Local entrepreneur Rick Ornstein enjoys the simple things life has to offer, especially sitting down and puffing a premium cigar with friends.
His enthusiasm for cigars, believed to date back to the ancient Mayans, is more than evident at The Educated Cigar & Wine in Richland, which opened for business 19 years ago.
[blockquote quote="The taste range of cigars is larger than the taste range of apples." source="Rick Ornstein, owner of The Educated Cigar" align="right" max_width="300px"]
The shop recently was featured in the August edition of Smokeshop, a national trade magazine about tobacco retailing.
“It’s my hobby business. I love it and I’m my own best customer,” the 67-year-old said. “Cigars are enormously more complex than most people realize. The differences in the aging of tobacco is like a five-year-old Scotch and a 25-year-old Scotch.”
The business owner is happy to share a wealth of information with customers, and explains how Cuban cigars are still illegal to sell in the United States. Some misinterpret Cuban cigars as “the best,” but Ornstein said this isn’t the case.
“Before the year 2000, Cuban cigars had the highest reputation as being the best; that’s where the mystique developed and rightly so. Then, all these people were leaving Cuba and the world changed. Virtually all of the great cigar growers and fermenters are no longer in Cuba,” Ornstein said. “They’ve gone elsewhere in the world and have started a following.”
The cigar enthusiast said the top three cigar-producing countries are the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. Of 30 cigars that have been rated a 95 or higher on a scale of 100 since 2000, only six are Cuban. Ornstein carries every non-Cuban cigar ever rated 96 or 97 by Cigar Aficionado magazine, which he calls the Consumer Reports of cigars.
Ornstein’s emphasis on top-of-the-line cigars has earned him a local following, although most of his customer base consists of people in the Tri-Cities on business and vacation, he said. The ease of online searches and trending positive reviews has boosted business, he said.
“A lot of people visiting over the past three or four years have found me on Google, Yelp and Facebook, which has dramatically increased the number of customers. We’re the only real, legitimate cigar shop with no chew or cigarettes – only premium and ultra-premium cigars and high-rated wines,” Ornstein said.
“The taste range of cigars is larger than the taste range of apples,” Ornstein said. “With cigars, there are three components of tobacco blended together. Master blenders take different tobaccos and mix them together, kind of like baking.”
Between 500 and 600 varieties are in stock at the Richland store, with thousands of individual cigars available for purchase, said Ornstein, who previously worked as a biophysics scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories.
The store sells hundreds of cigars, which range from $4 to $35 apiece, monthly. Customers also can buy wines, humidors, lighters and other cigar-related items.
Ornstein opened the online business in 1998 and a store near Safeway on George Washington Way in 2004. He moved to his current Wellsian Way location 10 years ago.
When Ornstein first opened his online business, 99 percent of sales were interstate commerce and he surpassed $500,000 gross the first full year in business.
Within two to three years, however, the state passed what Ornstein described as an “unconstitutional” law, which ultimately led to him closing the interstate cigar shipping business and transitioning the business to an LLC, resulting in 1 percent of sales through interstate shipping of “hard to get” cigars.
“The state killed it,” Ornstein said. “The state said I owed cigar taxes on every cigar; no other state does it. I worked on it for about eight years and then threw in the towel,” he said of the fight to get Washington state laws changed to match those of other states.
“All other states require consumers to pay the tax on cigars purchased online, but not Washington. The state is losing all the taxes on cigar purchases and inhibiting anyone competing in interstate commerce,” Ornstein said. “As long as the state continues not to tax shipments coming into consumers, they can buy without the cigar tax. Why would they routinely come in here and pay the tax?”
The businessman doesn’t plan to expand The Educated Cigar & Wine unless state laws change.
“My growth will be limited to people passing through. I have to be happy with that until laws change, because people can go online and buy without paying the cigar (tobacco) tax. I can’t compete with that,” Ornstein said. Taxes are currently 65 cents per cigar when purchased in a retail shop.
The cigar entrepreneur projects a gross of $130,000 for 2017.
“I’m having a good time. I knocked my head against the wall for a long time but I’m just going to go with the flow,” Ornstein said. “We love attending blues fests, classic rock and winery events, weddings and others. It’s a lot of fun.”
It’s Ornstein’s absolute enjoyment of the product that keeps The Educated Cigar & Wine alive. He loves the atmosphere of lighting up, puffing a quality cigar, relaxing and visiting with friends.
From Winston Churchill to Groucho Marx and John F. Kennedy, puffing cigars has long been enjoyed by influential people. The pastime is a signature on the silver screen as well as in movies like “The Godfather,” “Scarface” and “The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” being as much a part of the main characters as their hair color and style.
But Ornstein’s cigar influence was more personal; it came from his father while the family lived near the beach in Long Island, New York.
“When I came home from college one summer, dad figured out the way to corral me to talk was to say, ‘Let’s have a cigar.’ I kind of light up in honor of him and I enjoy good cigars,” he said.
Ornstein began joining in special events with booths a few years ago. He’s attended the Prosser Beer & Whiskey Festival, America-On-Tap, music festivals, Live Nation’s Route 91 Harvest music fest in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Watershed at The Gorge, among others.
He and four buddies traveled to the Route 91 country music festival in Las Vegas event last month to sell cigars from two booths – one at the main venue and the other in an artist’s lounge behind the stage. Ornstein said it was a difficult ending to what started as a positive event.
A gunman opened fire on the crowd of concertgoers killing 58 people and injuring more than 500 others.
“I was about 75 yards away but my face was on the ground, assessing before fleeing after I heard the gunshots,” Ornstein said. “One of my guys was at a booth in the artists’ lounge as bullets whizzed by. He administered first aid and took some pulses. On the way home from Vegas, he rolled his car. He deserves a medal.”
Although a harrowing experience, Ornstein said he’ll return to the event the next time it’s offered. “I already told organizers that when they have the next Route 91, we’ll be there,” Ornstein said. “I’m very happy we made it back alive.”
He’s glad to be back home and manning the business six days a week.
The Educated Cigar & Wine is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 624 Wellsian Way in Richland. Information: 509-205-2876, educatedcigar.com or find on Facebook.
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