Green Bay, Wisconsin, is not the first place that comes to mind when considering cigars. However, Green Bay has a tobacco tradition dating back to when the Packers won Super Bowls in the NFL. Mike Gehm and his partners at Lovely Cigars uncovered this cigar tradition in Titletown, Wisconsin, and are now sharing it with the cigar world. Gehm talks with Cigar Life Guy about becoming part of cigar life history in Green Bay, reviving a brand, and taking the time to enjoy a premium cigar.
Mike Gehm’s First Premium Cigar
Cigar Life Guy: Tell me about your first premium cigar experience.
Mike Gehm: I’ll give you two experiences. The first cigar I smoked was an “It’s a boy” cigar. My dad had these things probably from when I was born. They were in a tin can. I found them when I was twelve. I took one outside and smoked it.
My first good cigar was a Fuente. It was from the Short Story or Work of Art collection. I’m unsure which, but it was fantastic. It was the first time I detected a ton of flavor and could pick out different notes. It was at my friend’s bachelor party. We had not planned to go to a cigar lounge and did many things around Green Bay. We did a tour of Lambeau Field and ended up in Appleton, about 30 miles south. My buddy saw a cigar shop, and we stayed there the rest of the night. That was the first time I smoked great cigars and fell in love with them.
Getting Started in the Cigar Business
Cigar Life Guy: Tell us how you started in the cigar industry. What did you do before, and how does that help inform what you do with your current business?
Mike Gehm: Initially, I would go down to Appleton with the same friend who got married to that same cigar shop. We would go down there a few times a year, pick up cigars, and hang out because it was the only cigar shop around. We went down for the Final Four to smoke cigars and watch basketball. While talking, I asked, “Why isn’t there a place like this in Green Bay?” I told him, “We should do this. We should have one,” he said, “Ok, let’s do it.” That’s the kind of person I am. I get crazy ideas like that, and I run with them.
I’ve been in sales since I was nineteen. I would go out and meet people and help them solve problems. I helped fix their issues with the solutions I provided. It doesn’t matter what job I have; that’s what I do.
So, I was trying to solve my problem. Since Green Bay didn’t have a cigar lounge, we started selling cigars out of my office for about a year and a half.
We would go to events and set up wholesale accounts and everything. After about a year and a half, we opened the cigar lounge, and that was how it started. That was about sixteen years ago. But we were one of the first places in the country to have a 24-hour high-access cigar lounge.
We had a small retail area open nights and weekends, and our members accessed the lounge with key fobs 24 hours a day.
Behind the Lovely Cigars Name
Cigar Life Guy: You named your cigar line after a historic Green Bay tobacco company. Tell us the story behind it and the importance of honoring tradition and history in the cigar industry.
Mike Gehm: When I had the cigar shop, I looked at the history in our area and the industry.
The cigar business is a handshake industry. It’s all about relationships with people. I love it. But if you look at all the old Cuban brands or the story behind what happened when everybody left Cuba and took seeds with them to continue growing. To honor that is a fantastic thing. It’s also a massive piece of our American cultural heritage. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, eight out of 10 men smoked cigars — that’s just what it was like. Everyone smoked back then.
Not that people talk much about it, but Green Bay also had one of the largest unions in the country — the Local 162, and it started as a cigar rollers union. It’s easy to see that history is lost to many people when you understand the heritage. People don’t want to talk about it because it’s tobacco-related or it gets lumped in with everything else. That’s sad because so much history is involved. People who were rolling cigars back then and were part of that industry are the ones who kept it going. It’s an essential piece of history that no one talks about, and I wanted to honor it.
My three partners and I saw the cigar brand Ain’t They Lovely. It dates from the late 1800s. The Reis family started the company. I found the box in an antique store, and when I first opened it up, the craftsmanship, artwork, and history just jumped out at me. It seemed like such a cool thing to bring back. It’s something that we’re losing because nobody is talking about it. We need to be conscious of where we came from. If we don’t know where we came from, how do we know where we’re going?
Design and Cigar Branding
Cigar Life Guy: Your boxes have a distinct design that honors the historic line. Tell us about the inspiration behind it and how it helps with branding.
