By Alyssa Stahr
Photos by Carson Pasto
Natalie Higgins owns Valor Vapor in Tempe, Ariz. with her brother Keith and their childhood friend Carl. The unique shop and the people within have cultivated a vape family, and it all began with Higgins’ three-pack-a-day smoking habit.
Growing up in Virginia, she was considered a late bloomer because she reached double digits before she started smoking. When she was 27, her dad went into the hospital. Being the eldest child, Higgins took on the responsibility with decision making. She could not, however, be in the ICU and afford to go for long jaunts outside of the property to smoke. Higgins was under a lot of stress working 60 hours a week, going to school full-time and caring for her dad. She was living in Las Vegas at the time and working as a bartender. At that time you could still smoke on the job inside any bar, and it was commonplace. Her friend turned her on to an eGo setup, and it wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough.
“I was able to quit just using the most basic C4 with a little battery, and that’s what saved my life. After my dad passed, my brother and I decided to honor him by opening up a vape shop,” she said.
Higgins started working for Sin City Vapor in Las Vegas. She was with them from the time they were single swap meet booth until they grew into four stand alone brick and mortar locations. Her brother graduated business school, and he was ready to start a business.
“After essentially being second in command under my owner at Sin City, he mentored me
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and truly helped me to understand the finer points of the vaping business,” Higgins said. “He was the original shop in Las Vegas; he was very kind and loving and supportive in me transitioning out and opening my own venture.”
Higgins wanted to be closer to her mom and brother, so she decided to open up shop in the Phoenix market. At the time there were only about three shops in the area, and Valor Vapor’s first location opened in December of 2013, with the online shop opening about three months prior.
“Humbly” opening the shop with about $10,000, the Higgins’ and Carl displayed artwork on the walls created by local artists. Carl has an academic business background, making the “perfect” partner so there’s no family rivalry.
“We wanted to make sure we had a neutral voice to assist with all that. He has such an incredible eye and attention to detail. As far as looks go, he, my brother and I, all sat down and we decided that we wanted to go with something that’s going to be clean—black, white and lime green sounded like a great color scheme,” Higgins said.
Additionally, all of the furniture in Valor Vapor have been made from some of the customers and childhood friends. The bar inside store one was made entirely by Carl and his stepdad over Thanksgiving weekend. Higgins’ best friend also donated four paintings to the shop that were themed with Valor as a congratulatory gift.
“It was kind of a hodgepodge store one because we were working with almost a non-existent shoestring budget to open. So, we kind of built out that store a little bit differently,” Higgins said. “Store two, however, we wanted everything to look very crisp, very clean, very elegant, but also obviously things that have an edge that are unique and really fit in with the idea that we’re going for.”
The team decided to go with graffiti art on the walls, supporting one of their friends who had a few local installations. “These are all people that we’ve built relationships with, that is the one thing we do. I want to support these incredibly talented artists and show their work off,” Higgins said.
They also wanted something that worked with the pneumatic tube system.
“We have to send orders to the lab so there’s no cross contamination by opening the door. Working around a pneumatic system is a little bit cumbersome to say the least when you’re trying to paint,” Higgins said.
Valor Vapor prides itself on customizing every customer’s vape experience, particularly when it comes to e-liquid. Both locations have an ISO-ready clean lab onsite, and customers can customize any flavor with any PG/VG ratio or run the gamut with signature blends. Valor Vapor boasts more than 500 base flavors and concentrates from about eight or nine different companies. Any nicotine level between zero and 24 goes.
The company also is preparing to open an off-site lab that Higgins said will be the “crown gem of my business.” She comes from a scientific background in studying neuroscience with a minor in cellular biology and genetics.
“I understand clean labs, and I’m looking forward to having my own off-site clean lab to take care of all of the wholesalers. We’re hoping to have it ready by the end of the year. To build something from the ground up, we’re pushing for a location that is going to be huge and able to accommodate … at least the scale of production hopefully will be about 100,000 bottles a day,” she said.
Higgins said that in working in a vape shop from 2011 to 2013, she saw the beginning of a burgeoning market grow from a cigalike and eGo style niche market to mech mods. In her shop, however, she said she doesn’t go after the trends. She tailors things to fit the needs of her clientele, listening and asking questions about what they like.
