8 Havemeyer Place, without whom Cafagno said he’d be either dead or in jail.
“It was such a humbling experience and to be able to accept that award, which really speaks to the business that Jimmy started, was just amazing,” Cafagno said.
So, with Lacerra’s wife by his side and hundreds of well-dressed, high-profile strangers in the audience, 28-year-old Cafagno told the story of how “Jimmy Cigars” saved his life.
At 19, the Mt. Kisco, N.Y., native was working three jobs and only pulling in about $500 a week. A mutual friend and fellow cigar lover took Cafagno to the Tobacconist of Greenwich for the first time after learning the “cigar shop” he preferred was actually just a convenience store that sold cigars.
“I couldn’t afford much and I didn’t know any better,” Cafagno said. “So this guy took me to meet Jimmy. We walked in and there was a group of men dressed up and sitting around smoking. Jimmy asked what I wanted and I thought, when in Rome I might as well pretend I have money. So I said it didn’t make a difference to me. Jimmy started pulling cigars and I could see the prices … each one was worth several hours of work … he rung me up and it came to around $450. Well at that point I couldn’t say no or I’d look like a fool. So I paid it and Jimmy told me to come back in a week or so and he’d tell me what I smoked.”
Cafagno smoked the cigars. He knew they were better than what he’d had before but he didn’t know why. So he went back to see Lacerra a week later, and every day after that he made at least one trip to the little shop off Greenwich Avenue.
Lacerra took Cafagno under his wing, teaching him about cigars, the business and the culture. Eventually he hired Cafagno part time, and Cafagno got to know the clientele, mostly regulars who came to shoot the breeze and enjoy a cigar over good conversation. He described it as a safe haven — a place he fit in because it didn’t matter what his background was.
About six months later, Cafagno asked if he could start working full time. He’d graduated from college and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he wasn’t about to leave the Tobacconist. Lacerra obliged and Cafagno immediately started to look for areas the business could improve. He didn’t want to change the tradition or atmosphere of he shop, but in his words, the place was archaic.
“There was no technology, no website, no online sales … in business Jimmy believed if it’s not broke don’t fix it, but I always had these ideas,” Cafagno said. “In 2008 I built our first website. It wasn’t much, mostly informational and you couldn’t buy anything online, but it was an improvement.”
Cafagno continued to learn the business — the ins and outs of the cigar industry and the importance of knowing his clients. One day over lunch, Cafagno said Lucerra brought up a conversation he’ll never forget.
“You keep doing a good job, keep your head on straight and you don’t have to worry about anything,” Lucerra told him. “You’re going to take this place over and take care of my wife.”
The two men never met with a lawyer, never wrote anything up and never spoke of the conversation again. Shortly after, Lucerra was diagnosed with cancer, and after a three year battle he died in 2011.
Cafagno was heartbroken, but with the legacy and community Lucerra had built, he ran the business in his memory and started to bring it into the modern era. He’s remodeled much of the interior, providing more space for products, and opened a cigar lounge on East Putnam with another local businessman. He started hosting high-profile events to bring in additional business and support the brand, and he’s maintained a positive working relationship with the the Switzerland-based Davidoff brand.
Despite the changes, Cafagno said the community Lucerra built has only grown stronger, and the men who came to visit Lucerra now stop by to visit him. Cafagno’s third child was born last week and many clients have stopped by just to give him a hug, say congratulations and let him know, “Jimmy would be proud.”
So, while his latest award may be a recognition of the changes he’s made since taking over, Cafagno made clear he wouldn’t event be close to where he is today without the guidance of Jimmy Lucerra, who he believes is looking down and smiling on the little cigar shop he started in 1973.
“He used to say ‘you’re a legend in your own mind, kid,’” Cafagno said. “But he built the foundation. This business has always been successful because of him.“