Sep 21, 2016 0 comments

By Leo Dillinger

Photography By Alexa Nahas Photography

It’s not easy moving to a new area and making potential lifelong friends, especially as a grown adult. Konstantinos “Kosta” Fotiadis learned this feeling firsthand after moving to Pennsylvania to begin a software engineering job at Lockheed Martin fresh out of college.

“It sounds weird, but try going out and making a new guy friend this weekend. It’s really hard,” Kosta said as he reclined in one of the leather sofas at SMoKE Manayunk, his cigar lounge on Main Street. “It’s even harder on the East Coast versus Indiana where I’m from. It’s a very different culture.”

Kosta opened SMoKE in December 2013 to provide a space in Manayunk where patrons could meet cool, interesting people from all walks of life and hopefully make a new friend or two by the end of the night. At the focal point of his business are cigars, the medium that introduced him to some of his closest friends.

Back in Indiana and even early on in Pennsylvania, Kosta rarely indulged in cigars. Since moving to Manayunk back in 2006, Kosta attributes his love of cigars to three different sources. The first was Dan, his roommate at the time who knew Kosta was struggling internally to make those lifelong friends that he had back in Indiana.

“Dan knew I was in a funk at the time. One day, he invited me to smoke a cigar in the backyard. I had a couple here and there before, but never really got into them,” Kosta said. “That’s when I realized how cool smoking cigars were. I went from being a weirdo in my funk of life to sitting down for an hour or two just to relax and talk. Inevitably, stuff comes out and you start processing your thoughts and get through them. We became really good friends and Dan’s been a big catalyst for all of this.”

Dan may have sparked Kosta’s fascination of cigars, but it was an older man named Terry who really fanned the flame. Terry worked at a small cigar shop on Cotton Street and whenever Dan wasn’t around for a cigar, Kosta found solace in knowing that Terry was right around the corner.

“Here was this 50 year old black man who would chill with me every Friday and Saturday night at six, seven, eight o’clock,” Kosta said. “We’d just sit around and talk about life together. It was always shocking despite our differences in age, race and religion how much we actually had in common.”

And before SMoKE there was Ashes, another cigar lounge at the same location where Kosta met other cigar connoisseurs who later became friends. After less than two years of business, Ashes closed down and the building was vacant. But as one door closed on Main Street, another opened for Kosta in May 2013.

Kosta had climbed the proverbial ladder at Lockheed Martin and eventually got to work from his current home on Hermitage Street. But the situation at the company began to turn sour as layoffs occurred every six months. Nervous about his own future, Kosta needed to make a decision whether to stick it out at his current job, move back home to Indiana, or find another way.

“I decided I was going to take some days off to ride my motorcycle, clear my head, and come up with a game plan,” Kosta said. “And it was the very first day, I’ll never forget it, I didn’t even get to downtown Philly. I came down from Hermitage and turned onto Main Street and as I turned onto Main Street, the landlord was hanging a sign in the window that said ‘For Rent’.”

Kosta pulled his motorcycle over and got the landlord’s number. He put together a business plan and started calling up the regular guys from Ashes to gage their interest. One friend from Ashes, Joe Tomlinson, signed on as Kosta’s business partner along with two other friends from Indiana, Derek Smith and John John Chuang. Soon enough, Kosta’s friends and many aficionados from Ashes came on board to help out in any capacity they could. Kosta signed the lease right away and the team went to work on “building the dream” at 4453 Main Street. After seven grueling months of late nights, hard work, and too much Papa John’s, the entire vision for the space was complete and SMoKE Manayunk officially opened on December 19th, 2013.

But one week prior to opening, there was one tiny issue: no cigars. Being so focused on construction and redesigning the space, Kosta had not even considered ordering the inventory or the additional work behind actually running a day-to-day business. Once his first batch of cigars was ordered, Kosta looked around at different POS systems that could handle his business. After speaking to other shop owners, he found they didn’t really like their current systems even though they had spent $6,000 to $10,000 on it.

With a background in software engineering, Kosta figured why not build his own? What started out as a “glorified spreadsheet” soon became a full-blown operating system that now runs every facet of SMoKE. It’s worked so well for Kosta that the project has become a second business venture for him. Everything from automatic inventory and payroll updates to sale transactions, Kosta thanks his “Hellas B.A.E” (“Hellas” meaning Greek, Backend Analytics Engine).

“I call it my Bae,” Kosta said with a laugh. “It makes my life so much easier. It manages the shop. It keeps everything here going smooth and it handles everything from clocking in to inventory. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for any small business owner, nobody wants to get the call on Friday afternoon when you’re out of town that you’re out of this or that. So it’s been really helpful.”

The first weeks after opening the shop were anything but glamorous. Kosta was a one-man staff working 12 hours each day with just four different cigar companies and 15 hookah flavors. Today, Kosta now has a legitimate staff of specialists who “know more about tobacco than probably 90% of the world” along with a humidor that holds more than 500 different cigars from 40 different brands and about 80 different flavors of hookah. Kosta also dedicates much of his business to serving the community from helping out North Light Community Center to organizing fundraising events for The Veterans Group every third Tuesday of the month.

But the highlight of SMoKE is the dialogue among patrons. Even though many cigar lounges don’t allow controversial conversations on their premises, Kosta embraces it. So much so that he’s starting up a program on Monday nights strictly dedicated for discussions surrounding politics that many are too afraid to dive into.

“The difference between us and 99% of cigar shops out there is we’re not just a place where you can buy a cigar,” Kosta said. “We’re this lounge space that accommodates those conversations, hangouts, and learning whereas most cigar shops tend to have a backroom that has a lot more cliquey crowd. We have plenty of space. Come in. Sit down. Chill out. There’s somebody here to teach you about cigars if you’re new to them.”

Now that Kosta has managed to find those lifelong friends after more than a decade in Manayunk, he wants to help others achieve the same. At SMoKE, you can strike up a random conversation with someone, but small talk is only useful for about five minutes. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself in one of the deepest exchanges you’ll ever have in your life. And if you’re lucky, you might just make a new friend by the end of the night. That was Kosta’s goal from the start.

“The whole reason this place exists is because I moved to the Philadelphia area and after living here for ten years, I hadn’t made lifelong friends. My lifelong friends were still in Indiana,” Kosta said. "Tobacco introduced me to this opportunity where I made new friends. I thought Manayunk needed something like that. It does. It works. People crave meeting other people.”

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