Words and photos by Erin Hedrick
“Addictions are not a fad.” “I am not afraid of any government regulation at all—I welcome it.”
Kurt Huels knew he wanted to own his own business, and in 2008, a spark was ignited that later would fuel his drive to open The Vapor Store, located in Lake St. Louis, Mo.
Huels comes from a large family; he is the youngest of nine. “My whole family smoked … I think there’s over 30 people at family functions that would be outside smoking, year after year,” he said. “I smoked for 16 years.”
In 2008, his father suffered from eight strokes (primarily brought on by smoking), and since then, the entire family, Huels said, has been trying to quit smoking.
“It kind of exposed itself,” he said, when asked how he got into vaping. “From there, I picked up my first e-cig, and everybody was wondering what it was. I’d get one for my mom, for my sister, and became the go-to guy for it.” And thus, was the idea for The Vapor Store was born. “My family really is my inspiration. I use them for different products that come out on the market. If it can get past my mom, then it’s probably a good device!”
A lot of shops have catchy or gimmicky names, but The Vapor Store does not; it’s simply The Vapor Store. “I worked for a company called The Mortgage Store, and the idea behind that was that it was a household name,” Huels said. “You said our name before you even knew who we were, and I think The Vapor Store has that inclination.” And there is definitely some truth to that. How many times have we either said or heard, “Hey, you should check out the vapor store around the corner?” It’s like free advertising (which, coincidentally enough, The Vapor Store does not make use of; their name is primarily spread through the mouths of their loyal customers). “No one forgets the name,” Huels said.
The shop, which opened on June 10, 2014, is 800 square feet and holds a juice bar, an incredibly comfortable couch, four glass display cases, a newly renovated ceiling and two ADA-grade cork dartboards (but I’ll come back to those). The store is conveniently located right off of one of the state’s main highways, and is the only brick and mortar vape shop in the area. The Vapor Store is staffed with six employees, not including the owner, who serve a customer base of more than 1,700 individuals.
“We know ‘em by name, and we track their purchases. We track their nicotine levels and guide them, in a way,” Huels said. “They can count on us.”
The juice bar in the shop is intentionally aimed away from the merchandise, so that there’s no pressure for the people coming through to purchase. Huels wanted to maintain a homey, friendly atmosphere that just so happened to also bring in money. But “only when you wanted it, and only when you were ready,” he said.
Huels’ deep connection to the area shows. “I was born and raised in O’Fallon. My dad built one of the first homes in Lake St. Louis in the early ‘70s. We live in Lake St. Louis, we grew up in Lake St. Louis, our family and friends are in Lake St. Louis, and we’ve always wanted to be here. This was an opportunity to give back at the same time and have that level of commitment to the city,” he said.
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Huels’ mother is the one who actually found the shop’s location: a strip mall that has only ever been owned once—by the building’s original owners.
“The tenants are all 30-year tenants. Once you establish here, it’s not going to change every two years, and we went in with that idea. And let’s support small business!” Huels said.
Lake St. Louis is known for its strict regulations, but Huels argues that it is to protect, not deter. “People asked us, ‘Why would you want to open in Lake St. Louis? That’s one of the hardest areas to open a business,’ and that’s for a good reason.”
He feels secure in his position in the city, and certain that he won’t be seeing any competition nearby. “There were three other vapor companies that wanted to open in this city, and we were the only one to get approval because we were willing to work with them [the city].”
“We don’t just jump onto the hottest thing, which I think a lot of people appreciate,” Huels said. “Everything we have, we use, and we continue to use.”
Very rarely do patrons of The Vapor Store visit other shops. Huels and his team have worked hard to build a shop and lounge that promotes customer loyalty. They give back to their customers by means of a points system—every dollar spent in the shop earns points; once you earn enough points, you can trade them in toward the purchase of new vape gear.
The shop is home to 47 flavors and two companies: VapeWell (both their original and premium lines) and, as of last month, Villainous Vapor Co.
“We don’t have a contract with them, just a handshake, but I’m honest with them,” Huels said. “I do honest business with them. We didn’t want to be the ones to put out new juice every week, because we don’t know what goes in it; we don’t know the quality of it.”
In the 18 months that the shop has been open, VVC is the only other e-liquid line that has touched the shelves of The Vapor Store. Huels also has worked closely with VapeWell to create a line of e-liquid unique to The Vapor Store and named after the shop, which has seen tremendous feedback. In fact, Huels has gotten calls and emails about their Lakewater e-liquid flavor (named after a delicious drink found down in the Lake of the Ozarks) from people across the country.
As I mentioned before, The Vapor Store houses two league ready dartboards, which were given to the shop by members of the American Darters Association.
“They approached us,” Huels said. “The Katee Hessler Foundation came in for donations one day, and of course, we [contributed]. And, as a result, we wound up running into the head of the ADA. He wanted to host a dart league here. They run it and everything. Each game costs $.50.”
The league operates every Wednesday; however, the boards are open to the store’s customers during its hours of operation (10 a.m.-8 pm. during the week, and noon-5 p.m. on Sundays).
“A lot of bars and places have anti-vaping rules, and here they can still enjoy that,” Huels said. “As a result, ADA members come through here, and sometimes they pick up a vape. There’s been 20, 30, 40 people who’ve quit smoking with no push from advertising—just by coming in for the dart league.”
Huels and The Vapor Store also support local artists by hanging their work (or sitting on it, as the couch in the shop was crafted by one such artist) for both display and sale. “It changes pretty frequently, since the artwork sells so fast,” Huels said. The profits go back to the piece’s creator.
All in all, The Vapor Store is a small, heart-felt shop that has all the tools it needs to grow into something even more awesome than it already is. “Addiction is not a fad,” Huels said. “And we don’t plan on going anywhere.”