Big Lou is unlikely to smoke a stogie herself, but her enthusiasm for going to the fine cigar shop in downtown Brainerd that bears her name is so pronounced she can forget Sunday is a day of rest.
When she does get to work her attention easily can go from visiting a new customer to laying on the floor and chewing a rawhide bone.
Big Lou's Back Room owner Michael Harvey and Daisy Lou greet customers at Harvey's new business, which offers fine cigars, fresh-roasted coffee and a lounge where customers can smoke and play a game of cribbage, Scrabble or poker.
Big Lou, a pug dog, is the face behind the logo for Big Lou's Back Room. Her owner, Michael Harvey, is the human proprietor and cigar aficionado. Talking to him about cigars is a little like having a conversation about wine with one of the character's from last year's movie "Sideways."
Big Lou's Back Room offers cigar buyers an option to both buy and smoke their cigar in the store. There are cigar accessories like desktop humidors, pipes and pipe tobacco, ashtrays, cutters and premium fresh-roasted coffee from Sammi J's Stone House Roastery in Nisswa.
Harvey transformed the log-sided business space on Front Street formerly occupied by Northern Designs. Customers are greeted by rich, dark colors on the walls and floor and leather furniture in a sitting area that resembles a living room more than a store. A green, felt-covered table in the corner doubles as conversation table and poker venue.
A Saturday afternoon poker tournament was a reason to gather recently at Big Lou's Back Room in downtown Brainerd. Proprietor Michael Harvey wants to add events such as cigar tasting and cigar rolling demonstrations.
Harvey said he wanted to create a cozy space -- a lounge -- where people could sit down and enjoy a cigar, conversation, cribbage or a Sunday afternoon football game. The opportunity arose when Harvey was laid off from his teaching job at Central Lakes College in Brainerd when the theater program he was part of was dropped.
"My wife and I didn't really want to move," Harvey said. The couple sold a house in East Gull Lake and their cars. They bought cheaper vehicles and bought a house in Brainerd.
And then Harvey put together a business plan.
"It really forced me to look long and hard at what I was doing," he said. "It was really helpful in that regard. It forced me to make some tough decisions."
He had an undergraduate marketing degree in business administration. His graduate degree was related to his theater focus and scene designs, which came in handy when he redecorated the space. He had never worked in retail, let alone run a store. The biggest surprise so far has come in the personal stories customers will share.
"I thought only bartenders got that," he said.
Harvey said there are many similarities between wine and cigars. There are good growing years and cigar-tasting events where customers all smoke the same stogie. Cigars can be mild or full bodied. In this case, the humidor replaces the wine cellar. Lined with Spanish cedar from Michigan, the walk-in humidor is temperature controlled to a constant 70 degrees and 70 percent humidity to keep cigars moist. Air flow that can pull the flavor of the tobacco leaf out of the cigar is kept to a minimum.
"It's a lot more complicated than most people think," Harvey said.
A too-dry cigar burns too hot and tastes terrible, Harvey said. If it's too wet, the tobacco won't stay lit and taste again suffers. Harvey said the flavor comes from the oil in the tobacco leaf.
The proper smoking method is not to inhale the smoke, but puff on the cigar. Harvey said the stories of cigars that make people feel sick or light-headed come from a tobacco leaf that has not been aged properly. He said it takes two years from seed to cigar to age the tobacco properly and the growing time is actually 45 days.
Plans for the shop include adding pre-embargo Cuban cigars to the inventory, which are expected to sell for about $20 each. The least expensive handmade cigars in the shop are $1.53 each.
"Tobacco is the big enemy these days," Harvey said. "I'm not out there to get people to smoke cigars."
Harvey said he's providing a legal product for people who want it and providing a place where they can smoke without bothering others.
As for Daisy Lou, or Big Lou, Harvey said she is at the front door ready to go to work every day. When Harvey goes to get the Sunday newspaper, Daisy Lou begins to fear she'll be left behind on a work day.
"Not today," Harvey tells her on Sunday. "We get today off, Daisy."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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