This Is Kevin Brennan The original mind of a creative tour de force.
BY JEREMY NULIK PHOTOS BY ATTILIO D’AGOSTINO
Long after we come to a stop, the red, once-fuzzy dice sway on the rearview mirror of Kevin Brennan’s ‘79 Dodge Ramcharger. The halt coincides with an email alert on Brennan’s phone. He digs in his pocket to find a message about a Cuban immigrant living in Miami who Brennan is considering as a host for a series of cigar-rolling pop-up events. He holds up the phone to Carlos Zamora, who created the branding for Brennan’s new cigar line, in the passenger seat. Zamora, a native Cuban, sips on a chalice of Stella Artois and glances at the phone after Brennan attempts to read her name. “Niurka,” says Zamora, emphasizing the pronunciation in his native accent and interrupting Brennan—who had it wrong on the first syllable and then again on softly rolling the “r.” I’m in the seat-belt-free bench behind the two captain’s chairs, and as we lurch forward, the bench rocks backward, attempting (unsuccessfully) to lock into place. We are commuting from the Central West End to Randall’s Wine & Spirits to view the culmination of four years’ work by Brennan, Zamora and a host of others. The effort has included international business connections, countless design revisions and the applied wisdom of years of hard-earned retail
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experience. If risking our lives in this maniacal vehicle to view an end cap display of cigars seems anticlimactic, it helps to know the backstory. Approximately 13 years prior to this car ride, Brennan’s opened as a bar and retail space near the corner of Euclid and Maryland. To characterize it as such, though, is akin to saying there was once a little coffee shop that opened in Seattle. Brennan’s featured an upscale-ish, laid-back environment with hidden surprises that gave patrons the opportunity to make unexpected discoveries, such as the basement speakeasy behind an unmarked door. It was the kind of place you would show off to your friends from out of town—an enigma that had to be experienced in order to fully appreciate its artistry and clever twists. “People found us a bit confusing at first,” says Brennan. “They didn’t know if we were a store or a bar. There were no TVs or other St. Louis bar paraphernalia. You could just hang out here and have some wine or beer and talk. More and more people started coming, so we kept adding other levels and different things.” Most retail store owners with a growing business would take it as a sign to stick with what is working. That is Business 101: Find the one thing you are do-
ing well and keep doing it. But Brennan doesn’t subscribe to this sort of conventional wisdom. “We realized we could do some interesting things that were needed in the Central West End,” says Brennan. “We started to change the way we looked at spaces we had and what meaning they could have for the neighborhood.” Brennan’s ability to view his space from unconventional perspectives and his openness to experimentation allowed him to have a different take on the trends he saw developing in the industry—a flexibility that required a creative mind and a high tolerance for entrepreneurial risk. The end result was a host of new opportunities both within and outside the business’ walls. Prior to opening a location, Brennan created Durango Cigars, a pipe tobacco company whose products he sold in his retail space. A solid following had developed for the distinctly sweet cigar he created, which features a small amount of pipe tobacco rolled with long filler cigar leaf. Unlike the savory spice of traditional cigars, Durango’s recipe contained hints of vanilla and fruit so distinct Brennan created the tagline “This Is Not A Cigar,” inspired by Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s influential painting, “The Treachery of Images,” which bears the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe) under an image of a pipe.
6/15/16 6:04 PM
Published on Jul 5, 2016