May 7, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:09 pm
FACES OF BUSINESS

Smoke shop finds its niche on Pratt Street | Two partners put a new spin on DeLisle's tobacco shop concept

Stan Simpson
PHOTOS/PABLO ROBLES
The Tobacco Shop is alive and well in its new home on Pratt Street in downtown Hartford. Manager Todd Bissonnette, center photo, has an array of choices. Above, clients chat in the lounge area.

The walk-in humidor with its Spanish-cedar foundation is home to cigars from around the world, all kept fresh by a patented, and still functioning, 1917 humidifier.

The apparatus tells the story of a tobacco business whose presence in Hartford spans almost 100 years. It started with a couple of wine stewards from the old Bond Hotel and has evolved to two partners — a retired IT worker and a building inspector — who share an entrepreneurial spirit, inquisitive minds and the love of a good stogie.

Krish Naraine and Gerald Grate purchased The Tobacco Shop last March from longtime proprietor Jim DeLisle and moved the business from Asylum Street to Pratt Street. A retail business selling imported cigars, pipes and tobacco accessories fronts a cozy members-only smoking lounge. The burnt-orange backroom lounge — wi-fi is available — is decorated with leather couches, two 50-inch televisions, mahogany humidifier lockers and a bar that members tend for themselves. A sophisticated ventilation system runs along the ceiling. Smoking is permissible at city businesses with five employees or less.

It's a BYOB operation and, the owners say, a refuge for an eclectic mix of patrons. Politicians, educators, business people, contractors, doctors, lawyers and women are among the regulars. The membership criteria is anyone who enjoys the experience of smoking a good cigar with a beverage of their choice and, if they choose, some engaging conversation. Some of the high profile drop-ins to the lounge include The Jersey Boys, former baseball player Luis Tiant, former NFL player Brian Cox and a politician or two.

"We're a year into this business and we're solid,' said Naraine, 54, a Hartford native, with Guyanian roots. He makes clear that cash flow is always a challenge, but the business currently is "not losing money.''

The Air Force veteran works as a building official at the University of Connecticut; he is also a former building inspector for the City of Hartford and a contractor. Naraine handles the mechanical operations and maintains the brick and mortar. He is there every afternoon, after he is done with his UConn work, and on weekends. The business is open six days a week and closed on Sunday.

Naraine and Grate met a few years ago as regulars at the former tobacco shop.

"There was an opportunity and we said 'let's see if we can buy the place,'' said Grate, 50, a retired IT worker at Lucent Technology, as he savored a short, full-bodied Camacho Triple Maduro from Nicaragua. "We are working on what (Jim DeLisle) started, his foundation. But we're creating new platforms; doing our own thing.''

The smoking lounge is named in DeLisle's honor. In a few months, the owners plan on personally developing signature blends for the shop, an endeavor that excites them.

Grate was born in Georgetown, S.C., and has lived in Connecticut the past 40 years. He handles the day-to-day operations and his interests are varied, if not conflicting. In addition to enjoying a good cigar, he caters on-premise pig roasting parties, a talent he learned from his father. Grate is also is a fitness buff and a marathon runner, which — we assume — offsets the other habits.

"Smoking a cigar is more about the experience,'' Grate explains, when asked why he would invest in a cigar business. "You must commit yourself to the cigar. If I have a short cigar, I need 30 minutes to commit to that cigar. If I have a large cigar, I need to commit an hour. It has to be enjoyed. You want to take the time to understand what you are smoking — and why you are smoking that cigar. You're not just smoking it to blow smoke out.''

Cigars at the shop range from $5 to $40 a piece. The business carries Davidoff cigars, considered one the world's premiere cigars. Membership for the smoking lounge is $225 a year; $325 with a private locker/humidor.

Both Grate and Naraine are reformed cigarette smokers. Naraine got turned on to stogies several years ago, while on a trip to Cancun. The tobacco shop owner there schooled him about how to measure the quality of a good cigar. "It must feel buttery in your hands,'' Naraine said, recalling the conversation. "That way you know it was rolled correctly and it will smoke correctly. There was a whole science.''

Married with two young children, Naraine says he does not smoke at home. Grate, meanwhile, says every now and then his wife will join him for a smoke on the back deck.

The Tobacco Shop is part of another effort to revive the quaint brick strip that is Pratt Street. A few weeks ago, Rio — a new Brazilian restaurant — opened; Zula restaurant opened at the corner of Pratt and Main last year. The old Society Savings Bank building is also flowing again with special events.

"There is quite a bit of revitalization that is taking hold in the city of Hartford,'' said Wayne Benjamin, the city's economic development director, who also pointed to several housing developments also starting to percolate.

Before Grate and Naraine purchased the shop from DeLisle, business projections were a bit cloudy. DeLisle had balked at a rent increase for the Asylum Street shop and was finding it difficult to identify a buyer.

Naraine and Grate came forward with two other partners (who later were bought out). The Tobacco Show was recently recognized with the Business of the Year Award from the Business for Downtown Hartford.

A near century-long journey continues.

Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FoxCT) and senior executive adviser at the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy. His 'Faces of business' column appears monthly. Know someone who'd make a good subject for 'Faces of business'? Contact Simpson at Faces@stansimpson@comcast.net.

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