The Treasure Valley’s vaping boom

Vaping catches on in Treasure Valley, sparking specialty stores, a mall kiosk and new wares for smoke shops.

November 5, 2013 

As one customer chatted with Carl Hamilton about electronic cigarette devices on a warm fall afternoon, another sat quietly on a comfortable couch in a small lounge area and tried different vaping flavors while watching "Star Trek" on a wall-mounted television.

Ecigs by S. Wicks, at 208 N. 9th St. in Downtown Boise, will celebrate a year in business this month. It was among the first vape shops to open in the Treasure Valley. Now there are 20 to 25, according to Hamilton and other local shop owners.

"We don't have the market to support that. We're saturated," Hamilton says, noting that Portland has only a few shops. "I don't quite understand why all the shops are popping up here."

The $1.5 billion U.S. vaping industry tripled sales this year, but new federal regulations could put a damper on future sales, according to Bloomberg News. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce how it plans to regulate electronic cigarettes soon.

Cigarette sales in the U.S. have been falling for decades, but the tobacco industry still does $90 billion in sales each year. Because cigarette use is declining, it's hard to measure how much vaping is impacting sales, said Ed Franklin, marketing director for Tobacco Beverage Co.

Tobacco Beverage Co., which has administrative offices in Nampa, owns about 30 Big Smoke and Tobacco Connection shops in the Treasure Valley. The stores began carrying vaping supplies about a year ago, so they could hang on to customers who were trying to quit smoking.

"It's less than 10 percent of our sales, but it's growing," Franklin says.

Vaping, which involves inhaling heated liquid, is often discussed as an alternative to smoking. There's no tobacco or smoke in vaping, making the term "e-cigarette" something of a misnomer. An e-cigarette is a hand-held device that heats flavored liquids — often containing nicotine, but not always — to vapor.

Some look like cigarettes, but many of the newer vaping devices are about the size of a penlight. Square vaping devices are called "box mods."

Exhaled vapor clouds look like smoke. Health officials have concerns about the effect of second-hand vapor containing nicotine.

Though the federal government says vaping is not a proven smoking cessation tool, and vendors cannot promote it that way, many involved in the industry say it helped them, their friends and/or family members to kick their tobacco habits.

But that's not all that is driving this trend.

Hamilton says The Vaper Outlet, which has five stores in Nampa, Meridian and Star, has a slogan that sums up what he thinks is a big part of why vaping is growing in popularity: "When a habit becomes a hobby."

Visit one of the local vape shops, and you'll immediately see why.

A feast for the eyes: Glass cases hold a stunning array of colorful vaping devices, commonly referred to as batteries and "mods" — short for modifications. Mods have removable batteries and can be altered.

"Vaping caters to tech-heads and people who like to tinker," Hamilton says. He says many customers enjoy accessorizing, collecting different colors and types.

Vape store shelves are lined with small bottles of liquid in every flavor imaginable, including some as complex as the popular "Legendary" at Ecigs by S. Wicks.

"This vape could be most likened to chocolate-caramel-banana nut bread, but in reality, it has no real counterpart in the food world," the shop's flavor menu says.

The backgrounds of those opening shops in the Valley varies. A crash about 16 years ago left Hamilton, now 39, in a wheelchair, and he's an accomplished custom guitar maker.

Hamilton says one of the reasons he opened his vape shop was to help people. He smoked for 20 years and kicked the habit after about a year of vaping.

His store's niches include high-end, American-made products, and he is expert in hardware maintenance and modification. His shop carries more than 200 flavors of vaping liquid — typically called "e-liquid," or "juice" — from 11 different U.S. makers. "If I can get people to keep their money in this country, I do it," Hamilton says.

COST OF GETTING STARTED

Chris Eaves, who co-owns Cafe De Vapor in West Boise with Jordan Summers, says the cost of opening their vape shop was between $30,000 and $50,000.

But it can be done for less, if inventory and extras are limited, Eaves and others say.

Cafe De Vapor aims to be more than a supply shop for "vapers," the common term for people who vape. The shop offers free Wi-Fi, smart TVs, tables where visitors can work on laptops and hang out, and a lounge area with couches.

It's a combination Internet cafe and vaping store, says Eaves, who noted that they plan to add a coffee pot.

The 39-year-old is a former car salesman who lived in Anchorage for 27 years. Ready for a change, he and his wife moved their four children to the Treasure Valley in the spring of 2012.

Eaves met Summers while working at a Boise car dealership. Summers got the idea to open a vape shop after seeing people line up at the Valley's first specialty shop, Vapoligy, at 9225 W. Chinden Blvd. in Garden City. "We drove by it and we saw it was packed every day," Eaves says.

Vapoligy has since opened two new stores: one at 8495 W. Overland Road in Boise, and one at 2108 Caldwell Blvd. in Nampa.

Eaves and Summers opened Cafe De Vapor in July. Summers traveled to Anchorage in late October to open their second shop.

Vape shops sell e-liquids with different strengths of nicotine, and also with no nicotine. Most shops sell liquids containing nicotine levels from 6 milligrams per milliliter of e-juice to 36 milligrams per milliliter.

