It’s been a year since we last spoke with Kurt Van Keppel, president of XIKAR, one of the cigar industry’s top accessories companies. A lot has changed in the cigar world since then – the attacks from anti-smoking groups and the FDA have increased, new products have come out, and the cigar smoking market continues to evolve. Van Keppel talked about each during a recent visit to Fox Cigar Bar in Gilbert, AZ.
XIKAR has developed a reputation for developing cigar accessories based on feedback from customers – what were some of the things people were asking for that ended up getting developed and released?
We focus our efforts on creativity and product innovation – so not only do we want to come out with new designs but absolutely new ways to light a cigar. The creative process behind what we do really drives us – whether it’s cutters, lighters, humidification or containers. Those are four big categories, so we have to allocate our time – and 2011 was a year for lighters for us. While we brought out one or two new cutters, we brought out five new lighters. I anticipate that next year will be a bit more balanced, with hopefully something exciting that we’re working on for the humidification side.
Sometimes we’ll make a product that looks like a traditional product that you know and have seen before. We got a lot of demand for the V-cut, consumers and retailers alike. So we responded to that need with innovation and creativity – we reversed the blades from a piercing point to a slicing ‘V,’ and that’s creation because it had never been done before.
The tank lighter and the high-altitude lighter were two products we also worked on – on the tank lighter, our innovation is that we made a huge, clear tank with a huge turnstyle button at the bottom, along with real smooth lines and an auto lid so it’s a real ergonomic shape.
We’re trying to make our products not just different, but different and more functional. We spend a lot of time playing in the design rooms getting products to that point.
In our previous interview, you had mentioned seeing three distinct segments of the market. Is that still the case or have things developed a bit?
Not only is it still the case, I think that each of those segments is dedicated to a certain age group and perhaps a certain geographic group, such as the European consumer loving the double-breasted suit and the really elegant, fancy, thin, chrome accessories. Then there’s the Havana set, which is the middle age group, and then the young guys are all about the indigenous origins of cigars. You see tattoos, which is indigenous art, is it not? You see guys who know everything there is to know about a cigar from seed to smoke, and are so interested that they learn the indigenous culture and production – everything there is to know about a cigar, they go out and learn it.
Talking about cigars, XIKAR released a limited edition salomon for the HC collection this year. It’s not a very common vitola and one that people seem to either love or be intimidated by. What do you like about that shape?
The Salomon is an exotic shape that is rare, it’s expensive to make, it’s expensive to build, and it’s difficult to build. But it also provides, for its size and length and the shape, it provide a huge smoke both in body and in time. It’s unusual, it’s elegant, and a full, full hour smoke. It’s something that we wanted to provide for our loyal HC series smokers as a gift that’s limited and we can only make so many of.
How did that cigar come to be? Was it in response to a customer request?
It started as a request from me – although I had originally asked for a diadema – a short cigar, about four and a half or five inches, tapered on both ends. From time to time I carry them around and hand them out.
We realized that small cigars aren’t selling the way big cigars are – our 60-ring gauge grande sells like crazy, especially in the warm states where people have the time and climate to spend outside. We were within an inch of launching the diadema, and were really wrestling with it because we saw how the smaller cigars weren’t selling as well, so we knew that we should not spend the money to market and produce the proper inventory for a proper launch on a diadema.
But what is a salomon but a grande diadema? We asked for samples of that, and lo and behold, the shape is what makes the unique flavor of that cigar.
How is XIKAR responding to the constant challenge that the cigar industry is facing as far as the FDA and anti-tobacco groups?
First and foremost, before we talk about what we do, I want to implore people to get involved with Cigar Rights of America. It’s the consumer arm of the trade that enables the consumer to get active and have a political voice. It’s the lobby group to the federal and state governments for the consumer.
As for us, we are active politically. I have two states that I am involved with – Missouri, which is where XIKAR is headquartered; and Kansas, which is where I live. I’m in contact with our Congresspeople and our Senators, we donate money to those people in our state, and we donate to political action committees and campaigns in other important states such as Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Maryland, where there are real fights going on constantly. We donated a good amount of money and time in New York, where cigar smokers are suffering under the onerous regulations, particularly in New York City.
Even if you take our donations, and all the efforts, money and enthusiasm that the vendors and retailers have, we simply can’t do it alone. The commercial part of this trade is simply not big enough to overcome the political will of Washington and the state capitols. Those people only listen to one person – and that person is Mr. Constituent. A letter – not a fax, not an e-mail – a letter written to your congressman and signed by you is the best way to reach out. You can also call their office and tell them what you think. If you have a Congressman you like, donate some money to them – even a small amount. They’ll get the message. Congresspeople depend on their local people for support, and what does support translate to? Votes. They want your vote. They’re desperate for your vote.
Where the real battle is going to be won is on the part of consumers. That’s where the power is. I can donate to the campaign of a Congressman from Texas, but I’m not a voter or constituent in Texas. At the end of the day, my check doesn’t have the power of the check, the voice and the vote of a person in that person’s district.
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