Window on the world

| March 7, 2017

Proud of its liquids and customized service, the Avant Garde vape bar in London attracts customers from around the globe.

By George Gay

You cannot miss the Avant Garde E-Liquid vape bar. It’s bright red, inside and outside, and it sits alongside the mostly more conservatively appointed premises that make up Wells Street, which is off Oxford Street in an upmarket area of London known as Fitzrovia. I don’t mean to imply that the bar is garish. It’s bright, as befits a business that is catering to an activity that is still newish and, certainly, still evolving and expanding rapidly after vapor’s recent big bang.

You can check out what I mean by taking a Google gander down Wells Street, and, if you do, another of the premises you will notice is a fine-looking, traditional English pub called The Champion. One thing that strikes you about The Champion is that it is, with no pun intended, more soberly appointed than is the vape bar, and it is interesting to consider briefly some of the other differences, along with the similarities, that divide and link these two businesses, which both exist to satisfy the same basic human need.

They are both places where people go to relax, to meet friends and perhaps enjoy for a short time the company of strangers. And both, at times, will be loud with chatter, as, in the case of the vape bar, I can attest, having conducted an interview there. The major difference, I think, will be the conversations. Down at The Champion, the talk will largely be about work, friends, family, football and, given the history of the pub, perhaps boxing. Little of the conversation will be about what is being consumed or how it is being consumed. Even an 18-year-old entering a pub for the first time has probably already settled on beer, wine or spirits as her poison of choice, and she certainly knows how to handle a glass.

A bespoke bar

Up at Avant Garde, however, while social chatter will still be heard, much of the talk will center on what is being consumed and how it is being consumed. Some of the reasons for this are clear. As mentioned above, vaping is still a rapidly evolving activity and, despite the seemingly trendy red decor, Avant Garde attracts a wide range of people, including those who have never vaped but who are keen to learn about an activity that might help them give up their lifelong smoking habits.

Oh, and I should have mentioned: Avant Garde is not just a vape bar, of which there are now a lot in London. It is what the owners believe is still the only bespoke vape bar in England. Here, vapers can ask the bar staff, friends or strangers sitting alongside them at the bar for their advice on e-liquid flavor combinations. And, while sitting at the bar, they can have these combinations made up in the proportions of their choice, and try them.

But, having sat for a little while in the bar, I can say with confidence that conversations about flavor proportions comprise small talk. The more intense conversations are about vapor devices and mods, of which there is a profusion along one wall of the bar, and about which there is always advice on hand from bar staff and fellow travelers on the vaping trail. And lastly there are those loud, intense voices talking about mod components: tanks, coils, cotton and batteries.

“They’re men,” Almas Tanvir-Khan, one of three founders of the business, said to me. “They’re always men,” she added, laughing and giving the manager of the bar, Imran Haque, a friendly dig. Haque had been explaining to me some of the finer points of handmade coils constructed from two different gauges of wire, one wound around the other in the manner of a guitar string. It was a little technical for me, but I could see where he was coming from. The way the wire was wound affected the resistance of the coils, which affected the heat applied to the e-liquid and, eventually, the quantity and quality of the vapor.

Overall, what Haque was saying was that if a nonvaping smoker walked through the door of the bar, he would be guided in the direction of a good, reliable mod and an appropriate liquid, probably a standard 60 percent PG (propylene glycol), 40 percent VG (vegetable glycerine) tobacco-flavored liquid that would most closely mimic the throat hit and taste that he was used to from his cigarettes. In time, and with proper guidance, the now ex-smoker might move on to the smoother 100 percent VG liquids delivered from a device that he might modify using quality components.

Down to business

But I’m afraid that I’ve got this story around the wrong way, perhaps because the red decor drew me into the bar. Although the bar is a great shop window, especially given its location in one of the tourist hot spots of London, it is most definitely not the business. Avant Garde is owned by EISI Limited, which manufactures e-liquids and whose main commercial activity is selling them—and only them—wholesale, though it has, too, an online retail business. It was started by Tanvir-Khan, her sister, Sadia Tanvir-Navaab—both of whom were previously lawyers working in the field of immigration—and her sister’s husband, Yousuf Navaab.

