Fifty-three years after he and his family left their tobacco plantation behind as they fled Cuba, Rene Barrios and his wife, Ivette, are about to double the size of their own cigar shop: Smitty’s Cigar and Tobacco.
The 20-year-old cigar store on Dawsonville Highway was purchased by the Barrios family in 2017, making it one of three businesses in Georgia and Florida owned by the entrepreneurial family. And with a year in business, Smitty’s is on the edge of a serious expansion in the Kohl’s-anchored McEver Corners on the highway.
Thursday, April 26, will be a sweet day for the Barrios family as it rolls out the news to friends and customers that it’s moving two doors down and doubling in size come July. It’ll be sweeter still because, like so many other Cuban refugees who found their way to the United States, they had to lose just about everything — and risk execution — in order to flee the Fidel Castro regime.
“Her father got her on one of the last planes in 1960,” Barrios said, the nub of a Patoro pinched between thumb and forefinger. “And my father was a boat builder in Cuba in addition to being in the tobacco business. He threw us in a boat in the middle of the night in 1965 and (we were) off to Key West.”
The family’s businesses and farm in Cuba were seized by the rising communist government, but the family flourished in Florida all the same.
“(My father) left a 1929 Ford Model A behind and threw the keys on the seat and said, ‘Here, Fidel, you can have that. I’m going to get me a new car as soon as I get to America,’” Barrios said, laughing. “And he did.”
Rene and Ivette built a commercial cleaning business in Florida and Georgia, and in Oakwood the family runs The Barrios Collection, a luxury car dealer.
They found their way to Gainesville while nosing around for a place to buy cigars after they bought a home on Lake Lanier six years ago.
At the corner of McEver Road and Dawsonville Highway, they found Smitty’s and former owner Clark Smith.
Ivette Barrios broached the idea of buying Smith’s shop, and over the next five years the couple developed a relationship with the shop owner.
Smith sold in March 2017, and now Rene and Ivette run the shop with their children, Giovanna and Roger and his wife, Addison.
Though the shop has been renovated and the inventory grown, the family has decided it’s time to expand. Come July, the cigar and pipe shop will have a new home two doors down from its current spot in the plaza.
The new location has twice the space as Smitty’s current 1,400-square-foot storefront, and the new space offers some greater amenities that makes Smitty’s more than a retailer.
“There’s going to be seating and a little conference area enclosed in glass for people who maybe want to have a little meeting,” Rene Barrios said. “After work, five, six, 10 guys want to get together and smoke cigars and drink a beer, glass of wine, whatever, they can go in there and have their own private thing.”
Walking into the new store, the conference room — Ivette’s idea — will be to the left. To the right and farther back will be the expanded bar, which is growing from seven beer taps (yes, beer taps) to 15.
Smitty’s is taking advantage of state and local laws that allow retailers selling a good or service other than alcohol to also offer beer and wine on tap. Smitty’s and Wrenched Bicycles jumped on board with the changes last year.
And in January 2019, the owners of Smitty’s hope to add scotches and whiskeys to the menu with a liquor license. The store is also planning to hire a couple of new employees with the added space.
Capping off the changes and additions will be a larger selection of cigars: Smitty’s humidor is going from 80 square feet to 300 square feet — no more cigar boxes split with different lengths and styles crammed into the corner closet that currently serves as the humidor.
The Barrios family sources its cigars through relationships with distributors and manufacturers and through trade shows. A few of the brands Rene Barrios is excited about include La Flor Dominicana, Pepin Garcia, Davidoff, Patoro, CLE and Warped.
He’s not a fan of Cuban cigars, if you’re wondering, saying they have quality control problems and are being outpaced by competition from Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and even Costa Rica and Mexico.
“The sweet spot is about $10 for a real good cigar,” Barrios said in his shop on Tuesday.
More than that and the differences come down to taste, he said, noting the shop sells cigars that cost as much as $50 apiece.
“A lot of that is preference and taste. Some guys might think it tastes better,” he said. “To me, it tastes a little different. How do you define better? Is it better, is it different? Tastier? Stronger?”
But ultimately, the regulars are going to decide what ends up in the humidor at Smitty’s.
“We build on what the customers like, not what we like, but our input in the decision-making is very, very important, because we want to put stuff in there that’s good,” Barrios said. “Nothing in there is bad.”