By Michelle Cassell
The Oasis Cigar Lounge vacated its South Green Shopping Center premises last Monday. In an exclusive interview by TLR on Friday with Natalie Baucum, PhD, media representative for Oasis Cigar Lounge, she said, “Let me put it this way: the Oasis has been bullied. They have been bullied because the owner of Coronato decided to sue not only them but also the management company.”
The cigar lounge has been the accused source of the demise of its neighboring business, Coronato, which has announced it will go out of business permanently on Oct. 15 due to the infiltration of cigar smoke from Oasis into its restaurant. Coronato is suing Oasis and Woodhill Associates, the property management company, for damages.
“The real reason why we are leaving is because we are a predominantly Black-owned business and we haven’t been treated well by our neighbors. The property management has been fine, but some of our neighbors have not been kind to us, in particular, Coronato,” said Baucum. She could not comment on whether the Oasis was breaking their lease or where they might be moving. Baucum said, “the damage has been done and they won’t stay where they are not wanted.”
Coronato owner Chef Teddy Diggs told TLR, “We didn’t see the Oasis move coming. We had already made our announcement to close and while it will help us to operate without fresh smoke coming in for the final two weeks, there is still the problem of thirdhand smoke which is cigar toxins that continue to be expelled and would need to be addressed.” Diggs said his business has suffered to the point of no going back.
“Unfortunately, even though they are relocating, the degree of thirdhand smoke infiltration into the HVAC unit and interior walls of both locations will require major smoke renovation work. It comes too late for us,” said Diggs. Thirdhand smoke is a real issue, according to an analysis in the National Library of Medicine.
The building at 101 Two Hills Road consists of 8 separate units or business spaces. Each unit has a separate HVAC but the building still has shared airspace. A report by High Performance Building Solutions, Inc explains how the air and cigar smoke moves between the spaces. The report came to the conclusion that smoke-laden air from the Oasis Cigar Bar “does indeed enter into the Coronato Restaurant.”
Cigar tobacco has similar chemicals to cigarette tobacco but in different proportions. Cigars have more nitrogen compounds, ammonia, and tar than cigarettes. These compounds produce cancer-causing substances called tobacco-specific nitrosamines. Smoke from cigars also creates toxic thirdhand smoke that can become embedded in surfaces, clothes, carpets, and furniture, High Performance Solutions findings reported.
Baucum argued that the dry cleaner on the other side of Oasis should be having the same issues with the cigar smoke, but they never complained about it. “It’s odd that a place with consistent customers like the dry cleaner did not complain. They would have a right to complain if they were smelling smoke, because that would definitely damage their business,” said Baucum.
When Diggs announced Coronato would close permanently last month, he told TLR, “We do not feel that we are closing. Rather that Coronato is being forced to close due to actions and inactions that created severe business disruptions as well as health and safety issues for Coronato’s staff and the community.”
“This has surprised and devastated us and we are unsure what our next steps will be. We are losing our family home and savings because of this horrible situation,” Diggs told TLR.
“Over the past year, we have done our best to provide you with great pizza and amazing service while working through significant health and safety concerns,” said Diggs in his closing announcement to his patrons in a social media post on Sept. 18.
He said they had hoped the temporary measures they took by transitioning to a take-out-only service model could sustain them until the situation could be resolved. “We have since exhausted ourselves and our resources while waiting for a solution that never came,” he wrote.
“Teddy is a member of our Chapel Hill/Carrboro community. He has given back to the schools for countless spirit nights across our district, even when facing this difficulty and drastic reduction in his business,” wrote Alexis Besosa on the Southern Village listserv in response to Diggs media post. “If you have a moment, consider writing to the town of Carrboro and Orange County. They’ve known about the toxic environment that the smoke next door is causing and haven’t done anything to mitigate or stop it,” she wrote.
In April, 2023, Diggs Restaurant Group, LLC, which operates Coronato Pizza, filed a lawsuit in superior court in Orange County against Oasis Cigar and Woodhill Associates.
A timeline of Coronato’s complaints before the lawsuit was filed:
- On Sept. 28, 2018 Diggs leased 101 Two Hills Rd. Suite #140 from Woodhill and opened Coronato restaurant.
