by Willard Rhodes & Joe Friday
In Ellicott City, MD, a tiny vapor lounge called VapeDojo is setting the high bar for e-cig and vape supply stores everywhere.
If you just said to yourself, “Where in the heck is Ellicott City?” you’re not alone. Unless you live in the Baltimore area, you’ve probably never heard of it. But if you’re within any kind of reasonable driving distance of VapeDojo, and you enjoying vaping, get out your GPS and plan a trip. You won’t be disappointed.
A few years back, Bryan and Rachel Walker, owners of VapeDojo – and now newlyweds – decided to do something that seemed completely insane. Having made the switch from tobacco to e-cigs, first with disgusting mass-market gizmos and then into mods and better juices, they decided to start an online store to sell e-juice and vaping supplies. In a crappy economy. With like no money, and only a dim idea of how to market. Yeah, that sounds like a plan.
Bryan Walker (above)
Bryan had a software background, some business experience, and that starry-eyed enthusiasm that takes so many newbies into the world of commerce – a world that crushes the dreams of most entrepreneurs in less than three years. Armed with nothing more than an idea and some decent supplier connections, they launched vapedojo.com in late Spring of 2012. To market on a shoestring, they jumped on some social media methods like Facebook and Twitter, and did whatever else they could to get the word out.
Funny thing is, it worked. Sales started coming in almost immediately, and have been on a steady climb ever since.
Bryan began looking for physical space in October 2012, and the VapeDojo lounge opened in its current location on Black Friday of the same year. We heard about it recently and decided to scope it out. It’s not easy for two large human-type mammals to be “incognito,” but we did our best. Friday took the wheel of the vape-mobile and we tooled through historic Ellicott City in search of the lounge.
VapeDojo is located in a new red brick building at the corner of Frederick Road and St. John’s Lane, on the west side of EC. The whole lounge is not a lot wider than the double-doors at the entrance. Inside, we found a seating area, shelves of vaping supplies, and the enthusiastic team Bryan has gathered to man the place. On that first visit, one entire display wall was empty, which we found out was because they had sold out of everything on it. Again. This, they said, was where their starter kits normally hung, and the sell-out has been happening every week.
On the front counter is a sort of “lazy-susan” contraption containing sample cartomizers of every flavor they carry, along with a basket of disposable drip tips. We were invited to try anything we liked, so out came our mods and we started sampling.
At this point, I need to tell you that when it comes to e-juice flavors, Friday and I are jaded. We routinely test e-juices from all over the world, and are picky as hell about what we like. We were prepared to politely try some flavors, fake some smiles, ask a few more questions, shake hands, and move on. In, out, done. right?
Yeah. No. We were there for like two hours. I finally had to drag Friday out so he could beat rush hour back to his place near D.C. In our opinion, VapeDojo’s juices rank with some of the finest we’ve ever vaped.
Small surprise, then, that while we were in the lounge, there was a steady stream of customers through the doors. It didn’t take much to crowd the place, but nobody seemed to mind. There were people of all ages, from college kids to big, rough, construction workers, to what looked like soccer moms, all stocking up on juices and supplies.
Two weeks later, we were back, this time to sit down with Bryan, get some facts, and take a few pix. Rachel joined us after she got someone else to man the register, and together they answered our questions, providing us the background info for this story.
I asked Bryan about his sales growth since they opened. After we’d sworn a blood oath not to reveal the numbers here, he told us. Wow. Friday and I had to pick our eyebrows off the ceiling. Clearly, the “crazy” move to go into the e-cig business was anything but. “I never made money like this in I.T.,” Bryan said, “And I was being paid pretty well.
As for the juice, it turns out they used to buy from an outside source in the U.S., but Bryan revealed that they’d recently made that source an offer, resulting in acquiring both the supply and the juice blender himself. So now they have an online store, a brick-and-mortar store, and a professional juice-making facility. The plan, he said, is to keep the quality consistent – and uniquely their own.
So we asked: is that the secret to their success. Great juices? Lower prices?
“That, sure, but really it’s customer service,” Rachel said immediately. “We decided from Day One that we would do anything it took to satisfy every customer and take care of any complaint.”
“We will not let anyone walk out of here without a complete demo of the equipment they’ve bought from us,” added Bryan. “We put their gear together, we show them how to fill it, and we have them vaping before they go.”
We were sitting around a tiny kitchen table in a corner of the lounge. “I’ll sit down with them right here and show them everything,” said Rachel, pointing down at the table. “The e-cig, the charger, all of it. I treat them like I’d want to be treated if I was going to buy vape stuff.” She also said they often spend hours of the day on the phone, helping newbies get started with items they’ve purchased from the website.
According to them, VapeDojo’s best seller is their “Katana Kit,” which contains a 650 EGO battery, a CE4 cartomizer, and a quick charger with a USB connection, at $12.99. Bryan pointed to the wall full of kits, the same wall which had been empty when we visited for the first time. “That will all be gone in a few days. We’re moving about 2,000 kits per month, so about 50-75 a day, give or take, split about evenly between in-store sales and online.” [see footnote]
Bryan and Rachel led us into the back room, where we found their team of young vape-enthusiasts packing orders and manning computers. A huge set of shelves held their stock of juice, which they carefully mix into the wide range of flavors andnicotine strengths we saw posted on a board in the lounge area like a menu at a restaurant. I don’t ordinarily like fruit flavors, but fell hard for their Black Menthol, a mix of blackberry and menthol, as well as their Berries & Cream. Friday tried a bunch of them, and I don’t think he was able to decide on a favorite – no surprise, considering how many they have.
(above: one of several shelves full of juice in the back room)
Here’s something that really made up my mind about their juice flavors. My Life Partner is not a vaper, and has often expressed negative opinions about flavors I’ve vaped around her in the past. But when I vaped juices from VapeDojo in the house, she commented right away that they were different – much better smelling and actually pleasant. When we returned to the store get the information for this story, I told Bryan and Rachel about this, and they said they’ve heard the same from others – that they could vape now around people who had complained in the past, because the vapor itself smelled better.
Coming Soon: Bryan shared with us that they’re about to open a second location in Harrisonburg, VA, adjacent to the campus of James Madison University. Doubtless, once they do, it will be as crowded and well-visited as their Ellicott City store.
We highly recommend a visit, if you’re in the Midatlantic region – especially around Baltimore and Washington D.C. (it’s a straight shot North up Rt. 29). If you live somewhere far away, like East Kneecap, Alaska, maybe you can’t get the full experience of a visit, but you can still order online from VapeDojo – as apparently about a zillion other people are doing.
———– UPDATE ———–
Since we released this story, Bryan replaced the Katana Kit with the iSmoka iKit, containing an automatic battery, 1.6 ml tank, and replaceable coil. The cartomizer unit is capped with a soft tip, and the kit comes with a screw-in charger that has a standard USB connector at the other end. The iSmoke iKit retails at VapeDojo for $14.99. See our review of the iSmoka iKit, here on the blogsite.
– Willard Rhodes & Joe Friday