When people think of Fairfield County, they don’t think of a flourishing indie music scene, cool art galleries, and funky comic book shops.
They also don’t think of a store that sells smoking devices for anywhere from $10 to $10,000 — with many of the glass products hand-blown, on the premises.
Then again, when people think of Fairfield County, they don’t think of Black Rock. But that funky neighborhood — straddling the Fairfield/Bridgeport border by Ash Creek — is where Stoked thrives.
For the smoke shop’s owners — a pair of Staples High School graduates — Stoked is a dream come true. And they belie the laid-back image of their once-shady business by working as hard as any hedge fund titan or corporate lawyer at it.
At Staples, Charlie Ronemus played football and lacrosse. After graduating in 2001, he headed to Montana State University. He majored in Spanish, snowboarded, then spent more than a decade in the New York restaurant world.
Zac Weiner — one year younger — was a Staples wrestler. At 14, he worked in a fish market. He went on to Chef’s Table and Bobby Q’s, before managing several Starbucks locations.
They did not know each other in high school. But their paths crossed in the restaurant industry. Jointly, they had an idea: open a head shop.
“The stigma around cannabis is changing,” Ronemus says. “Utopia (in Norwalk) has sold glass pipes and paraphernalia for 30 years. We thought there’s an opportunity now for more players in the game.”
Black Rock was a natural location. Weiner — a longtime resident — loves its ethnic, culinary and socio-economic diversity.
“People here are passionate about everything,” he says. “And it’s neighborly. Everyone walks.”
The pair researched every head shop in Connecticut. They realized they had a chance to bring their hospitality background — high on service, professionalism, and creating a welcoming environment — to a market segment that has been marginalized for decades.
Weiner — an ardent fisherman — learned that a bait shop was moving. He and Ronemus snagged the space. Stoked opened in July of 2014.
Downstairs, there’s a large floor filled with smoking devices: hand pipes, water pipes, vaporizers and more.
The owners are very careful about their products. “We sell pipes for legal purposes only,” Ronemus explains. For most people, that means smoking tobacco and herbs. Medical marijuana users who want to know how to use the devices must show their card.
For everyone, Stoked’s staff provides education missing in other head shops. They ask questions like: Will you use this at home, or is it portable? Do you want something artistic? And of course: What’s your price range?
Customers come “from all walks of life,” Weiner says. No one under 18 can enter the store. But every age is represented. “We have people using walkers,” he notes.
Occasionally, parents come with a smoking device they’ve found in their teenager’s room. Ronemus and Weiner explain what it is, and offer advice on how to talk to kids about it.
Upstairs is a glass-blowing studio. Nationally known artists give demonstrations. Stoked offers classes, and rents space to glass artists. They create smoking devices — but also objects like pendants and marbles that have nothing to do with smoking.
The owners rely on guerrilla marketing. They hand out Stoked t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, lighters, matches, coasters and stickers. They’re all over Instagram.
Ronemus and Weiner are passionate about Stoked. They love the service they provide downstairs, and their glass-blowing studio above.
They know their career paths are not typical for Staples students. But they want “06880” readers to know that’s fine.
“In high school I kept hearing about 4 years of college, then a master’s,” Ronemus says. “I wasn’t able to fall in line. But I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
It’s a ton of work — “7 days a week, for 4 years,” he says. “Still, I wake up every morning excited.”
In high school, Weiner collected glass art. However, he says, “people didn’t make me feel good about it.”
Now though, he’s made a career of glass. “I’m glad I didn’t stray from that,” he notes with satisfaction.
“If a kid in high school wants to do something with their life that’s not mainstream, or goes against what society says: Don’t be deterred,” Weiner advises.
Instead: Get stoked!