A local business owner is out to give Tri-Lakes Area smokers a new, cheaper alternative to traditional cigarettes. “We don’t even call them cigarettes,” John Hagerty said. “These are heavier. They’re different. We choose to call them smokes.” Hagerty is the owner of the Liberty Smoke Shop in Branson West, which has been operating since November, and the Freedom Smoke Shop in Hollister, which just opened last month. The layout of both stores is a bit unusual, consisting of little more than a cashier’s stand, storage cabinets and an approximately 5-foot-tall, square machine called a RYO filling station.
“They all have the same look when they come in,” Hagerty said of his customers. “They’re like, ‘What is this place? What’s going on here?’”
The basic premise is that customers buy a certain amount of dried tobacco — blended to their tastes — and then roll their own smokes with the aid of the machine, which can process 200 “smokes” in eight minutes, according to Hagerty. The store’s employees supervise the machine, but aren’t allowed to operate it themselves.
“Customers run the machine themselves,” Hagerty said. “That’s our personal-use exemption.”
It’s also primarily where the savings come in for those who use the service. Hagerty estimated his stores’ smokes are up to 50 percent less expensive than pre-packaged cigarettes. Another plus is the tobacco doesn’t contain any additives or fillers, so he said it may be healthier.
“It’s all grown in the United States, and it comes straight from the farm,” Hagerty said. “I personally think it tastes a lot cleaner and fresher. But I’ve also heard customers say they feel better smoking them.”
The shops offer new customers a 28-cent demo to help them find the right blend. Once they’ve gotten something to their liking, the formula is stored under the person’s name in the company’s computer system.
“Another good thing is that the smokes are blended to the customer’s taste, so they’re not stuck with taking what the stores have,” Hagerty said. “It’s better smokes for less money.”
And as the stores’ names would suggest, patriotism is a key value for Hagerty and his company. He passes out free pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution to anyone who wants one and decorates the walls with patriotic pictures and messages.
“This country was founded on tobacco,” Hagerty said. “That’s why we like to keep things real patriotic.”
Though the concept is unique for the area, it’s “catching on fast,” according to Brandi Garner, Freedom Smoke Shop manager. She said her store saw more than 100 customers in its first three weeks.
“We’re getting a lot of word-of-mouth referrals,” Garner said.