by Brian Lamar, Assignment Editor
Cliff Williams left his home in Chicago to join the Navy and see the world in 1996. His first stop after completing Navy Boot Camp in the Great Lakes was to the Department of Defense Information School where he learned to be a professional communicator and join the Navy’s ranks as a professional communicator and photographer.
Throughout his time in the Navy, Williams saw the world through a camera lens as he captured the lives of the Sailors assigned all around him. In 2016, Williams decided to hang it up and settled on retirement on the sunny Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he decided to take a year off and explore life.
The purpose was simple. Williams was collecting his thoughts to find a new purpose.
During his sabbatical, Williams found a small house that had been converted into a cigar shop on Jeff Davis in the downtown hamlet of Pass Christian. He immediately fell at home and began spending his days there. Williams not only enjoyed the camaraderie of the patrons but the exploration of the vast world of cigars.
After some time being a regular and getting to intimately know the owners of the cigar shop, he was asked to fill in for them during a family emergency. Williams helped out for two weeks, which saved the owners from having to shut the shop down.
When the owners got back, they had realized what a great job Williams did in their absence and asked him to come on board part-time.
“At the time, I thought it was cool. I get to hang out with the cool kids and smoke cigars which I enjoy doing anyway. It was something I already loved and I was going to get paid for it,” Williams said.
After Williams had taken on more and more responsibility around the shop. The owner had been offered a full-time teaching job. She asked Williams to consider being a full-time employee. It wasn’t long after that, that the owner decided to part ways with the business and noticed William’s dedication and love for what had been created. The previous owner felt comfortable leaving the business in Williams’ care because of his passion for the store.
An offer was made and Williams gladly bought her out and became the sole proprietor in July of last year and can be seen sporting his shiny bald head and enough beard to make ZZ Top jealous billowing cigar smoke, laughing, shaking hands and chugging up to three pots of coffee a day. According to some, he has become an instant legend in the history and lore of the Pass.
Now a business owner, Williams had an uphill battle to face. He had just taken over a small business in the middle of a pandemic that didn’t seem to be loosening its grip on society anytime soon. Combo that with a nasty hurricane season that shook the community of the Mississippi Gulf Coast this year with Hurricane Zeta, Williams’ Navy experience took hold, and he went into operational planning mode.
“Recovering from the storm wasn’t too intense. At the time, I knew my biggest battle would be to find ways to safely get people back in the doors in the midst of COVID worries. I devised a plan. No more than 10 customers would be allowed inside. I could section off my customers in four areas; the bar, lounge, porch and front yard,” Williams explained.
“I watched and took notes and advice as businesses around the country struggled to stay afloat. Our plan was holding strong, which meant we weren’t hit as hard as other businesses because we were able to space out customers,” he said.
Now that Williams has had experience with operating in a COVID environment. He has slowly begun to re-introduce community-building events like monthly special catered dinners and other activities.
“One of the things about being a small-business owner, I am always trying to branch out and provide more for my customers. I am passionate about how to better my business, but also build a community of like-minded people who can get together and talk, laugh and enjoy something they truly love. For many people who come here, it isn’t about just smoking a cigar, it is about having a place to belong,” he said.
Williams’ attitude toward his business model rings true with his patrons as well.
“I have been to cigar shops all over the country and I have never met anybody. Here you meet people right away. You go to these other places and people look at you like you have two heads and you end up smoking by yourself. That doesn’t happen here. Everybody’s got a friend, said Keene Kelley, a long-time customer.
Although the importance of the brotherhood that has occurred under William’s leadership is enough to make anyone want to join in on the fun, the business end of the cigar is still a close second.
“Has become the coast’s expert in cigars, according to Ryan Labadens, a long-time customer, one of the most amazing aspects of Cliff’s shop is how he is somewhat of a sommelier of cigars. Cliff knows how to pair cigars to individual tastes. If you like a certain type of beer, Cliff knows what to pair it with so they will complement each other. If you walk in and give him a few hints like ‘I want a smooth flavor or I want a punch in the mouth’, Cliff knows just want to grab out of the huge selection he has in the walk-in humidor”.