A decent crowd started to gather on a typical Tuesday afternoon.
It’s mixed with some regulars, a couple of new faces and two guys who bring them all together every day in Mt. Juliet.
“We made all this happen in about a month,” said Scott “Poppa P” Partridge, owner of Big Star Cigar Lounge. “It's still a work in progress. This was a dry cleaners, so we had to do some work.”
After acquiring the N. Mt. Juliet Road location in late-July 2012 with his business partner, Tony Benken, the strip mall spot was quickly transformed into what has become a regular hangout spot for Wilson County’s cigar and pipe aficionados. It opened Sept. 1.
“If you were to ask me 10 years ago, there's no way I'd say I'd be doing this,” Partridge said. “This is a wonderful business.”
Entering the lounge early that Tuesday afternoon, a couple of regulars occupied the leather chairs that surround a big-screen television tuned in to Spike TV.
As the afternoon progressed, more folks began to fill the scenery while others made quick stops for cigars or tobacco. One man bought a box of cigars to be given as a gift.
“We are very fortunate,” Partridge said. “We are 10 months into it now, and it's continually getting better. We continue to see new faces in here, but we still have our core group of people.
“It takes people walking through the door for the first time to see what we are all about.”
Jim Marsh, a regular at the lounge, stopped by to show off his new pipe he had made from a centuries-old block of black petrified wood found in Ireland called bog. He grabbed a cigar and sat down with the other regulars to join in the conversation.
“We hooked him up with a gentleman in Ohio who carves pipes for us and other folks,” Partridge said. “It's really difficult wood to work with. The challenge was finding a carver who would carve it. There's apparently a high risk of it cracking while carving it.”
Partridge said it’s the people who make it special.
“I think one thing that has been very cool here is there is not just people coming in and buying cigars and leaving,” he said. “It's the camaraderie. You look around and see 10-15 guys or ladies in here on a Friday or a Saturday afternoon. When you get to meet them, you realize they are from all backgrounds. One might be a lawyer and another might mow lawns, but they are all great people.”
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Before the cigars
Like many other business owners who have graced Wilson County, Partridge’s roots run deep in the Nashville music industry.
“I actually came to Nashville about 20 years ago and toured with a musician named Verne Gosden,” Partridge said. “I worked for Billboard. I still have a music studio.”
But Partridge saw the industry evolving, and that’s when he sought to put it behind him.
“About six years ago, the company was going through some big corporate changes, so I made a complete career change,” he said. “I decided about a year ago to become an entrepreneur, and that's when Tony and I hooked up.
“When I left the corporate world, I was fortunate enough that I didn't have to take just any job. I took a little time to figure out what I wanted to do. For a short period of time, I set up some freelance work in the publication industry. I was bored to death, when I saw an ad in Nashville for a cigar shop manager.”
Around the same time, Benken was also making some serious career choices of his own and decided to leave the music business, as well. But he wasn’t a musician.
“We both came from the music business too many years ago, but we never really knew each other,” Benken said. “A friend of ours, Phyllis, kind of put us together.”
Partridge said, “He is very humble, but he was responsible for the careers for several big names in music in building relationships between the client and the radio stations.”
Soon after, Benken was managing a cigar shop in Nashville, but he knew there was more out there for him.
“After I left Uptown's, I still kept in contact with Scott,” Benken said. “Instead of us being competitors, I thought we needed to join forces. That's kind of the short story.”
And, as they say, the rest is history.
“From there, it was a matter of convincing Tony on where to do it,” said Partridge, who had made his home in Mt. Juliet. “That wasn't a selfish thing. I told him he had to come out and see everything that was going on here. We realized there was nothing like this here.
“This really was an area that needed something like this. Tony came out here and saw what was going on.”
A resident of Bellevue, Benken needed a little convincing.
“The last time I was in Mt. Juliet prior to this, there was nothing here but Charlie Daniels,” he said.
The big draw
As more people drifted into the lounge that Tuesday afternoon, it included an old friend of Partridge’s, Brooks Garland, of Nashville.
“I knew Scott for a long time,” Garland said. “I had no idea you were this far out.”
Garland and Partridge chatted for a while before Garland entered the lounge’s famed walk-in humidor – a temperature and moisture-controlled space that keeps cigars from drying out. Garland emerged with a favorite cigar and lit up with the others as he continued his conversation with Partridge.
“We get to walk in the humidor with the customers and spend some time with them,” Partridge said. “That's what we like about it, and I think that's what people like about us.”
Included in the humidor are lockers, where regulars can safely store their cigars when they are ready to smoke them on trips to the lounge.
“Probably next year at this time, we are going to need more lockers,” Partridge said. “Our humidor is probably our pride and joy. We've got those names people recognize, but we've probably have a number of cigars you've never heard of.”
Partridge said he also has a Honduras trip planned, where he will take a handful of customers to see the cigar-making process take place. The lounge also plays host to cigar events, where people behind the brands are invited to talk about their cigars.
Benken said the lounge features songwriter nights and live music often. He said the lounge also participates in charity events to help Toys for Tots, Christmas for Kids, among others.
“"It's also a place where we entertain," Benken said.
Partridge said, “We donate cigars for soldiers. We collect them here and we give them to him who turns around and gets him to his son while on leave. His son gets them to the soldiers.”
Not just cigars
Partridge said the lounge is also the place to find pipe tobacco and pipes.
“Pipes and pipe tobacco are very important in what we do,” he said. “On the pipe side of things, we work with what we call indie carvers. We have found a network of people who carve their own pipes. We blend our own tobacco. You are going to get something here you will not find anywhere else. We also have all the accessories to go along with it.”
Not just for the boys
Partridge said the love of a good cigar doesn’t lie within a man’s world.
“A misconception is that this is a guy's thing,” he said. “Ladies come in, and we have couples who come in and smoke together. It's a big misconception that it's just for the guys.”
Know cigar lingo
There are a few terms in the cigar world every budding aficionado should know.
The following are a few terms that will make any novice cigar lover an expert among the smoke rings, according to Big Star Cigar Lounge owner Scott Partridge.
• Ring gauge – refers to the circumference of a cigar, generally a number between 32-80. The larger the number reflects a wider circumference.
• Robusto – is a cigar size. It’s typically a 50-ring gauge and usually about 5 inches long, but Partridge said that’s not the set rule.
• Toro – is another cigar size larger than a robusto. The standard would be about 5 ½ inches long with about a 50-52-ring gauge.
• Churchhill – named after the British prime minister, this is the largest cigar size. It’s about 7 inches long with about a 48-ring gauge.
• Mild – refers to the strength of the cigar and is not harsh on the pallet. Partridge said this is a good strength for beginning cigar smokers.
• Medium – strength will have a little more spiciness to it. The smoke will taste a little more spicy or peppery.
• Full – is the highest strength with even more of what’s already been described.
“Strength is far different than flavor,” Partridge said. “You can have a very mild cigar that's packed with flavor.”
He said when it comes to cigars, looks can also be deceiving.
“It’s a big misconception that the darker the wrapper, the stronger the cigar,” Partridge said. “It all depends on the inside tobacco. Certain regions will grow stronger or weaker tobacco.
“There are several things that determine a cigar’s strength. Where does the filler tobacco come from and how long it's aged.”