Tampa Bay entrepreneur Sean Mobley, with a rich family history in stogies, wants in on what's widely known as the cigar capital of the world, Ybor City.
The co-owner of Celebrity Cigars, Mobley has a family history in the business that goes back to his late Kentucky grandfather, who died in 2020. His grandfather hand-rolled cigars, using bourbon barrel-aged distillery brands to add flavor to the leaves. The grandson will next month open a store at 1517 E. 5th Ave., where orders can be taken in-person or via the internet.
The storefront will also be home to CigarTV, a streaming channel that Mobley hopes will replace YouTube as a place for cigar-related content (which Mobley claims YouTube often censors).
"As the Food Network is to food, CigarTV will be to cigars," says Mobley.
Mobley hopes to take special orders for weddings, baby showers, athletic events and more, pairing quality cigar blends from around the world to offer customers. Mobley hopes to also offer private labeling for major lifestyle brands in entertainment, sports, foods, wines, liquors, apparel, luxury automotive, yachting and other licensing units worldwide.
CigarTV will help with such orders, as Mobley hopes the streaming channel will be in cigar lounges across the nation. Special QR codes will get a lounge a 20% revenue cut if smokers order from it, Mobley says.
But Celebrity Cigars is more than just an example of the cigar industry reasserting itself in the historical Tampa neighborhood, which once produced hundreds of millions of cigars a year. The 5th Avenue building Celebrity Cigars is leasing space from is owned by a Texas-based company that hopes to expand into bigger projects in Tampa Bay.
That company is St. Croix Capital Cos., an Austin-based commercial real estate firm. Its Tampa subsidiary, Cowboys and Pirates, is named for the unofficial mascots of both Texas and Tampa.
While the old saying is that everything is bigger in Texas, Cowboys and Pirates wants to get a read on Tampa before it goes bigger with commercial real estate projects, says Jeremy Peterson, SVP of St. Croix Capital and president of the Tampa market.
The company is working on three L-shaped properties: One at the 300 block of North Rome Avenue; 2.3 acres at the 1500 block of E. 5th Avenue; and two parcels at Columbus Drive and North Boulevard, whose development the Tampa City Council already approved.
Beyond leasing to Celebrity Cigars, St. Croix Capital will start off small (as Peterson describes it), with a mixed-use development, The Landing at North Boulevard. City council unanimously approved the plans July 13. The preliminary plans include two spaces on the ground floor consisting of 1,000 square feet of neighborhood retail and a parking garage and eight apartments ranging from 727 square feet to 939 square feet on the second level, the company says.
Peterson says he found Tampa city leaders to be helpful, and sees the market eager for growth, especially in new residential builds. That's likely music to the ears of the executives of St. Croix Capital, a company founded in 1982. St. Croix is a full-service commercial real estate firm offering investment, development, management and brokerage services. Its Tampa portfolio is especially promising in the eyes of its officials, Peterson says.
As for Ybor City, Peterson says Cowboys and Pirates had never really set their sights on the building there, but eventually heard more about it. After acquiring the 2,800-square-foot building, the firm got "a ton of interest" from attorneys and artists, and others who are not overly dependent on street traffic and window shoppers for business.
And another attraction was the proximity to Darryl Shaw's Gas Worx development. The proximity allowed St. Croix Capital to be highly selective in choosing tenants, Peterson says. The location in Ybor City is perfect for e-commerce and "destination retail," which means the shopper travels to the store. Mobley liked the location and gave Peterson a call.
And it's little wonder why a cigar company would target the locale. Ybor City was cigar central in the early 1900s.
"The port city's subtropical weather and close proximity to Cuba made it an ideal hub for cigar manufacturing," the Smithsonian Magazine says. "At its height, it is estimated that 10,000 cigar rollers worked in 200 cigar factories producing up to a half-billion hand-rolled cigars a year."
And that was before Cubans fled the island and its Castro regime, to come make cigars in other locations, including Florida.
Mobley says Celebrity Cigars will be the first company to combine the 24-7 TV streaming with marketing to those seeking personalized cigar creations for major brands.
Celebrity Cigars says it also offers an AI-driven tool on the web that offers suggestions based on food choices and drink pairings, and will maintain a personal diary for cigar enthusiasts. And the company's app-based directory allows more than 2,000 cigar shop retailers to generate traffic by selling custom cigars and boxes for special events, according to Mobley.
Mobley says he is happy to be at the location because of the proximity to J.C. Newman Cigar Co., whose tours will end at the Celebrity Cigar store.
Peterson too is happy with the potential he sees for Cowboys and Pirates in Tampa, starting small, as he says, "getting to know everyone."
And soon, Peterson says, will be the time to "take on bigger deals."
Jim Stinson is the Business Observer's Tampa Bay business reporter and editor, having previously written about business and policy in Washington, D.C.; Rochester, New York; Gary, Indiana; and Daytona Beach. He attended Boston University for business and Indiana University for journalism.