Their solution: electronic cigarettes
Dec 7, 2012
When it came to trying electronic cigarettes, Nick Martinez didn’t really have a choice. His girlfriend, Amber Stancato, who had grandfathers die of smoking-related illnesses, said she’d leave Nick if he didn’t stop smoking.
“We had a big argument over my smoking and she asked me to give e-cigarettes a chance,” Martinez said. “I loved it. It tasted better. It smelled better.”
Martinez had been struggling to find work after being laid off from his job as a union carpenter. Stancato, who was working at her parents’ Kenosha-based Jade Electronics, had been trying to find a good small business fit for herself.
So Martinez cashed in his retirement plan, borrowed money from his dad, and in May 2009, they opened an electronic cigarette kiosk in Greendale’s Southridge Mall. A half dozen other retail locations quickly followed, and now A&N Smoking Solutions sells cigarettes online (www.ansmokesolutions.com) and around the world.
“I hated smoking, but when I saw the e-cigarette, I knew I was going to change humanity with this,” Stancato said.
Electronic cigarettes are made of plastic and metal and shaped to resemble traditional cigarettes. When a user inhales on the end of an electronic cigarette, an airflow sensor activates a heating element in the “atomizer” that vaporizes flavored liquid and nicotine. Electronic cigarettes cannot legally be sold as smoking cessation devices, although many traditional smokers regard them as a preferred alternative.
Martinez and Stancato initially franchised another company’s e-cigarettes, but they found some customers were frustrated by the unreliability of the product and the amount of force it took to activate the vaporizer. At that point, the Kenosha couple hooked up with an inventor from China, who had designed an improved atomizer.
“I told him, ‘If I keep you busy enough, will you sell only to me?’” Stancato said.
He said yes. But the road to being international importers was a bumpy one; in 2009, the Food and Drug Administration started waging war on electronic cigarette manufacturers, claiming that e-cigarettes were drug delivery devices (a la Nicorette patches). Customs agents seized a $20,000 shipment of A&N branded electronic cigarettes at Los Angeles International Airport.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Stancato said. “There’s no phone number for these people.”
There were, however, alarming letters coming in the mail from the Feds. After two years of courtroom battles led by Smoking Everywhere and the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, the FDA finally abandoned their tactics. But A&N’s shipment was destroyed in the process.
They learned another tough lesson when the mailman brought a letter from tobacco giant Philip Morris. The company was not happy they were advertising their “full flavor” cartridges as similar to Marlboros. The letter included screenshots of their website and photos of their kiosks.
“We were freaked out. Within 24 hours, we had put new stickers all over everything,” Martinez said.
Since then, A&N Smoking Solutions has flourished. They recently opened an additional storefront in downtown Kenosha at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 56th Street so they can grow their company without letting it take over their lives, which it had been doing in the spare bedroom.
They’re putting 50,000 miles a year on each of their two cars checking on their kiosks and trying to motivate sales contractors. They are thinking big, hiring sales teams and trying to keep their bases covered.
Update: Since this article was published, we have so much to tell you! We have since closed our mall kiosk locations, as vaping was banned from many locations. We attempted some free standing locations, but the management and overhead pushed the boundaries of our vision, so we focus majority of our business online, keeping in contact with those same mall traffic customers, through phone and email. We continue to offer our same punch card style loyalty program for these, and all customers. We'd love to see you downtown at our Kenosha location! We are open 7 days a week and always open online.