Inside America’s Oldest Tobacco Shop
German immigrant Edward Hoffman, the great-great-uncle of Kevin Levi, founded what is now Iwan Ries & Co. as E. Hoffman & Co. in 1857. “He opened the shop in the Sherman House Hotel, which burned down in the Chicago Fire of 1871,” Levi says.
Hoffman eventually started manufacturing his own cigars and brought on his nephew Iwan Ries, also a German immigrant, to help with his burgeoning venture. Around the time Hoffman started contemplating retirement, New York–based Hilson Pipes offered to buy the manufacturing side of the business. So Ries took over the shop and changed the name to Iwan Ries & Co., which is how the company has operated since 1891.
Levi credits Ries (pictured front, left) with expanding the shop’s pipe business, which remains a backbone of the company. “At that time,” Levi recalls, “we were really one of the only places in town catering to the pipe smoker, which we still do.”
Above, Iwan Ries’ 71 West Monroe Street shop in Chicago’s East Loop neighborhood.
WEST MONROE STREET
From 1926 to 1955, Iwan Ries occupied the ground floor of 71 West Monroe, also home to Chicago’s famed Italian Village restaurants.
“Back then we were on the street level, and there were two restaurants. At some point in the ‘40s or early ‘50s Italian Village decided they wanted to add a third restaurant, so our lease wasn’t re-signed,” Levi says.
SOUTH WABASH AVENUE
After moving out of the location on West Monroe Street, Iwan Ries relocated to the ground floor of a building on at 17 South Wabash, which it still occupies. “We’re in a five-story historical landmark building—it’s the oldest surviving building of Adler & Sullivan, a very famous Chicago architecture firm,” Levi says.
In 1984, the shop moved from the ground floor to the second floor of the building, which formerly held the iconic Millionaire’s Club restaurant.
INSIDE THE STORE
Humidors and cigar display cases line the walls of Iwan Ries. “The cigar cases in front were custom built for us back in the ‘40s,” says Levi. Although most cigar shops built now have walk-in humidors, lining the wall with humidors works for Iwan Ries.
“We like giving customers total access,” says Levi. “Customers have the ability to walk behind the counters and open up anything they want—we have nothing under lock and key. It not only provides a more comforting feeling to the customer to have the run of the place, but I think it drives more sales when they aren’t always waiting for a salesman.”
THE PIPE COLLECTION
Levi takes pride in Iwan Ries’ pipe collection, which his grandfather, Stanley Levi, started expanding in the 1970s. The collection makes up half of the store’s inventory.
“During the cigar boom of the early ‘90s, many stores abandoned the pipe market to make room for cigars,” Kevin Levi explains. “We’ve always maintained that half of our shop is for pipe smokers, and half of our shop is for cigar smokers. Between our shop and our stockroom, we probably have in the neighborhood of 8,000 to 10,000 pipes.”
THE FRONT ROOM
In 2008, Illinois passed a law banning smoking in public spaces, including bars and restaurants. One of the few businesses exempt from that law were cigar shops—provided that 80 percent of their revenue came from tobacco sales and that they’d been open for three years before the law’s passage. In response, Levi decided to build customers a smoking lounge, where they can pay $15 a visit or purchase an annual membership $750 per year. Because of Illinois alcohol regulations, it’s BYOB, but Levi provides glassware and ice at no cost. For another $350 annually, members can rent humidified lockers where they can store cigars and liquor. Levi says the lounge has around 110 members.
THE LANDMARK LOUNGE
The lounge concept proved popular with customers, so in 2012 Levi expanded it to include a second room: the Landmark Lounge. The added space means that Levi can rent out both lounges for private events, everything from bachelor parties to networking events to political fundraisers. Illinois governor Bruce Rauner is among Iwan Ries’ high-profile fans—he’s held fundraisers there in the past.