Have you noticed an increasing number of people grouped up outside of bars, coffee shops, and college campuses puffing on strange light-up contraptions that aren’t quite cigarettes? So did I. I learned, much to my surprise, about a new movement of ex-smokers who replaced their chemical-addled cigarette addiction with something that has 100% less rat poison in it.
I contacted a local business owner, Matt Berger, about visiting his vapor shop and learning a little more about what electronic cigarettes do. His shop, appropriately titled Butt Out, is tucked away into a quiet corner of downtown Phoenix. The first thing that hit me was the pumping metal track that set the renegade theme of my interview. Berger, a clean-cut guy clad in a Butt Out shirt and a pair of beat-up jeans, greeted me from behind the counter.
The tiny shop is part showroom, part hangout. Two lounge chairs flank a coffee table with a Keurig coffee machine sitting on top across from a sea of dropper bottles containing the flavored e-liquid that’s saved so many smokers from pack-a-day habits. After a quick handshake, Berger ushered me toward the store’s lounge area in the rear. We took a seat on another plush couch, next to an illuminated chessboard and he showed me how he leveraged quitting smoking into a booming local business.
“After coughing and hacking up a lung for two weeks in April of 2011, a buddy of mine handed me an electronic cigarette and said ‘Try this.’” He explains, thoughtfully puffing on a battery-operated vaporizer. He exhales, and explains how he got started, “I went from chain-smoker to chain-vaper. People started asking me to get one for them.” He started his business out of his home by driving the vaporizers over to his customers but, “It was really hot and Phoenix is a really big city so I was pretty burnt out. Thankfully, things came through.”
“I found this little place with the help of my family and my dad’s friend. We opened Butt Out in November of 2012 and it’s been great ever since” he says, when asked about how he got his initial investment. “My dad’s my partner. It would’ve been much more difficult without his help.”
The welcoming atmosphere of Butt Out is infectious. I quickly find out that the two guys sitting next to us are Matt’s brother and close friend who chat easily nearby. I ask him about Butt Out’s overwhelming sense of community, “To me, smoking was always a social thing. That was my favorite part. You could go outside and you got an opportunity to just chat with people.”
At around this point, a biker dude in his mid-50s walks into the store. A staff member quickly seats him at their bar and lets him try some of the flavored e-liquid. Matt continues, “I wanted [Butt Out] to be – I mean I don’t care if you come in here every day for a week and don’t spend anything. The cool thing about this is you get to hang out and meet people from all walks of life.”
I couldn’t make out whole sentences from the now-seated biker, but the tone of his foghorn voice drips of relief as Matt continues, “We have people who are 18 years old. We have people who are 80 years old. All races. Men and women, it doesn’t matter. What we all have in common is that we all vape and we don’t want to smoke cigarettes anymore.”
Electronic cigarettes are a bit of a misnomer. The first iteration of electronic cigarettes, Berger explains, tried to look like cigarettes. This meant that they had low battery life, tasted awful, and didn’t have the modability of modern vapor inhalers. Now, the patrons of Butt Out wield a host of different inhaler styles. The most common setup, however, is Matt’s pre-packaged custom battery-brick starter-kit.
Out of curiosity, I ask to try one of the e-liquid flavors produced at a local lab. As a recent ex-smoker, I was shocked at how the flavor tasted. I immediately hit Google, checking to see what could be wrong with electronic cigarettes. Some cursory research on electronic cigarettes also lead me some controversy surrounding electronic cigarettes. I comment on how the vapor tastes, and he explains why it isn’t just air. “The e-liquid is flavoring, nicotine [for ex-smokers], vegetable glycerine, and propylene glycol.” Most negative reactions to electronic cigarettes as replacement therapy revolve around the final ingredient.
As I puff on the fruity liquid, Matt weighs in. “Vaping has only been around for 5 or six years,” he explains, “The testing that has been done has shown that this is significantly safer. For the most part, we’re working with people that smoke a pack a day. I’m all about getting people off of tobacco. It’s all about tobacco harm reduction, nicotine replacement therapy, or whatever you want to call it.”
I can’t say whether propylene glycol is totally safe, but the surprising number of walk-ins to Matt’s shop during my time there is evidence enough of how great of an effect replacement therapy is having for the Phoenix locals. The conversation turns toward how Butt Out earned its customer-base, “We’re in a hard-to-find spot. We’re also almost exclusively word-of-mouth. It’s nice because people mostly come in because they were referred by a friend or by reading our Yelp reviews. I don’t know what people have in their minds as far as expectations, but I try to make sure that people get everything explained to them and leave with something they want.”
Facebook has also had a big impact on Berger’s business. “I have a very, very popular Facebook page. I do a small sponsored ad that I pay Facebook for which is targeted to specific ages and demographics in the Phoenix area, but that’s it.” I ask him about how he keeps his audience on board, “You can pay for likes, whatever, but making my page interactive has really given it a bump. I get back to people within a day [on the Facebook]. And they know they’re talking directly to me.”
Electronic cigarettes are, for Matt and his customers, an alternative to paying $7 a day for a product confirmed to give them cancer. He structured his business around the social aspect of cigarettes that smokers often cite as their reason for keeping up the habit. Things are definitely on the up-and-up for Matt, as business is increasing every week and he’s poised to open up an online wholesaler for worldwide distribution.
If you want to contact Matt or learn more information about Butt Out then head over to the company’s Facebook page.
What do you think about electronic cigarettes? Start the discussion over in the comment section.
BIO: Alex Weiss is an ASU grad, Slate contributor, and a student of everything entrepreneurial. He is a contributor to Blogtrepreneur, managing editor of the gaming-centric blog, Hi My Game Is, and his Twitter account is @coolalexweiss.