Cafe De Vapor offers liquid with nicotine levels only up to 18 milligrams per milliliter. "I just feel that's plenty ... We want to help people quit smoking, not keep them hooked on nicotine," Eaves says.

He used to be a smoker who started the day with a cigarette. Now he vapes with a low level of nicotine.

Comparing how much nicotine someone inhales while vaping to the amount inhaled from smoking cigarettes is tricky. Nicotine levels in cigarettes vary by brand, and tobacco companies increased the amounts by an average of 10 percent from 1998 to 2004, according to a 2006 Washington Post report. The nicotine delivered per cigarette was measured at 1.89 milligrams, but some brands delivered as much as 3 milligrams.

Like Baskin Robbins ice cream shops, Cafe De Vapor offers 31 flavors of e-liquid. The most popular are melon ball, starburst and lemon cake. "You can taste the butter, the cake, the lemon," Eaves says.

Most vape shops carry tobacco flavors, and those trying to quit smoking often start with those flavors. Eaves says he decided against carrying them after he tried one that tasted exactly like Marlboro cigarettes.

"It made me want to go smoke," he says. "People need to reprogram their brains."

Eaves and Summers originally planned to spend $1,500 a month on advertising. But word-of-mouth has created enough traffic that they haven't had to.

BUY SUPPLIES, STAY FOR POOL, MOVIES

One of the newest shops to the Valley is ElectroNicStix in Boise.

The vape shop opened in September in the former Scandinavia Today building at 6898 W. Fairview Ave. Owner Jason Cornfeld also has three vape shops in Utah.

Manager David Nielsen Jr. says there are a couple dozen vape shops in Ogden alone.

"It's weird to see someone with a cigarette in their hand (in Ogden)," says Nielsen, a small engine mechanic who worked construction before the recession. "There's a huge culture of people using these."

Nielsen says ElectroNicStix shops in Utah get so busy they started using customer sign-in sheets. Anticipating that kind of traffic, the large Boise shop has surround sound, a pool table and a lounge area with couches and a screen for watching movies.

When customers enter, they are directed by signs to counters on the left or right. To the left, hardware (mods, tanks, batteries, starter kits). To the right, juice (cartos — atomized cartridges — atomizers and wick supply).

The batteries and mods at ElectroNicStix range from $25 to $500. A bottle of juice is $6.50 to $22, depending on size, brand and flavor.

The shop has 85 to 90 flavors. The most popular are killa vanilla, hot cinnamon, raspberry and cinnabun.

Nielsen says one of the reasons that ElectroNicStix moved to Idaho — its warehouse is now in the Boise store — is because one of its main e-liquid suppliers, High Caliber, moved from Las Vegas to the Treasure Valley. Another reason was Utah laws, which regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products. Tobacco products cannot be sold online in Utah.

"So both laws in combination ban us from selling online," Nielsen says.

That would be a significant hit for ElectroNicStix, which receives 60 to 70 online orders per day from vapers from France to Japan, accounting for 30 percent of its sales.

He says the company's revenue exploded from $465,000 in 2011 to $8 million in 2012. Buyers are in their 20s to their 70s. Most are former smokers or those trying to quit.

Last year, Idaho banned e-cigarette sales to anyone under 18. ElectroNicStix and other local vape shops ask customers for ID at the door or the cash register.

VAPE KIOSK AT MALL

Entrepreneur Donovan Johns, 39, began selling vaping products at Boise Towne Square in February.

Johns, who has a computer network systems degree from ITT Technical Institute, says he developed expertise in the vaping industry while working at a Boise convenience store that he co-owned with his former in-laws.

Stores of all kinds carry vape supplies today, but the specialty shops have the widest selection.

Johns opened a Volt Vapes shop at 8009 W. Fairview Ave. in May. It is notably different from the previously mentioned vape shops. There are no couches or chairs, no television sets. The no-frills, all blue-and-white shop sells vaping products, and that is all. It specializes in low- to midrange products.

"The $300 mod doesn't do any more than this $20 battery for the average user," Johns says.

At shops around the Valley, starter kits range from $20 to $80, depending on quality and what's included.

Volt's $20 starter kits contain a battery, a tank to hold the juice and charging cable. The liquid is extra. At Volt Vapes, a 6 milliliter bottle is $5, while 10 milliliters costs $6.99 and 15 milliters is $9.99.

"As a business model, I wanted to be Toyota — good quality (vaping) pieces at a good price," Johns says.

Johns doesn't buy vape liquid. He makes it himself in a commercial-grade kitchen.

"There was a lack of quality from the local industry. I routinely get told our line is the best," he says. "This is a science and an art."

The most popular of Volt's 90 flavors are beetle juice (fruit medley), watermelon and tiger's blood.

Johns, who obtained Small Business Administration loans to launch his business, says it cost about $15,000 to launch the mall kiosk and $70,000 to open the Fairview store. He says the business, which has nine employees (two full-time), was profitable after its second month.

He spends about $5,000 a month on advertising, including radio spots and sponsorship of cars at the Meridian Speedway. Vaping is popular at the speedway, he says.

He hopes he doesn't see any more vape shops appear in the Valley. "We're past saturation already," he says.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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