Mike Gehm: Bringing back that old brand, bringing it back to life, adds a tremendous amount of history to our brand. We don’t have this long lineage of family history owning a cigar brand. We have a massive drive to be as successful as possible and bring this back to the populace. It’s such a remarkable story. We love the artwork so much that we wanted to stay accurate. For instance, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the cherubs on the original box looked pretty innocent, like angels. But today, if we reprinted that same thing, it would look like toddlers smoking cigars (laughs). We needed to make a change. So we took what was there and added some ladies, which plays off the “lovely” theme.
We wanted it to be eye-catching and for people to say, “Wow, I want to know more about that,” when they saw the box. So, we named our second line “162” after the cigar rollers union. We wanted to emulate some of the simplicity of that time, so we went with cabinet-style boxes. There was an “RB” logo at the bottom center of the original artwork, and we made it to LV for Lovely Cigars instead of Reis Brothers. We wanted to honor it and show how incredible the history is and why people should be interested. If we were redoing it, that would be fine, but for us, it’s more about being part of that history and bringing that out.
Lovely Cigars and Connecting with Community
Cigar Life Guy: Besides fine tobacco, you have said one of your passions is connecting with people. What makes the cigar community and cigar life so unique?
Mike Gehm: You hear it everywhere. Whenever somebody talks about it, I could be next to a doctor or lawyer. I could be beside a guy welding all day, but it doesn’t matter. We’re all doing the same thing, enjoying the same product together. When people get together, everything drops away, and you connect with people on a deeper level. You get to know people better and understand what they’re looking for. However, you get to be there for them. The community is fantastic. It’s almost as if it’s pulled out of history and dropped into now, and it just hasn’t changed. You can go down to Nicaragua or Honduras and work with people, and it’s handshake deals. It’s just not like that in society today. Instead, slow down and enjoy a cigar. You can’t be running from here to here and be busy with many other things. You need to enjoy a cigar, which is a special thing when you do that together. It’s different from how the world works today, and that’s what I like about the community.
Lovely Cigars in Green Bay
Cigar Life Guy: It gets cold in Wisconsin. What’s the cigar scene like there?
Mike Gehm: When I opened a cigar shop 16 or 17 years ago in Green Bay, there was no cigar culture. The shop is still there. I’m no longer part of that shop, but it’s still open and a thriving community today. Over the last fifteen years, it’s grown quite a bit. With smoking bans and everything that’s happened, Wisconsin has a law that allows cigar smoking in cigar establishments. That’s been vital to maintaining that in Wisconsin. Summer is the big time around here when it’s nice out. People in Wisconsin get out in summer. That’s huge regarding retail sales and things, but the community continues throughout the colder months. There are cigar lounges. People have cigar lounges in their houses. They still get together to smoke. It’s definitely there; you just have to be part of it.
The Future of Lovely Cigars
Cigar Life Guy: What’s next for Lovely Cigars?
Mike Gehm: There’s Dylan, Keith, and me, and in general, our main goal is to have consistent growth, and we want to take care of the shops we work with. We are trying to be consistent and present with the shops and want something other than backorders. We want to avoid creating those kinds of issues. We’re in about 42 shops right now. We want to get ourselves up in that 100-shop range. That’s where we would like to see ourselves. Getting there in a positive way where we’re seeing consistent growth is important.
We have the Elegante X2 Ain’t They Lovely, the original cigar we came out with. We have the No. 162 in three vitolas– Churchill, Robusto, and a Corona. Then we’re working on a new line. I’ll leave the name out of it right now, but the new line will have two wrappers, a Connecticut and a Maduro. So we’re looking to add to what we already have. We’re hopeful we’ll have some of those for the show in Vegas.
Cigar Life Guy: Have we missed anything? Please tell us anything else you’d like the cigar world to know.
Mike Gehm: We want solid partnerships with the retailers we work with. We’re not selling directly to any users. We’re not looking to have an online store where we’re undercutting people. I came from the cigar shop side of things, and the guys I partnered with at Lovely Cigars used to go to the shop, and one of them worked at the shop after I was out of it. So we all have this history of wanting shops to succeed, and that’s the ultimate goal here. We want to be successful through cigar shops. That’s where people get the most education. That’s where they learn from other people, other aficionados. They learn from all of the people at the shop. That’s what good shops do. They help people understand their path and what cigars they’ll like, and they help find new cigars. That’s where I want to be. That’s what we’re looking for. Anybody who feels they’d like us to be part of their shop, talk to us. We welcome those conversations.
Photo credit: Mike Gehm