Why and how an entrepreneur brought a cigar lounge to the west side

By   – Staff reporter, Columbus Business First

One of the more interesting things about Royale Cigar Lounge is that its owner isn’t really much of a cigar guy.

“I’m really not a huge smoker,” Ammar Karmi told me. “I do it occasionally, but only when the environment is right.”

That feeling is what started his four-year quest to open a cigar lounge at 297 Georgesville Rd. in the shadow of Hollywood Casino Columbus on the city’s west side. The shop and lounge, which includes a bar and food – a rarity for a smoke shop – now is open with a grand opening event coming soon.

It’s a bright, open space that seats nearly 100 and is surrounded by windows. There are patios in the front and back. While the look and feel are important to Karmi, the smell – or the lack thereof – was paramount.

To Karmi, the big differentiator from other smoke shops and lounges is the custom ventilation system he installed. It was the largest investment for the business not just in dollars, but capacity. The 29-ton system clears the air in the building in 4 seconds.

“That’s what I saw that was lacking,” he said. “We don’t want people leaving here smelling like smoke. We want this to be a place you can bring your wives or girlfriends.”

Karmi said the selection in the humidor includes mid- to-high brands including Davidoff.

The business also has a bar, which is allowable under the state’s indoor smoking ban law providing sales remain 80 percent on the tobacco side. Karmi said he plans to maintain that balance in two ways.

First, the company is a licensed wholesaler, so its tobacco sales include sales to other shops or providers. He also charges a lot for alcohol – $15 for a shot of whiskey, for example — to temper those sales.

“We want people to sit down and sip on a whiskey with their cigar,” he said. “But we don’t want this to be a place where you come and get wasted.”

The alcohol is a nice perk, but not the point of the venture. There is a small food menu as well.

There is a club membership option, though it is not required. Anyone can come in and enjoy something from the walk-in humidor. Members get discounts on cigars, food and drink and an on-site cigar locker, in addition to other benefits.

The idea was Karmi’s, but the execution was by designer Antonia Soskin of Dreamhouse LLC.

“We steered it more toward a rustic, contemporary feel,” she said. “It’s warm. There’s a lot of natural light.”

Furniture throughout the space was handmade from reclaimed bar wood. Soskin tracked down flooring and paint that would stand up well to cigar smoke.

She even helped develop a signature smell that is pumped into the space to help keep any smoke odors at bay. It’s a step away from the dark, wood-heavy interiors of lounges of the past. There’s comfortable leather aviator-style chairs throughout.

The place used to be a mechanics garage, though one could hardly tell these days.

“It wasn’t a transformation – it was a creation,” said Karmi, a Palestinian who grew up in Kuwait and has been in Columbus since 1993.

His background is in restaurant and hotel management, so hospitality isn’t a new field. Among other business ventures, he owned some gas stations including one down the street. “I used to drive past this space every day,” he said.

Given the proximity to the casino, he thought it would be a natural site for his plan. He partnered with the property owner and got to work. The reason for the four-year timeline was that it was entirely self-funded with no loans.

“We’re creating a brand here,” he said. “If you go into some other shops, you don’t see the name of the shop anywhere. You see our brand here. We want to build an identity.”

That plays into a couple of future goals. Karmi said he hopes to have some private label cigars branded for Royale. He also sees expansion potential.

“If I can make it here, I would love to open more locations,” he said. “I know there’s a market for this. I’d love to take this to the Short North and have people say, ‘Oh, there’s the Royale.’ ”

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