Navaab, a vaper unsatisfied with the e-liquids readily available at the time, which he characterized as comprising either cheap products from China or expensive ones from the U.S., decided to experiment with mixing his own liquids. These he tested on friends and family members—what else are such people for?—and eventually created the types of premium liquids that he had been seeking.

The new business started to offer these liquids online about three years ago, and having clearly identified an unfilled niche in the market, it took off to become what Tanvir-Khan described as a very profitable operation with an increasing turnover.

These days, the head office and manufacturing operation, complete with ISO 7 cleanroom, is based in northwest London. Under the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive, the cleanroom is not a requirement, but it was put in when it was thought that such a facility would be required and is now seen as a hedge against possible future regulatory changes and also as a valuable marketing tool.

Marketing: Now that is an interesting aspect of the business. Although the company has enjoyed a great deal of success, with its wholesale and online businesses both said to reach out to more than 100 countries, marketing is not necessarily its strong point. In fact, its advertising budget was described as peanuts. It has a small but expanding wholesale team at its head office, a website it operates through social media, and it has one vape bar, opened in November 2014. But its marketing happens largely through word of mouth. I was told that vapers turn up at the vape bar from the U.S. having been told about it by other vapers, and that a commercial customer from the Middle East had kindly introduced five other customers from the same region.

And therein lies a story, I guess. You don’t market your product successfully through word of mouth unless there is a good story to tell—some unique selling point (USP). And given that Avant Garde e-liquids sell for about £18 ($22.76) to £20 for a 30 mL bottle (very roughly a week’s supply) against an average of about £10 a bottle and prices that drift down toward £4 a bottle, the USP in question is not price. The USP, Tanvir-Khan and Haque told me a number of times, is the premium nature of the liquids, underpinned by the high-end quality of the ingredients that went into them and the strictly controlled manufacturing process.
Of course, in this day and age, the website is an important marketing arm, especially as it acts as a kind of vape bar for out-of-towners. In the quiet of your own home, you can choose the base PG/VG liquid you prefer, the nicotine level—if any—you like and the flavors you want in the proportions you want them mixed. And if you like, you can name the flavor, and that name will be on the bottle when it arrives at your door.

And it won’t just be any old bottle that turns up. Tanvir-Khan told me that because of the bottles the company uses, a lot of people enter the vape bar thinking it was a perfume shop. The bottles, which are designed by Tanvir-Navaab, are dark red and blue with, yes, a slightly sultry look. And, on a more practical level, they are discreetly labeled with information about the contents: vegan, halal, kosher, no alcohol, no diacetyl, no animal extracts.

Looking to the future, EISI wants to expand but mainly in relation to its wholesale business, which is Tanvir-Khan’s preserve. It wants to get its liquids into more vape outlets, but it has no intention of opening any more vape bars, which is not surprising given that, while the bar is a great shop window for the business, its profitability would presumably be low compared with the online or wholesale operations. And Tanvir-Khan has designs on getting into the market for those who, for one reason or another, need to watch their weight. A lot of the flavors on offer are sweet and can apparently satisfy cravings for sweet foods without delivering the calories.

The best-selling liquids are Heart of Heaven, which is 100 percent VG and part of the SuperHero range; Heavenly Vanilla Custard, which has a 60 percent PG/40 percent VG base and is within the Dessert range; and Red Ice, which is 100 percent VG and part of the Cloud Chaser range. Red Ice is raspberry and menthol, Heavenly Vanilla Custard is self-explanatory, and Heart of Heaven is … well, your guess is as good as mine. Heart of Heaven is apparently made up of 14 separate flavors and nobody, barring Navaab, the mixologist, has been able to figure out what they are, even though a competition has been run with a prize on offer.

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