What the World Needs is a Good, Algorithm-Fired Cigar

Chris Yokley, left, and Jeff Zeiders envisioned a way to improve on a time-tested business model with math and the internet.

Buying cigars by mail dates back to 1915 when M.A. Thompson established the Thompson Cigar Co. in Key West, Florida, but an Alabama company has improved on the idea by combining the internet and fancy math to send taste-specific smokes to customers in 44 states and beyond.

CigarClub.com recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, a startup online subscription service sparked by Baltimore native Jeff Zeiders, 31, and Chris Yokley, 37, of Mobile. They theorized that new cigar smokers, faced with thousands of options, would benefit from some expert guidance.

“When you join our site, we ask you a series of questions about your favorite foods, meats, drinks, and using those answers we develop a palate profile for each new customer, ” says Zeiders. “What we do on the back end is process those answers through an algorithm, a custom piece of math we put together, to judge your palate on eight criteria, then get a cigar expert to pair those preferences with what you’d love in a cigar.”

It’s estimated that 17.4 million U.S. adults smoke cigars at least occasionally. Those just getting started can find the in-store selection process daunting. Cigars are very personal, Zeiders says, and some online sellers are too quick to send out random boxes of smokes to people who might have very specific tastes.

Zeiders, who earned a doctorate in music composition from Johns Hopkins University, fell in love with a Mobile girl he met in Baltimore and the two tried several cities before making their way to Alabama’s Port City. CigarClub.com was launched in an extra bedroom and then graduated to Exchange 202, the downtown coworking space. A dedicated space in downtown Mobile is planned.

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“We offer a 100 percent guarantee, ” he says. “If we send you something not in your taste profile, we’ll replace it. We’ve been live 14 months now and we’ve only gotten two cigars back from the thousands we’ve delivered.”

With more than a million cigar box combinations, no two subscriptions are ever the same. Subscribers also get seasonal gift items that pair with the cigars.

On the business side, things are now in the black. After the December 2016 launch the first six months were a learning experience, with more time than money spent. Once the business model was solid, six local investors were attracted, providing angel money in the mid-six-figures, Zeiders said.

“October sales were 300 percent over September. November was 500 percent over October and December was a little over 700 percent above November. When people like what you’re doing, the brand sticks and they see your level of margin is justified. We want to make this something that’s long term.”

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