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“I have no problem going on forums and figuring out what people like. You also have to have a good profit margin in order to employ 10 people and keep them fed and not having to go out and get a second job,” she said. “If you kind find an authentic that doesn’t have like a $40 profit margin and cost an arm and a leg and only really appeals to like .5 percent of the market, then go for it.”
She also goes through trusted wholesalers, in addition to being part of the National Association of Vaping Businesses, an advocacy and trade organization in the Phoenix area. She said that she has developed some of her closest friendships with members of the organization, and she asks them for opinions on hardware.
“Also I am exceptionally lucky to have employees who are fanatical about vaping, and they understand we can’t go ahead and buy something that’s going to cost us $200 at wholesale. I’m very upfront, and I talk to my employees,” she said. “I think with respect to hardware I only go through verified trusted distributors. In dealing with China directly it’s very hard as a female especially. I’ve decided after my first Skype call that I was no longer going to be doing face-to-face video calling. You always want to make sure you’re getting quality product.”
Valor Vapor employs a diverse staff, including veterans, people who identify their gender as non-binary or as trans, multiethnic individuals, people with physical handicaps and the elderly. It is their founding philosophy to give back to community in any way that they can, and that includes giving opportunities to those who may face more difficulties in getting employed.
“We have also worked with individuals who have had prior nonviolent felony convictions and have had trouble finding work. That isn’t to say that we aren’t extremely selective about who we hire, but we also believe that people from different walks of life enhance our enterprise, bringing a variety of perspectives and skills,” Higgins said.
Valor Vapor also has seen its share of customers, ranging from 18 to 108. Someone brought their great grandmother in because she was going into a long term care facility. She was unable to smoke on the property. Higgins sat down with her, went through every process, typed up instructions in big font and printed them out.
“It took her a long time to figure out a flavor that was just palatable enough to keep her off cigarettes. This woman has been smoking for legitimately like 75 years,” Higgins said. “It’s extremely psychologically difficult. This is a woman who lost her husband to lung cancer. She still keeps his snuff pouch and his pipe; it’s a very comforting thing.”
The woman ultimately decided on a pipe tobacco flavor that was very reminiscent to what her husband’s pipe smelled like, just one example of the bonds of family that Valor Vapor keeps with their customers.
“Not only do you always go that extra mile, because any store can do that, but you have to genuinely care about the people that you are taking care of. This is a very hard decision for people who have been smoking,” Higgins said. “Obviously the younger people who come into our shop who just want something in place of hookah all the way up to people who have been smoking the entirety of their lives are very obstinate about not going ahead and converting over to electronic cigarettes. And, I understand the psychological process that goes into that, having smoked three packs a day prior to vaping. It has to be a decision that people come to on their own. I’m just here to hold their hand and guide them along that journey.”
Valor Vapor not only is active with its customers, but is politically active at the Arizona State Capitol, going so far as to having the speaker of the house for the state of Arizona on speed dial. Higgins said that there are some “bad players” in every market across the United States who are “trying to collect a quick buck,” liquidate their business and move on. Higgins advises to check IDs and to use common sense.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research done in the United States, and there was a letter recently presented to President Obama that like 50 different organizations and pharmaceutical companies and pseudo medical professionals sent urging him to do everything he could to prevent the expansion of e-cigarettes and getting them into the hands of children,” she said. “There is a not a single person who I have come across who vapes who wants to see their child vaping. This is not something aimed at children. I would never encourage someone who does not vape to start vaping.”
Higgins also said that with regulations coming down the tubes, be active. She lets customers know what’s going on, and she is a member of SFATA. She urges people to learn how to properly conduct themselves when addressing any political members.
“You’ve got to be pragmatic and really have panache if you want to get anything done in politics, especially when there is so much money. We are job creators. This isn’t trickle down economics at work. It’s small business that I think employs 80 percent of the workforce,” she said. “You spread awareness among people who do not vape, especially in talking and truly listening to the concerns of a lot of these people instead of just writing them off as people who are trying to take away your rights.”
Valor Vapor also runs food drives, are supporting members of the local NPR station, donates to the AZ ASPCA and does clothing drives for the local hospital.
“Anyone can be in this business to make a quick buck but if you’re not supporting/helping lift up the community that has supported you, there’s literally a thousand other places people can go. People sense when you care about them, and that has been the key to our success,” Higgins said.
And, her last word of advice to shops? “A little bottle of juice goes a long way. That’s your highest profit margin item. Keep your customers happy; go the extra mile and do not let them leave upset about anything.”
For more information, visit http://valorvapor.com