Big E's Vapor Shop is getting bigger. Potentially, a lot bigger.
"Our goal is 500 stores in the next three years," co-owner Eldon Simmons said.
Four years after opening their first vape shop, on south Rock Road, Simmons and his partners recently opened their seventh in the Wichita area, at 37th and Woodlawn. They expect to open four more in the Kansas City area by the first of the year. And perhaps most importantly, they've recently been joined by an Oklahoma businessman, Vernon Brock, with the capital to continue expanding.
It's been quite a ride for the company, which employs about 50 people in its pink and black stores. On Tuesday, the inner circle sat around a conference table talking about a new website and quick business trip to Kansas City – enshrouded, naturally, in a cloud of aromatic vapor.
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Simmons is the "Big E" of the title and the colorful, outspoken front man for the company. Talking about finding a location in the KC area, he says the company "had to do everything but a strip tease up there to get a lease." He's quick to give equal credit to his original partners, Dixie Zellner and Sherri Hischke. Simmons says he was a 15-cigar-a-day smoker – "the guy who got up at 3 a.m.to light a cigar" – when they suggested he try vaping. He was almost dissuaded by the $35 price tag on a vaping device. His wife, who hates smoking, insisted. A few months later, "We had a store open."
But only by pooling their money – $3,000 each.
The plan from the start for the first-time business owners was to focus on delivering the best customer service possible. Simmons said his background running a large truck repair operation gave him valuable "people handling experience."
“I've got a tenth grade education and a whole lot of experience.”
Business was good but competition intense in the early days of vaping. Wichita had as many as 40 vape shops at one time, Simmons said. Today, he thinks there are about 25.
"This business isn't as easy as people think it is," he said.
There are taxes to pay and government regulations to comply with. Simmons said Big E's will pay $55,000 in state and local taxes alone this year. While planning the move into the Kansas City area, he discovered that some cities have limits on the number of vape shops that can locate in them, and others have stringent requirements for signs.
On the other hand, there's no shortage of demand for the product, as the brisk business Tuesday at the Big E's store on 31st Street showed. In rapid succession a mailman, delivery man and homemaker stepped up to the counter. Although Simmons says he can't legally claim that vaping is a way for people to stop smoking tobacco, that is the reason most people try it. The liquid that goes into vaping devices contains nicotine but only a fraction of the carcinogens and toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke. "Our nicotine delivery system is much safer than cigarettes," Simmons said.
At Big E's, there are dozens of vaping devices and 581 flavors of vaping juice to choose from. The "A" flavors alone range from absinthe and ace to amaretto and apple pie. Customers can specify flavor combinations, nicotine and viscosity – which affects how the vaping device works – with each order. A mixologist works at each Big E location.
“It's precise," Simmons said. "One drop out of place and you've ruined the whole bottle.”
The company recently leased a 15,000-square-foot facility to manufacture the base of its juice.
Simmons said the shops sell some vaping devices for less than cost, knowing many customers will return for juice, batteries and heating coils needed to vape. Starter kits run about $15. "If we can retain half of these people, it's a home run for us." The Big E's website offers free shipping to members of the military and anybody who orders at least $75 in product. A heavy user of vaping might spend $20 to $30 a week, Simmons said, a fraction of what cigarettes cost.
The vapor shops employ "people who know what the hell they're talking about," Simmons said. The employees maintain and repair vaping devices.
Simmons blames the tobacco industry for some of the regulatory hurdles vape shops have run into. About two years ago, he said, he and his partners feared the federal government was going to close all of them down. Before that, the three partners had wrestled with the potential risks and benefits of expanding.
“We didn't want to fail. But we opened a second store and it took off.”
Now they're hoping the vapor-fueled ride continues.