Tobacconist Kurt Kendall Fires Up a Local Century-Old Brand
In the late 1800s, a tradesman named Roger “R.G.” Sullivan started a small cigar manufacturing operation in Manchester, N.H., with the help of a couple of workers. His modest operation soon became the world’s largest purveyor of 10-cent cigars, employing more than 1,500 people at its peak. Sullivan’s company eventually went up in smoke (thanks in part to Cuban trade embargos in the early 1960s), only to rise again in 2009 when an antiques collector gave a much-needed spark to the dormant label. This is the story of the resurrection of 7-20-4 cigars.
The Man Behind the Smoke
Kurt Kendall, proprietor of Twins Smoke Shop, has been a business owner in the cigar industry for over two decades and a serial entrepreneur for even longer. Growing up in a blue-collar family in Bloomfield, Connecticut, he and his twin brother, Kevin, started hustling at the age of 12, “… doing whatever we could to make a few bucks, whether it was cutting grass, paper routes, or shoveling driveways,” Kurt Kendall recalls. After working nearly full time through high school, the self-proclaimed “solid-D student with no direction” followed a friend to New Hampshire to sell gym memberships. Later, after years of odd jobs, he decided to go into business for himself. “In the mid-’80s I bought a dump truck and just went out and did anything I could to make a living,” Kendall says, “whether it was trash hauling, jobsite cleanups. I did that for 10 years as I grew that little company, and I bought a few small pieces of equipment. I actually chased a hurricane down to Charleston, South Carolina, and worked there for three years, too.”
After returning to New Hampshire, Kendall discovered the pleasure of unwinding with a cigar. “I remember my brother introducing me to my first premium cigar and enjoying them on the sidewalk of Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street [in Boston] back when you could smoke on the sidewalk,” he says. Cigars were growing in popularity as magazines like Cigar Aficionado, the industry’s leading national publication, featured celebrities on their covers ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to John Travolta. Kendall also saw the success of cigars at the local level. “My brother was offering cigars in a small case in his coastal restaurant [in Essex, Connecticut] for people to enjoy where they would bring them back to their boat,” Kendall says. “He was selling mad amounts of cigars. And the idea came to us: Would I have any interest in stopping what I was doing, move back to Connecticut, and open up a cigar shop?”
The answer was yes. Unfortunately, the first foray into the business stalled before it got going. Down but not defeated, Kendall resumed his normal life. “I was still doing my thing, but I couldn’t get [owning a cigar store] out of my mind. I was enjoying cigars while operating equipment, and it was so relaxing. It made the day fly by. I started incorporating cigars into my life on a more full-time basis.”
Kendall got a second chance at cigar shop ownership after chatting with a friend who owned a small building in Londonderry. He ended up leasing 450 square feet of retail space in that building just off Exit 5 of I-93 and “that’s how Twins Smoke Shop got started,” he says. “I sold pretty much everything I had to fulfill that dream. I started with very little. I built my own cigar cabinets and display cases, and I bought whatever cigars I could with what little money I had from selling an old ’68 Chevelle and some of my equipment [from an excavation business]. I borrowed some boxes of cigars from my brother, Kevin, and I got Twins Smoke Shop up and rolling in April of 1997.”
Through a “one brick at a time” mantra, Kendall grew the business steadily over the years, expanding its geographic footprint as well as its presence in the cigar industry. Today, Twins Smoke Shop has two locations: the main store and operations headquarters in Londonderry, and a second store in Hooksett.
A Second Chance
The name 7-20-4 was derived from Sullivan’s factory address: 724 Elm Street in Manchester (the brick building still bears his name). Kendall acquired the brand after learning about it through his love of all things vintage. “I’ve been an avid antique collector since I was a kid,” he says. “Kevin and I collected Coca-Cola machines and gas pumps, that kind of stuff. I started hanging it in my retail store. It was an outlet for me to do what I loved, sell cigars, and appreciate the memorabilia and advertising I collected.” During his collecting in New Hampshire, he came across vintage 7-20-4 cigar signs and, after conducting a bit of research, began to understand his predecessor’s impact on American history. “Roger Sullivan, I believe, was the largest taxpayer in the United States at one time,” Kendall says. “So I’m collecting all this memorabilia, I’m learning all this history, and I’m reading that Roger Sullivan was a true gentleman and a community leader. And I’m thinking, I really need to see if I can bring [his cigar brand] back to life, you know? It really deserves to come back.”
As Kendall traveled to factories in Honduras and Nicaragua, he started talking to cigar makers about what it would take to manufacture premium cigars and export them to the United States. Back home, he did the legal legwork to obtain the expired trademark. Kendall debuted the modern 7-20-4 cigar line in April 2009 with cigar maker Alec Bradley in Honduras at Fabrica de Tabacos Raices Cubanas S. de R.L.
“All the pieces came together and we started making cigars with no real plan,” Kendall recalls. “I had no plans to distribute it nationally. I was proud to have it back in manufacturing, and I had an outlet to sell it at my own shop. What happened was all my friends that I had met in business over the years, I had the opportunity to place [the cigars] in some of their stores, and people started asking about it. The first place we showcased the [new] 7-20-4 brand to New Hampshire and the world was at Laconia Motorcycle Week. … We sold our first production and I was rather amazed at the reception to the brand. It started growing with friends’ stores across the country, we started getting a little distribution, we started making more cigars, and it sort of grew over the years. It got to a point where, around 2015, we had opened accounts in over 800 stores across the country.”
Today, 7-20-4 cigars are rated favorably in Cigar Aficionado (the highest-ranked 7-20-4 cigar, a 2018 Lancero, is described as a “delicious cigar” packed with “big notes of coffee bean, toasted coconut, and malted milk ball”). There are plans to enhance Kendall’s distribution team once COVID-19 subsides, as well as build a warehouse at the Hooksett location for 7-20-4 and the distribution of other brands.
Above all, Kendall is looking forward to getting back on the road. “The people you meet in the cigar world are unlike anyone else,” he says. “I’ve been inspired by the relationships I’ve built. I’ve had the opportunity to become close friends with the top manufacturers in the world.” Beyond that, Kendall adds, “We built this brand with the best quality we can put together in a cigar. We keep the history of the brand intact for Manchester, New Hampshire.”
Twins Smoke Shop & 7-20-4 Lounge
Londonderry and Hooksett, N.H.