A savory fog mixed with the smell of men's cologne draped heavily over a leather furniture. Behind a nondescript strip mall facade, half a dozen people mingled in Sunday afternoon recreation with fat brown cigars between their lips. Watching football, playing dominos and competing in chess is part of another day at work at the BeLeaf Cigar Lounge in Whitehaven.
Located at 4593 Elvis Presley Boulevard, the store boasts several brands of hand-rolled cigars as well as a house-made line.
Brothers and business partners Antonio Gardner, 40, and Jason Gardner, 36, opened BeLeaf in April 2015 supported by a tight-knit customer base.
In 2016 the duo operated out of a mobile lounge at festivals and private events and November 18, 2017 they opened their brick and mortar location in Whitehaven.
“Memphis can develop as a pro-entrepreneur city by refusing to circulate our revenue outside of our city without first assessing resources within our own city, while not allowing ethnic differences to deter business interactions."
“After brainstorming for a unique and meaningful title, we settled on the name BeLeaf because of it's ring, as well as the fact that it embodied the foundation of what makes us keeps moving forward, we believe in our possibilities,” the brothers said via email.
Jason said he tried his first cigar—a black cherry flavored one with a brand called Delicioso—with Antonio and their fraternity brothers.
He’s been hooked ever since.
Jason and Antonio believed cigars were more than a trend and more than a hobby for them. As they developed a passion for the craft, they began to research and learn more about the art of making cigars. The brothers have travelled to Cuba and the Dominican Republic to refine their methods and product.
Jason, who grew up in Whitehaven, said making a quality cigar is like cooking.
“It’s not going to be for everyone,” he said. “It’s going to be for the palate of the person smoking the cigar.”
As they progress in the cigar business, the duo continues to learn.
“Our mission and vision is to offer a supreme product, provide a supreme service, all incorporated in a mature and safe environment,” Antonio said.
Fully self-funded, they decided to start BeLeaf in Whitehaven after studying the market and needs of the community. BeLeaf, they said, allows cigar culture to be fully enjoyed by Whitehaven residents in their own backyard.
Jason Gardner demonstrates his cigar rolling process. He and his brother, Antonio, studied these techniques in Cuba. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“We also knew the excellence that truly exists in the Whitehaven community and the need for new and fresh businesses and opportunities in this community. We both saw the potential success of the business in Whitehaven,” Antonio said.
The brothers said they are, “ready to sow good seeds,” in Whitehaven and serve as an example for other businesses to start, grow and find success in this community. They are currently planning to offer mentoring and scholarship assistance to existing organizations in Whitehaven.
As the company grows, the brothers plan to bring on more full-time employees. Meanwhile, they’re taking advantage of resources like social media and local grassroots publicity as they seek to attract additional investors.
As entrepreneurs, the Gardners have strong opinions on how Memphis can grow to support its native entrepreneurs.
“Memphis can develop as a pro-entrepreneur city by refusing to circulate our revenue outside of our city without first assessing resources within our own city, while not allowing ethnic differences to deter business interactions,” Antonio said.
“So much money leaves our city because we don’t support one another and circulate our revenue within our city.”
Antonio and Jason said they take the challenges of entrepreneurship as they come.
“We only see possibilities, and we override our challenges with solutions based on our faith in God and our own reality,” Antonio said.
The cigar rolling stations at BeLeaf Cigars, located on Elvis Presley Boulevard. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The first time Jordan Brock, 27-year-old BeLeaf customer, smoked a cigar, he said he, “nearly died from all the choking.” He was 22 years old, walking around Downtown with friends and walked into a shop to try his first cigar.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I pulled on it like it was a hookah and couldn’t stop coughing,” he laughed. “I liked the taste though and tried them again.”
Brock, who grew up in Whitehaven, became a BeLeaf customer when a friend told him about the store’s grand opening.
He said his favorite cigar is the Hennessy soaked Pure White cigar by a brand that BeLeaf offers called Dipped Cigars.
“I was excited and surprised it was in my area. You don’t hear a lot about black businesses especially a cigar chop opening up,” he said.
“I love the atmosphere and I hope they’re going to be around for a while. As someone from Whitehaven, it sucks that I have to go to Downtown or Midtown to be social sometimes. It’s good that I can go down the street and enjoy something that I like.”