Russ Ouellette finds a home : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Russ Ouellette finds a home

A lifetime journey lands a blender just where he belongs

by William C. Nelson

People who don’t know tend to think of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as a post-industrial Rust Belt center of closed factories and limited opportunities. In fact, this city of 75,000 (and briskly growing) is today rediscovering its creative energy, and it shows in the artistic expressions and revitalization gracing the city streets. The imposing riverside industrial plant where once Bethlehem Steel helped forge a nation now encompasses a 10-acre community center called SteelStacks where concerts and festivals are hosted, and it also contains a Sands Casino Resort—far and away preferable to a moldering waste. Bethlehem is low in crime, and great beauty can be found in its leafy residential districts and its vibrant downtown, where citizens take pride in community. Bethlehem is actually very much an appealing snapshot of small-town America, once you are just a few blocks removed from the industrial zone.

An unmistakable factor in the life of the city remains from the old days when steel was king: Even now, Bethlehem people tend to think big. The Lehigh Valley is still a strongly commercial region. Transportation is potent, with roads and railways crisscrossing the landscape, connecting businesses almost seamlessly. Even in a Rust Belt era, corporate life defines Bethlehem as a hub of activity.

russ2Famed tobacco blender Russ Ouellette didn’t see it coming before it happened, but his own destiny would intertwine with Bethlehem, and with one of the city’s thriving enterprises, Cigars International (CI). For Ouellette—58 years old, separated, having raised four daughters in Albany, New York—the move was nothing short of transformative, and even a little bit scary. Ouellette’s roots were thrust deeply in the Albany area. He attended high school at Cohoes High in Cohoes, New York, just 10 miles north of Albany proper. He then obtained a communications degree from Hudson Valley Community College and always made his living in the local Albany economy. Ouellette had never lived anywhere else, so he did not take lightly the idea of a move to Bethlehem, or of employment with a much larger corporation than he had ever experienced, in a 125,000-square- foot edifice. But nearly three years ago when opportunity came knocking, he did not flinch, and in the time since his move, Ouellette has never for one moment regretted or looked back.

Nothing in Ouellette’s remote past suggested a future of tobacco-blending stardom. It mostly unfolded little-by- little, as life tends to do. Ouellette is fortunate to have wound up, after a long journey, exactly where he should be. Pipes and tobaccos had a chance to spend a mid-October day with Ouellette at his workplace, and he shared his story—not every minute of it happy, but all of it finding its way toward happiness.

After a look around the giant Meier & Dutch warehouse, and after introductions were made with Ouellette’s departmental co-workers—lead merchant Eric Vernon and merchants Kevin Getten and Dan Chlebove (the latter a pipemaker of growing fame)— we went looking for a quiet room to conduct a proper interview. The CI facility is a beehive; it seemed there were planning meetings already going on everywhere we checked. Finally, we commandeered the office of chief operating officer Willie Murphy, who at the time was out. Our talk began with an exploration of Ouellette’s earliest days working with tobacco. He recalls, “While I was in college I got a part-time job at a smoke shop called the Pipe Den, a chain of stores in the New England region. I was still in college when I took the job of assistant manager of two of those stores. While I was there I developed my first blends.” This was in 1978, which really marked the beginning of a downturn in pipe smoking. “Every year,” Ouellette says, “our numbers got a bit softer. They couldn’t afford to give much of a cost- of-living increase, and they were cutting hours on employees. So after four years I knew I had to move on.” Ouellette next took a position as a “jobber,” a person representing a number of different companies for sales to local distributors and retail stores. His territory included upstate New York and parts of western New England, where he sold cigars, pipes and tobaccos. “Luckily, I was able to set up my routes so that in any given week I was only away from home a day or two,” he says. “But that gig only lasted about a year, which brings us up to around 1983. Then I moved into larger-ticket retail business—cars for a while, then pianos and organs, which I stuck with through the 1990s.”

To help make ends meet, Ouellette was even a church organist for about 10 years while all this was going on. A lot of people don’t know that Ouellette is a musician. He started piano lessons at age 7 and kept them up for seven years. Then at age 14 he picked up the organ and took several years of lessons on that instrument. One could look upon this artistic quality as an early sign of creative energies that would someday need to find release.

Russ Ouellette

Russ Ouellette

Ouellette found his next chance to get creative with tobaccos working for Scott Bendett at the Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe in Albany. “I stopped by for a few supplies one day around 1998,” Ouellette remembers, “and Scott said to me, ‘So you worked at the Pipe Den that was right here in this mall.’ I said yeah. And he asked me, ‘Do you know of a tobacco called Milk and Honey?’ I said sure, I made tons of it when I worked for them. He asked, ‘Would you mind telling me how to make it? I keep having people come in here asking for it. They think this is the same store, and they keep requesting this tobacco. I could make a nice number of sales if I had that recipe.’”

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Category: Feature Article, Winter 2016

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