Editor’s Note: The Northside Business Partnership is an association comprised of Northside businesses, property owners, and organizations. It serves as an advocate group for the Northside, strengthening the vitality of the business community by connecting, engaging, and promoting its members. NBP is administrated by NEHDA.
Mike is the co-owner of Rocky’s News & Cigars, a four-year NBP member business with over 50 years of experience in cigars. Read on to find out more about the history of the business and what makes it such a unique store today.
Q: Has Rocky’s always been located here on the Northside?
Mike: Yes, it was originally where Asti’s is now and then the previous owner moved it to this location, and then we bought it from him in 1985.
Q: What do you like about your location?
A: Well, we’ve seen this neighborhood change quite a lot. When we first got here, it was one of the last really vibrant blocks, and it was really super. We do like our proximity to downtown, the new residential (development) that’s going on down there, a lot of the goods and services we offer are a little bit harder to find downtown so that helps us out a lot. We like being on the main thoroughfare of Salina Street, loads of cars, loads of traffic, that’s really good for us. We like being within an eyeshot of the hospital, one of the major employers, that’s very good for us. Having 81 situated like it is, both the on-ramps and off-ramps are very good for customers.
Q: Do you have a lot of people that travel far to get here?
Mike: Yes. We have city-wide, we’re very well known for the level of service we offer for lottery customers, so we get a lot of people that drive from far points in the city. Secondly though, our cigar business is actually known across the nation and very much state wide―to where we have customers from Albany, Watertown, Binghamton, Buffalo―that will drive specially to see us. We’re also highly regarded nationally. We do a lot of business over the phone and internet, ship to people on vacation and help ‘em out with their cigars that way. We focused on cigars because we needed to become a destination to get more people in the store. . .Our most recent change to expand the time frame—obviously, it’s a fair weather pastime—so it’s enjoyed far more in the fair weather months than in the winter. So this winter, we added the leather chairs which gave guys a reason to enjoy their hobby indoors because you can smoke at Rocky’s. We are allowed to have smoking in the building. It’s one of the unique exemptions that we have with the state.
Q: How did you come to this line of work?
Mike: Well, it was very strange. I was selling radio advertising locally as a kid out of college, and—
Q: What did you go to college for?
Mike: I went for broadcast.
Q: Are you a local?
Mike: Yes, I grew up in Liverpool, went to school in Genesseo, and then I was here working, and my wife’s dad, my father-in-law, was doing business with Rocky, the original Rocky Salino, in a side business that he was doing. I was getting a little antsy selling advertising. I was meeting a lot of business owners and I kind of thought that I would be cut out to be on that side of the desk instead of just selling to the guys on that side of the desk. So with that in mind, my father-in-law came here in, I can tell you when it was, it was Christmas Eve 1984, and had brought Rocky a Christmas present, said “Thanks for a good year together.” Rocky said, “What’s going on? I’m waiting on an offer to sell the store. There’s a fellow coming in here but he’s all alone. It really takes two people to run this place. It’s very complicated, it runs 24 hours a day, it never closes, 7 days a week, and my father-in-law coincidentally had just sold a similar business. So he had done this for about ten years. He said, “Hey, if that deal doesn’t work out, I have a young son-in-law who’s 26 years old, has got a ton of energy and wants to own a business, and I know how to run the business, maybe together we could do it.” And as luck would have it, May 15th, ’85, 45 days later, we step behind the register and own the place. So we just finished our 31st year, May 15th. Quite a feat in the city of Syracuse.
Q: Do you get a lot of customers that come in for a first time cigar experience or do you have a lot of reoccurring customers?
Mike: Our business grows on first time customers because our information, the tracking that we do on sales, shows that once we get the customer, if they enjoy the experience, which we work hard at, as they repeat business, their purchases grow. So, our core business is on existing customers but our growth is always on new customers. So this year, we committed more than ever to advertising our store, promoting our store, so that we can reach people who are new to cigar smoking, or people who are new to Syracuse and don’t yet know about us. We’re quite a landmark in town, but still there are those who don’t know about Rocky’s.
Q: Is it a lot of people that come in to celebrate a wedding or a birth, or is it just to explore?
Mike: Well, the reason guys come in, is if they’re in the hobby of cigars and they hear my advertising, they want to come in and see what’s going on. Our store is—just matter of fact, not bragging—you’d have to go to Albany to find more cigars. You’d have to go west, you’d have to go all the way south to Jamestown to find as many cigars. We have an unbelievable inventory of product. We maintain a massive inventory, and when guys come in, they’re pretty impressed and we usually have what they want. So for new guys, that’s the way that works. But we also have, over the last several years, we have really expanded our offerings of cigars. So beyond just retailing product, we have a Cuban guy on staff who rolls cigars. He’s very popular with weddings, corporate events, things like that. Then we also custom band cigars. I have a graphic designer that will say, you know, “Mike and Rachel: May 24, 2017” and we do a wedding band. So we just did two boxes this week. Some guys were at a cigar dinner I just had, they said “Mike, it’s short notice, we’ve got a wedding in June, do you think you could do a box of cigars for my wedding?” We tore that right up. We had that done in a week’s time. Both guys were ecstatic. So there are a lot of special occasions that work around cigars, including boy/girl. We have boy/girl cigars out there. Our proximity to the hospital has always been good for that, although it’s not as popular as it used to be.
