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Smoke: The Real Draw

Nick Passmore

I would travel the world over to buy cigars at my favorite cigar shop, and in fact, I frequently do. The Davidoff on the corner of St. James and Jermyn streets in London carries the range of Davidoff Dominicans and a wide selection of Cubans, including the rare Trinidad. But, truthfully, it’s not the cigars that keep drawing me back—it’s the proprietor, Edward Sahakian. This innocuous gray-haired, middle-aged man is the store’s greatest commodity.

Although I purchase fewer Cuban cigars than I used to, I still visit the shop when I am in London just to say hello to him. It’s not that we are friends, really. We haven’t had dinner together or played a match of tennis, but I have come to enjoy his company over many years, and he seems to enjoy mine. But then, part of his charm is that he genuinely appears to enjoy the company of all of his patrons. “It is a club,” says Sahakian. “I’ve been lucky enough to combine my hobby and my business, and I’ve gained a lot of friendships—a majority of my customers turn into friends.”

From the street, Sahakian’s shop looks like the dozens of other Davidoff shops with their enormous plate glass windows overlooking the most prestigious international retail boulevards. Inside, all share the same austere contemporary design, wood-paneled walls, and glass display cases containing the same comprehensive selection of the world’s best cigars.

What sets Sahakian’s shop apart from other Davidoffs—and most luxury goods shops—is that it is owned and run by a very personable aficionado with an inimitable personal touch. Sahakian has operated his shop more like a gentlemen’s club than a chain since it opened in 1980, and his warmth and friendliness has earned legions of devotees, including Zino Davidoff himself. Davidoff, who is known for his own trademark charm, joined his father’s cigar store in 1929 and established his namesake cigar brand in 1969.

As a young man, Sahakian bought cigars from Davidoff in his Geneva shop. At the time,  Sahakian’s family operated successful businesses in Iran, including a Coca-Cola bottler. He was vacationing in 1978 when he learned of the country’s revolution—and that mobs had burned three of his family’s breweries. “When my whole life was turned upside down by the revolution,” he says, “I had to decide what to do with the rest of my life. The answer was obvious.”

Sahakian, only in his 20s, wanted a Davidoff shop of his own. One problem was that the stores were company-owned, and another was that he had no retail experience. His first approach was rebuffed, but Sahakian persisted and eventually arranged a half-hour meeting in a London hotel lobby with Davidoff’s chairman, Ernst Schneider. The meeting convened at 8 am sharp and stretched into a two-and-a-half-hour discussion on cigars before a deal was reached.

William Heard, Sahakian’s lawyer, also attended the meeting. “It was particularly strange in that it wasn’t an understanding that involved accountants or calculations of royalties,” he recalls. “It was simply that we had the feeling that we could do business with each other and let’s shake hands and sort out the details afterward. Literally we agreed there and then that we wanted to do business together.” The chairman and Zino Davidoff evidently were won over by Sahakian’s charismatic personality and undoubtedly understood that his customers would be, too.

Davidoff, www.davidoff.com

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