- In August 1, 2022, Oasis Cigar Lounge moved into 101 Two Hills Rd. Suite #130, which is immediately adjacent to the Coronato.
- Beginning in August 2022, cigar smoke began migrating from the Oasis, infiltrating the Coronato eatery.
- On August 4, 2022 Teddy Diggs contacted both the principals of Oasis and Woodhill to inform them via email that the cigar smoke had entered the Coronato, causing significant deleterious effects, including headaches, sinus and eye irritation for Diggs, his wife and customers.
- On August 5 and 6, 2022, Diggs was forced to close Coronato early due to significant cigar smoke in his restaurant and notified Oasis and Woodhill again.
- When the cigar smoke filled Coranato on Sept. 13, 2022, Diggs contacted Oasis and Woodhill again. This time he was informed that principals at Oasis had done everything they could to ensure that smoke could not migrate into the Coronato.
- On Sept. 14, Diggs met with principals from Oasis and Woodhill in person. They informed Diggs that he was only experiencing the smell and not actual smoke and that they were not required to do more since it should be expected in a multi-unit building. That evening the Woodhill’s principal Mr. Gary Hill returned to Coronato after 9 p.m. the same day. Hill acknowledged he could smell the cigar smoke, but it did not bother him.
- Hill purchased two air purifiers for Coronato but the air purifiers were unsuccessful in preventing the migration of the cigar smoke into Coronato. The air purifiers were later moved into the Oasis with no impact on the migration of the smoke. Sept. 14 was Hill’s last visit to Coronato.
The Oasis held its grand opening on Sept. 16, 2022 and Coronato’s cigar smoke infiltration continued. At this point, Diggs wife, staff and customers continued to suffer ill effects from the smoke and Diggs continued to report his concerns to Woodhill and the Oasis. The response he got was Woodhill was “working on it”. In December, Woodhill’s representative told Diggs they believed they had done everything that “was required to protect the safety of Coronato’s air quality.”
The last statement Woodhill provided was: Woodhill NC, LLC, which owns South Green Center, works to provide commercial space that supports our tenants in legally operating their businesses. We have taken significant steps to ensure proper ventilation between tenants, including installing commercial-grade air cleaners, carbon filters, and an ozone generator. We are working with Coronato Pizza and their attorney to respond to the lawsuit provided to us on April 14, 2023.
Diggs reached out to public health officials and hired a third-party air quality consulting firm Repace Associates, to do an air quality test of the restaurant from January 13 through January 30, 2023. He then reached out to the North Carolina Department of Labor (OSHA) who conducted a Limited Service Health survey.
The testing found among other things that, based on the measured nicotine levels, the estimated peak concentration for particulates “would be in the Significant Harm Level of the air quality index (AQI) as established by the Environmental Protection Agency.”
The report also found that the air pollution created by Oasis into the Coronato space exposed Diggs, his staff and patrons to “significantly unhealthy air quality from secondhand smoke that poses both an acute and chronic hazard to their physical and mental health.”
Thirdhand smoke exposure in the form of “surface nicotine exists for any customer purchasing a pizza at the restaurant due to the migration of cigar smoke into the area.”
Diggs had reached out to Carrboro city officials and state regulatory agencies. Mayor Damon Siels said, “I’m sorry to see Coronato close. Unfortunately, because of the state law on local regulation of smoking, the town’s regulatory authority is very limited in situations like this. So the town has not been able to intervene.”
Why can a cigar lounge operate in a strip mall?
North Carolina state laws pertaining to cigar bars require any cigar bar opening after July 1, 2009 must operate in a free-standing location. This law exempts private clubs and they must be owned by a nonprofit. According to information provided by the secretary of state’s office, the Oasis Cigar Lounge is considered a private club.
Oasis is a 501(c)(7) organization. It is a social club of members who smoke cigars. There are no sole owners of Oasis. All paying members own Oasis, according to Baucum.
“Oasis would never have opened up in the town of Carrboro if the town officials had not signed off on the paperwork,” said Baucum. “They [the town officials] were initially excited to have Oasis as part of the community because they wanted more Black businesses.”
Baucum said they are in the process of looking for a new location. “ We are looking for a freestanding location so we won’t have this issue again.”
The lawsuit remains open, and no date has been scheduled for a hearing in the Orange County Superior Court.
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.