SBW: Despite Proposed Law, Bethesda Vapor Company Says It Has Found Its Place


This is Small Business Weekly, a recurring feature in which we'll spotlight a small, independently owned business in Bethesda or Chevy Chase. Got a business you think we should check out? Drop us a line at desk[at]bethesdanow[dot]com. By Orrin Konheim Tucked on the second floor of a Woodmont Triangle building is a store that's not just trying to cater to the hottest recreational trend but is also trying to save lives. "I smoked for 17 years. Two packs a day. I tried everything to stop smoking cigarettes. The gum. The patch. This was the only thing that helped," said Rodrigo Santos, 31, who co-owns the Bethesda Vapor Company with three high school friends. Bethesda Vapor Company in Woodmont TriangleLess then a year ago, Santos was working as a manager in the restaurant industry. Looking to do something on his own, he posted a call to his Facebook friends asking if anyone wanted to co-own a business with him. A high school friend, Jesse Flores, messaged him immediately and they linked up with two other friends -- Reza Noroozi and John Shillfarth -- from their days at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring to make the dream a reality. "I wanted to do something different and wouldn't have been able to do this on my own. This was kind of like an angel in the sky for me," said Noroozi, who describes himself as an avid vaper. Vape, defined as the inhalation or exhalation of vapor from an electronic cigarette, was the Oxford English Dictionary 2014 word of the year. Santos also pointed out that e-cig, vapor, and vape were the three most searched terms of 2014 on the internet. The e-cigarette has revolutionized cigarette smoking in what the folks at the Vapor Company say is a healthier way, by allowing smokers to wean off nicotine. But the growing trend has drawn criticism from health experts, who say the nicotine found in some of the products is highly addictive, has "immediate bio-chemical effects on the brain and body at any dosage" and can be toxic. Last year, County Councilmember Nancy Floreen introduced a bill that would ban using an e-cigarette anywhere a traditional cigarette is also banned in Montgomery County. The bill would also ban the use of e-cigs by those 18 and younger and would require child-resistant packaging on any products sold in the county. "I completely agree with the age restriction," Santos said, "I don't want to get any kids involved in things they shouldn't be. I agree that people should respect other people's space." Flores said the Bethesda Vapor Company already restricts those 18 and younger from coming into the store, as many other vapor retailers have. "The main goal is to get people off cigarettes," Flores said. "To be able to smoke cigarettes you have to be 18 or older." Santos often tries to gauge his customers' level of dependency by asking how long they've been smoking traditional cigarettes before recommending an appropriate percentage. He sees himself as a partner with his customers in their quest to ease off nicotine. "I always explain to them that I feel this is 90 percent mental. If you're mentally prepared to stop [smoking], you don't need the nicotine. You just need the actual act of smoking," Santos said. "I'd been smoking for ages and I wanted to stop but at the same time I wanted the nicotine and it's cheaper," said customer Ieuan King. "When I was a heavy smoker, I could only hold my breath for 30 seconds. Since I've been vaping, I've held my breath for 100 seconds. You know when you're a heavy smoker and you get that first breath and it hurts." "I think the biggest difference is that you're controlled by your cigarette," Santos said. "You're not controlled by your vape." The store opened at 4823-B Fairmont Avenue last summer. Santos says that a lot of the  clients come from NIH and Walter Reed. They consist of  stressed federal government workers who aren't aloud to smoke on federal grounds, military personnel, and army veterans who are being treated at the hospitals. "It's not just a store. There's a really big comunity about this thing," said Emily Easton, a Capitol Hill lobbyist who helps out at the store. "It turns into more of a hobby than a habit as people get into the collecting and building aspect of it." When the owners at Bethesda Vapor Company aren't occupied with customers, they can be found blowing smoke rings, designing vaping contraptions or talking about other vape stores. The store allows customers to build their own custom-made coils (the part of the cigarette that heats the liquid). As part of the DIY ethos of the store, the Vapor Company will provide a workbench with tools for people to build their own coils or custom build coils for a surcharge. "We try to run our business almost like we are ourselves," said Santos. "We try to make a hospitable, fun, friendly environment." The store's owners admitted it's been a tricky balancing act, but the community and landlord have been hospitable. "We were a little worried since we're the only one of our kind in the city. We have a lot of local business owners in the area coming through," Noorozi says. "The landlord was incredibly generous. He was very accommodating. He knew it was our first time as business owners and gave us ample time to make sure we opened right." When the  store opened in August, 10 percent of the proceeds went to the family of Carlos Gordillo, a friend of the owners who passed away unexpectedly at the age of 39. The store continues to solicit donations and put leftover change from the cash register each day toward a fund that goes to Gordillo's surviving family. Photo via Bethesda Vapor Company Small Business Weekly Archive

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