Let’s smoke, joke and drink a Coke.
And maybe make a buck while we’re at it.
That’s not Paul Banducci’s business mantra, but heck, it could be. Ever since his Uncle Jim handed his nephew a Padron 5000 and said, “Here, kid. Try this on for size,” Banducci has been an intrepid traveler down tobacco road. Paul was 15 when his uncle put that fine stick in his paw.
“My whole family was present and looking forward to the joke in which I would turn green and we’d all have a good laugh,” Banducci recalled.
As you’ve probably guessed, though, the joke was on them.
“I smoked it down to the nub and knew from that day forward I wanted to be a part of the premium cigar industry,” he said.
On Feb. 1, 2014, at the ripe young age of 25, Paul Banducci took ownership of Bulldog Pipe & Cigar Shop in Coeur d’Alene’s Silver Lake Mall, purchasing it from founder Ken Smitheman. Twenty-one months later, the burgeoning little business added an adjoining lounge where clients can enjoy a craft beer or glass of wine while watching a game on the big screen and puffing their own Padron or favorite pipe.
Banducci comes from a family of business owners so, he said, he knew he’d become one himself. At least, he always hoped so.
“Throughout my youth I tried my hand at some of the usual business endeavors such as selling ice cream, shoveling driveways, doing small-time lawn maintenance, that sort of thing,” he said. “I never experienced any kind of mind-blowing success, but I loved the liberty of being my own boss.”
Nor did Banducci follow the traditional educational path toward business ownership. In Oklahoma, he earned a degree in political science while double-minoring in American history and macro-economics.
“I studied what I enjoyed and it did give me the tools to better survey the world around me,” he said.
It also gave him fuel for discussions and friendly debates perfect for late nights in smoke-filled rooms. “Passionate” doesn’t begin to describe Banducci when it comes to exercising one’s free speech rights, especially on anything political. He’s every bit as intent a listener as he is a talker, but he’ll admit that he’s lost a customer or two because of his vociferous expression of certain opinions.
What might have snuffed out some potential friendships, however, has lit many others. On a recent Friday afternoon, four friends had made themselves comfortable in a corner of the Bulldog lounge, where three smoked cigars and the
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other, Ken Lustig, cradled a pipe and nursed a beer. Politically, the cigar smokers identified as conservative (David Johnston) to extremely conservative (Ken Padula) to libertarian (Clay Howard).
Howard said that in his many discussions with Banducci, he had heard nothing politically that he didn’t agree with. Howard felt comfortable in the lounge at least in part because of that esprit de corps, believing that at best, government is essentially non-essential.
Lustig, he of the pipe and a pound of Bulldog tobacco bagged next to his beer, was the outlier, but not by all that much.
“In Idaho I might be considered a Democrat,” he admitted. He said government has its place, quite prominently, in fact. “Government lends order to the social structure.”
No, not your typical bar talk. But Bulldog Lounge is no typical bar.
The thoughtful yet outspoken quartet reflect another comment made by Lustig, a retired college instructor: “I think it was Reagan who said, ‘We can disagree without being disagreeable.’ That’s what we have going on here, what we have in common — sitting back and talking, smoking a pipe or cigar.”
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The lounge filled with fine-tobacco aficionados who played pool, worked on a laptop, talked about stock market drops and the price of beef and, yes, argued nicely about politics. Johnston, an attorney by training and owner of a Montana ranch, said the pleasant atmosphere wouldn’t be possible without Banducci.
“He’s a millennial but I can have an enthusiastic and enjoyable conversation with him,” Johnston said. “He’s an intellectual.”
The Bulldog Lounge is a sanctuary, said Padula.
“In the culture we have today,” he said, “where can you go to smoke? You’re a pariah.”
Lustig one-upped him.
“My wife calls this Adult Day Care,” he quipped.
Whatever you want to call it, the place represents more than a stop on the way home or a destination for an afternoon of reading or chit-chat. Howard, Padula, Johnston and Lustig said Bulldog is a small business worth fighting for.
Mirroring many of the thoughts Banducci shared with NIBJ, Padula pointed out that small businesses don’t have many friends at any level of government, local, state or federal. He rattled off taxes and regulations that pinch people like Banducci in particular.
“The government is there to make it as difficult as possible for Paul to make a living,” he concluded.
Johnston, the lawyer, usually has a good book with him when he visits the Lounge. When he defended a business like Bulldog against incursions of giant internet competitors, he sounded like he was making his closing argument for all small businesses.
“Everybody wonders why small business is shrinking,” he said.
A rabid reader, Johnston said he has actually been in bookstores while customers there checked prices and ordered from Amazon, bragging that they paid a little less on a certain title.
While they saved a few bucks, Johnston said, they hastened the death of that small business.
For his part, Banducci is armed to compete, and people like those in his lounge will be right by his side. Still, it won’t be easy.
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“In 2016, the FDA released a 500-page document chock full of any and every fee, tax, penalty and regulation it could imagine,” he said. “Those are all being fought in court right now, but if we lose it could wipe out two-thirds of the industry almost overnight. What’s left will be higher prices, a few companies controlling everything, and very limited choices. The effect on manufacturers will be disastrous, and the effect on retailers could be the end of the retailer as we know it, except for a few very big markets.”
Banducci chokes on Idaho’s 40 percent excise tax — a tax he must pay on products, whether he sells them or not — a tax he says online competitors don’t pay. His prices have to reflect that reality, and he feels the pain.
“People will spend hundreds or even thousands online, and maybe buy one or two cigars a year from me,” he said. “Our saving grace is the smoking lounge. You can’t order that online.”
Yet the Bulldog lives up to its name: It stubbornly persists, despite government regulations, despite internet disadvantages, and despite the fact that it is peddling products health advocates and moralists might protest.
“There is a dearth of knowledge about my industry and a wealth of ignorance,” Banducci concluded.
“I work in the PREMIUM tobacco industry,” he emphasized, “and what damages it the most image-wise is that we get lumped into the same category as cigarettes and chew. In point of fact, premium cigars and pipe tobacco are not even remotely the same. The product is of very high quality and does not contain any of the countless chemicals and carcinogens found in Big Tobacco products. Yes, there is nicotine, but that’s a natural compound in tobacco and on its own is rather benign.”
He noted that most pipe and cigar smokers don’t inhale.
“That is a huge difference and cuts down greatly on the addiction factor and health risk,” he said.
Asked if the Bulldog is a target for anti-tobacco interests, Banducci laughed.
“Luckily, most finger-waggers don’t like the smoke so they don’t come into the lounge and we avoid the lectures.”
On a more serious note, he added: “The true danger is the bureaucrats and politicians the finger-waggers voted into office.”
Not yet 30, Banducci sees a bright future for the Bulldog.
“We’re in it for the long haul. I want to do this for my whole life. I’d love the opportunity to franchise — our logo is too cool to not franchise it,” he said with a laugh. But more seriously: “I want to build a community place where long-lasting relationships are made.”
You know, the kind of place where folks can smoke, joke and disagree agreeably.