Q: What cigar would you recommend to somebody who is completely new to the experience?
Mike: We would start with a really mild cigar. I’m actually part owner in a cigar company that’s a national affair and we have a brand called Affinity that is a very, very good cigar for the price and it’s very mild so I would start with that.
Q: What does your ideal cigar experience involve, in terms of type of cigar, method of cutting, method of lighting, etc?
Mike: Well, cigars are very, very subjective, and I don’t have a favorite cigar. I just smoke what’s new. I have a theory, a principle here that everything we carry is taste-tested. We don’t just take stuff off of some guy’s price list and throw it in here. Everything is very particular about what we carry. But, at the same time, what I’ve noticed about cigars that is the greatest experience, is that when the cigars get lit and the smoke gets in the air, all the barriers get broken down. Whether you’re a prison guard or an insurance salesman, or a driver of a milk truck, or a farmer or a retail clerk at the mall, everybody enjoys the company of others when they’re smoking cigars. So it breaks down all the barriers and it creates—the best word I ever heard for it though—it creates a great sense of comradery and that is my best experience with cigars, is the comradery it creates among people.
Everyone cuts it their own way, everyone gets to light it their own way, they get to smoke their own size, and they get to smoke their own brand and choose their own flavors, and that’s the beauty of it, because it is so very subjective. I have a guy that comes in here, he’s one of my very best customers, I can tell you two customers. One guy is a retired county worker and he buys one of the least expensive cigars in the store, and he buys them by the handful. He’s one of my best customers, he’s a great guy. Another guy is a business owner in town, and he buys cigars, a different cigar, by the handful, that cost five times as much. And he buys five or six every single day. They’re two completely different walks of life, they’re smoking two completely different cigars, but they’re enjoying them at exactly the same level. They just light them and enjoy them.
Q: Cigars have a culture that is heavily grounded in tradition. Having been in the businesses for so long, what kind of changes have you seen?
Mike: The cigar business has changed immensely. It’s totally different than it used to be. It used to be that a guy smoked the same cigar all the time, and he smoked two or three of those, and they all smoked really big cigars, like the gangsters in the movies used to smoke. Now a days, they are open to all different shapes and sizes where they weren’t before. They are very interested in what’s new. To run a successful cigar operation today, you have to be very open minded to carrying what’s new, which is why we’re very strict on taste testing everything because it’s okay to be new, but it’s gotta be really high quality. Today’s cigars smoker though, changes brands, they have less brand loyalty, they’re much more open to ideas about trying new shapes, new sizes, and new companies. That’s very different than it was 30 years ago. And there’s a lot more companies, especially what we call boutique companies, which are the real small guys. This business, like any business, is dominated by say half a dozen major players, and then a dozen mid-tier players, and then 200 small players, all trying to get bigger. That’s our breakout, of how we find cigars, who we choose to do business with, we’re very particular about who we buy from, and cigar smokers today have all those choices that, thirty years ago there were only three or four makers.
One of the other things that I’ve learned that it’s very important that we emphasize in, is this is a hobby for our customers, but the depth of knowledge for the customer is not very deep. So we actually provide, we do a lot of promotions all year long, and many, many cigars dinners at various locations around town, and we have a core of customers who enjoy coming to the dinners because of the comradery, because of the ability to smoke a cigar and enjoy a meal, and what happens is we’ve formed some educational-based dinners. The guys come and they learn in a very in depth way about cigars. We’ve dissected them, we’ve demonstrated six ways to cut them, we’ve demonstrated ways to light them, how to store them, how to select them, how to talk the jargon. So it’s very education based.
JULY 23rd: Rocky’s Golf Tournament
The third annual golf tournament based around cigars.
AUGUST 15th: Rocky’s Day at Chief Stadium
SEPTEMBER 24th: Ballpark Brewfest
NBT Bank Stadium hosts a beer festival.
OCTOBERR 12th: The Little Big Smoke
Based on Cigar Aficionado magazine’s Big Smoke event, this is Rocky’s 18th annual fundraising event for MS. Event is held at Barbagallo’s and involves raffles, giveaways, nation-wide vendors, cigars, dinner, door prizes, liquor and beer tastings, and more.