Before Karen High, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, decided to work full time at the security company she co-owns with her husband, she was an insurance underwriter with more than 21 years of experience reviewing account data and analyzing risks. This certainly gave her a leg up when she decided to launch High End Cigars & Cafe. For years, opening a cigar lounge was a dream she had for her husband, but when he turned the idea down, again and again—Karen realized it was a dream she actually had for herself. With Karen as the founder and co-owner, her husband, Anthony, got on board too, and now the upscale specialty tobacco and tobacco accessories retailer and tasting room will celebrate its 3rd anniversary this January. We chatted with this busy Green Brook mom of 5 (and grandma of 6) on the importance of opening a female-owned cigar lounge, how working on the shop was a family affair and the restaurant in Colonia with a James Beard award-winning chef that makes her feel like she’s in The Big Easy.
Tell us a little about your family. My husband, Anthony High, and I live in Green Brook, have been married for ten years, and have five children together. I have a 28-year-old daughter, Zahniah, an 11-year-old son, Anthony Jr., and three bonus daughters, Bonita, 33, Brittany, 30, and Gianni, 21, as well as six beautiful grandchildren.
Tell us about your career background and how it has helped you run your business, High End Cigars. I began my career as an insurance underwriter and did that for over 21 years before leaving the field to work full time in our security company, Special Ops Security Services. Working as an underwriter helped me in both the security business and High End Cigars. One of my responsibilities was reviewing account data and analyzing risks to make tangible decisions. For High End Cigars, the same skills help me determine what brands and flavors to bring into the shop.
What made you decide to launch it? Had this always been the dream? Initially, opening the lounge was a dream that I had for my husband since the cigar world is such a male-dominated field. But, after he repeatedly turned me down for 4 years, I realized that subconsciously it was something I wanted to do. What gave me the idea was that we always enjoyed smoking cigars together, and we appreciated the experience of going to lounges to do it because it adds a whole other level of relaxation. I wanted other people to experience that same special feeling.
Has your family been supportive of you running your own business? Absolutely! Before we opened, we did a lot of work getting the shop ready—it was previously an old nail salon with floral wallpaper to prove it. Anthony Jr. really got involved by helping us scrape the paper off, sanding an old Singer sewing machine that’s part of our vintage decor, and sweeping up, but now that we’re open, because of the smoke, it’s not a place for a child. My husband and I often alternate days so that he can spend quality time with both of us, and on weekends, my mother-in-law is happy to babysit if needed.
Since you and your husband run this business together, how do you split up the work responsibilities? We run both of our businesses similarly and split up the duties based on our strengths. However, he’s the majority owner in the security business, and I’m the majority owner in our cigar lounge. He’s very much a people person, and for the most part, he handles everything that’s customer relations. My strengths lie in operations, so I handle everything else. It works well for us because we appreciate the strengths and accept the weaknesses of each other, which allows us to work together to accomplish our mutual, overall goal.
What sets your business apart from others? There are more than a few things. We are a woman-owned and operated tobacco retailer where people also come into smoke and enjoy our hot and cold beverages. We are a BYO too if they want liquor and will supply glasses and big square ice cubes. We have the highest quality of customer service, and the ambiance of our shop is exceptional and beautiful. Another wonderful thing about our business is that there’s always a lot of networking going on – strangers have become business partners. And, we have such an interesting mix of clients. You might be enjoying a cigar while sitting with a neurosurgeon, mayor, or policeman. But, aside from all of that, I think it’s our exhaust system that sets us apart. At many other lounges, you leave with the smell of cigars clinging to your clothes and your hair. At our lounge, it doesn’t happen because we invested in the absolute best filtration system. It’s so important to us that the smoke is pulled out and fresh air is pulled in. I want our women customers to feel just as comfortable as the men, and I don’t know any women who want their clothing and hair smelling like a cigar, even if they love smoking them.
What are the best and most challenging things about being a mompreneur? Owning my business gives me the freedom to be flexible with how I spend my time to be as involved as possible with my family. I can schedule things to chaperone a school event, show up at the Halloween parade in the middle of the day, and be there for my family as much as I need to. And for me, the most challenging thing has got to be letting go of tasks. It’s hard to let go of that control, but trying to take on everything is stressful and can be detrimental to the success of a business. When it comes to giving up the micromanaging, I’m still a work in progress. But I’ve found outsourcing some of the tasks I find tedious allows me to devote my time to other things. Recently, I’ve outsourced the bookkeeping to 1-800Accountant, and it’s been a game-changer.
How has the pandemic affected your business? What (if anything) have you done to pivot during this time? The pandemic has caused a few issues, but thankfully we’ve been able to make it work. We get the shop professionally sanitized regularly, and our unique ventilation system keeps the air as clean as possible. Since cigar production has decreased significantly, it caused a backlog of certain ones that we carry. Still, we can mitigate those circumstances by finding and supplying cigars with the same flavor profile and will continue to do so until our original picks are back in stock.
How do you unwind after a stressful day? Believe it or not, I’ll turn on some music, pour myself a glass of bourbon, and smoke a cigar. My favorite cigar is the Don Carlos – Arturo Fuente, my bourbon of choice is Blanton’s, and Neo Soul is my go-to music.
What are your favorite things to do or places to visit in NJ with your family?
We love going out for breakfast, especially when it’s at Estime’s Café in Colonia. The James Beard award-winning chef, Duke Estime, is incredible, and if you want to feel like you’re in New Orleans, you have to get my favorite menu item, the shrimp and grits. I was born in Alabama, not too far from The Big Easy, so I know great shrimp and grits when I taste it. Another thing we love to do as a family is to play golf. We’ve recently taken it up and discovered GolfCave in Green Brook. It’s simulated indoor golf where you play different golf courses in the area, and it’s also a great place to practice your swing.
What are some of your favorite local shops in NJ? Bovella’s Pastry Shoppe in Mountainside has the best cappuccino, and their pastries are excellent, too. And on Sundays at the shop, we order from Watchung’s Better Than Philly Cheesesteaks & Wings for football watching. It’s a crowd-pleaser. And Meraki Hair Studio and Day Spa in Middlesex is where I celebrated my 50th birthday with a group of friends. We enjoyed champagne and fruit while we had our nails done and got massages and steam services. It was such a great experience.
What advice do you have for a mompreneur just starting? It takes a lot of time and energy to be a mom, wife, and business owner. Know that it’s okay to fall short and ask for help when you need it. I don’t think that we, as women, do that enough.