Besim Cukaj is an East End entrepreneur who is widely regarded as a local business leader in Southampton. Beginning his business venture in 1998, Cukaj launched his namesake cigar lounge and quickly cemented himself as the Hamptons’ supplier of stogies.
Born on the East End to an immigrant family from Albania, Cukaj’s father was a chef and his mother was a housekeeper. He recalls their struggle to make ends meet in the seasonal business atmosphere with business booming for four months and slow during the rest of the year.
“Like everyone else out here at that time, my parents had to find a way to make a year’s worth of money in only a few months,” Cukaj says. “While my parents have since retired, they were in tough businesses. The restaurant industry, out here, only lasts four months, and they had to figure out how to support a family year-round on a seasonal salary.
“This, in some ways, inspired me to go into business,” he continues. “I always saw that self-employed people had a better go at it. While I knew it was risky, I was able to take over a business that was already established; it just was not being managed correctly. I was able to walk through the door, make the investment and jump from one rock to the other, meaning getting out of working for someone and beginning to work for myself.”
Whether you enjoy an occasional cigar while on vacation or are a local resident looking to lounge, Cukaj’s name has become synonymous with the practice. His shop, located in Southampton Village, is unassuming but attracts a robust clientele.
Visitors and local residents alike station themselves in his indoor-and-outdoor lounge, parking themselves in the warmer months on the patio to enjoy flavor notes and ambiance.
Among the only established cigar lounges on the South Fork, Cukaj’s emporium met demand for enjoyment and relaxation, which has been going strong now for nearly 25 years, thanks, in part, to the efforts of Juliana, Cukaj’s wife, who is an integral part of the business.
“The one thing I love about this business is that the clientele includes everyone from the janitor to Jimmy Fallon,” he says. “It’s a great range of clients, which makes the business such an enjoyment. Cigar smoking takes all of the facets of life and puts them in one environment, where people can enjoy conversation and a smoke.”
While he was raised locally, he attended college at Bryant University in Rhode Island, where he secured a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Upon his graduation, he was troubled with the dilemma of finding a way to stay on the East End and make a living.
“When I came back from college, I didn’t want to move into the city,” he says. “The Hamptons were beautiful then, and they are beautiful now. I tried to find a way to stay here, which is when I started working for a chain of local tobacco stores.
After their store in Southampton went out of business, I took over the Southampton shop, which was a great path into it. My inspiration was then, and still is, to be an entrepreneur here in the Hamptons.”
Through his involvement in local affairs, many know Cukaj as a vocal advocate for the Southampton business community. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Southampton Chamber of Commerce. He was also appointed to the Southampton Village Revitalization Committee.
Unlike many of the nation’s local economies, the Hamptons thrived during the pandemic, as people sought safe spaces to socialize and outdoor refuge. While gatherings largely stopped during the pandemic, Cukaj says that 2020 and 2021 were among his best years in business, as the business was bolstered by curbside pickups and enthusiasm around cigar smoking.
“People were in need of enjoyment, and many found that enjoyment through a cigar,” Cukaj says. “While people were working from home, they found a way to end the day with a good cigar instead of sitting in traffic on the commute home from the city. There was lesser gathering, but the pandemic really gave people the opportunity to consume their time with a good cigar.”
Cukaj’s cigar emporium has developed a very loyal local following throughout all months of the year. Through offering a premier product, including brand-name cigars like Padron, Davidoff and Cohiba, he continues to attract patrons who are looking for the best. His lounge operates year-round.
In 2014, Cukaj, again inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit, launched a transportation company. Hamptons Transportation Group immediately took off. Whether it was bringing people to and from Manhattan or delivering visitors from the airport to their Hamptons abode, Hamptons Transportation Group quickly established a reputation for “getting people where they need to go,” he says.
Cukaj recalls instances throughout his eight years in business where he brought Hamptonites to and from places like San Diego and Florida. Driving all along the way on these long trips, some “snowbirds,” Cukaj says, chose his mode of transportation over the hustle and bustle of air travel.
“It’s a mix out here,” he says. “While we deliver people to the city or airports mostly, I’ve driven people all over the country. I’ve made it clear to my customers that no distance is too far.”
Throughout his life, Cukaj has traveled the world, noting his fondness of returning to his parents’ home country of Albania. While living on Long Island is certainly different than calling Albania “home,” Cukaj adds that there is a larger-than-expected group of Albanian families that are year-round residents here on the East End.
“There are about 30 or 40 families that live out here,” Cukaj says. “Albania is a small country, with about 2 million-plus residents. It’s different than being Irish or Italian, with different last names, which was a challenge being accepted growing up.”
The East End, though, has embraced him, his family and his business, in the lifetime that he has spent making friends and associates here. He says it is a goal of his to give his family, especially his college-aged daughter, the ability to meet and develop relationships with family members that may live half a globe away in his parents’ nation of origin.
“This is also one of the many reasons why my family and I have traveled back,” Cukaj says. “When growing up, I didn’t have this opportunity because my parents couldn’t afford it. I wanted my daughter to meet her family members in Albania.”
For more info on Cukaj and his business, visit hamptonstobacconist.com.
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.