- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The Tinder Box cigar lounge in Waldorf caught fire Wednesday morning when a humidifier burst into flames and caused an estimated $1 million in damage, but its owner and legions of loyal customers hope the shop will reopen in a couple of weeks.
Security camera footage showed the humidifier explode at 4:23 a.m. Aug. 10 and began to slowly spread flames at the far end of the shop's 500-square-foot humidor, which is designed to keep cigars moist and preserve their flavor. Two hours later a passerby noticed smoke emanating from the shop and called 911.
“It was really unfortunate because we're open 18 hours a day,” owner Jeff Lustig said.
Custom-built in Miami out of imported Spanish cedar and shipped in one piece, the humidor kept the fire contained inside. Save for some smoke and water damage, the shop's cigar lounge and retail section were left unscathed.
Insurance will cover 80 percent of the damage, estimated at $1 million by the state fire marshal — $300,000 to the building itself and $700,000 to its contents, mostly cigars.
While some of the cigars were torched, most weren't touched by any flames but instead were spoiled by heat and smoke. Many were wrapped in plastic that had melted and become toxic, while some were sealed inside boxes that had fused shut. Others had simply been ruined by heavy smoke or dried out during the day.
While absorbing a potential $200,000 loss will certainly sting, “it's better than losing a business,” Lustig said resolutely.
Lustig has no worries about replacing the ruined product, which he estimated at well more than $500,000 worth, but he said he is unsure if any required paperwork or permitting might slow the process down.
“Knowing [Lustig], he'll be back bigger and better than ever,” said 10-year patron Bill Bennett of Alexandria, Va.
After spending 11 years in the St. Charles Towne Center mall, Tinder Box opened at its current 3,000-square-foot location in 2009 on Super Bowl Sunday.
Lustig said the fire would have no effect on his plans to expand the shop into the building's adjacent retail space, currently leased by Red Wing Shoes, in January.
One of about 100 Tinder Box franchises, the store has been the company's top seller in recent years, Lustig said, and he has a couple dozen plaques to prove it.
Tinder Box requires Lustig to display his “top seller” awards, but instead of “tooting my own horn,” he decided to hang them all inside the shop’s bathroom. Together, they serve as makeshift wallpaper and an “inside joke” of sorts for him and his customers, to whom the news spread faster than the fire.
Regulars began arriving at the shop to help clean up at 8 a.m. By evening, its sidewalk and parking lot resembled a hospital waiting room while the patrons, as if awaiting a friend on the mend, held loyal vigil, lighting cigars in place of candles.
“I'm waiting for the flowers to show up like there's been a death,” said 13-year customer Mike Adams of Indian Head.
“This is kind of like our haven,” said Jeff Miller of Chesapeake Beach, a Tinder Box customer since it first opened in the mall. “This is what I call our 'doghouse.' This is where we don't get yelled at [like we do] at home.”
Miller's first visit to the Tinder Box came in 1997, when he asked Lustig what it would cost to rent a cigar locker. Lustig told Miller, a veterinarian, he could have a locker in exchange for purchasing one box of cigars and providing routine care for Lustig's beagle, Nicolas.
Miller spent Wednesday watching after Nicolas while Lustig dealt with the cleanup and later brought the dog by the shop to visit. Patrons affectionately referred to Nicolas as the shop's “mascot.”
Today, Miller owns one of the shop's 141 cigar lockers, whose golden nameplates feature such gems as “Dark Knight,” “Ice Man” and “Puff-Puff-Pass.” Miller estimated his locker contains about $6,000 worth of cigars and that combined the lockers might encase more stogies than were lost in the humidor.
None of the owners, jokingly referred to as “The Family,” ever has given his locker up, creating a waiting list that exceeds 200 people, said Adams, who works at the shop a few hours each week as a tobacconist.
“A lot of the employees work here for fun because they have other jobs,” said Adams, who produces music festivals as his day job.
On most nights, a core group of 40 to 50 regulars will stop by at some point to hang out and light up, Adams said.
“This is the Cheers bar,” he added. “This is literally the place where when you walk in the front door everybody goes, 'Norm!'”
Adams credited the Waldorf and Brandywine volunteer fire departments with salvaging the shop, pointing out that had the flames made it out of the humidor, a retail section stocked with jars of tobacco, liquor and lighter fluid made the space a veritable matchbox.
“The fire department must have gotten here fast,” Adams said. “They absolutely saved this building.”
He later joked on the phone with a customer that it was “no wonder” the departments responded so quickly — several of the firefighters are regulars, too.
A Tinder Box patron for eight-plus years, Maurice Hurt of Waldorf began bringing food to the shop for sports parties and monthly events and eventually became the unofficial chef for such gatherings.
“It's home,” he said of the shop.
Hurt credited the Tinder Box with launching his culinary passions, which led to an audition last year for the reality show “MasterChef.” He made it as an alternate, but “I'm going to make the show this year,” he said.
So naturally, Hurt was shocked when he heard Wednesday morning that the shop had caught fire.
“Honestly, I cried,” he said.
While talking to a reporter inside the shop, Hurt directed another regular customer, who had walked in and was scanning the retail section for signs of the fire, to the scorched end of the humidor.
“Go down there if you want to cry,” Hurt said.
“That's where it happened at?” the customer asked back, his voice laced with dread.
Some patrons returned Thursday morning to help with the ongoing cleanup, a scene that is likely to repeat itself until the shop reopens and regulars once again can chill inside.
“It's just hard to find places like this that have that open-door atmosphere,” Hurt said. “It's a family member that's been hurt.”