It was on a mild summer evening, while enjoying scotch and cigars, that Corey Frisbee, 44, and son Colton Frisbee, 23, realized their passions lay elsewhere.
Nine years running their Weston painting business was enough.
“I told him, I says, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do next, but it’s going to have something to do with this,” Corey Frisbee said, raising his lit cigar.
An Internet search and $1,800 later, Corey Frisbee was in Austin, Texas, learning cigar-rolling techniques from a Cuban woman who was one of the key cigar rollers at premium cigar maker Romeo y Julieta.
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That’s not even the crazy part.
While his son took the reins at the painting business, Frisbee spent a few months in his garage perfecting his craft before heading for Sturgis, S.D., in his 1998 Plymouth minivan with a bad tire.
After obtaining all the necessary permits and licenses for the town’s massive motorcyclist gathering, he was left with $13 to make change and enough tobacco to keep him rolling through the annual festival.
Frisbee returned with enough money to start Weston Tobacco, a shop that sells hand-made cigars, in 2010. He co-owns it with his son.
Failure was not an option, he said. Sure, it’s a cliche, but Frisbee is one of the few people to turn the tired phrase into a business strategy.
“Most businesses fail because they have a backup plan,” he said. “If you put the backup plan in, that’s what you default to when things don’t go right.
“If you don’t have the backup plan, you have to overcome and make it happen.”
Corey Frisbee, wearing a Western hat, speaks seated at a table in the center of his small store at 357 Main St., which in the high light of the afternoon is in perpetual dusk. His smile belies the adversity that has kept him on his toes when it wasn’t knocking him off his feet.
“It’s a risk vs. reward thing. Are you willing to take on that much risk for the reward?” he asked. “At that point in my life, I was.”
Business by necessity has driven the Chillicothe, Mo., native from the start.
When Frisbee was in his early 20s, a college student and recent divorcee, he found himself sole caregiver for Colton, then a newborn. He made a commitment to being self-employed to help him be an available father.
“I just made a decision that I was going to be there,” he said, which meant he had to think beyond the standard 40-hour work week.
“I mean, I work 80 hours a week, but I get to pick which 80,” Frisbee said. “It was about having that flexibility to be a good father yet still be able to provide.”
Frisbee’s first venture, a gas station and convenience store in Wayland, in the northeast corner of Missouri, started in 1992.At the time his station had the only pumps in town.
“You could say he identified a need,” Wayland City Clerk Kathy Alvis said.
“He’s got a management mind,” Wayland businessman Harold Campbell said. “He knows how to conduct himself in business.”
Campbell, owner of Campbell Trucking Co., said Frisbee’s attention to detail extended to the store’s appearance.
“He probably doubled (the store’s) income just because he know how to set one up,” Campbell said.
Frisbee also bought a coin laundry in Wayland and started renovating the space above it into an apartment.
That was about the time the pendulum swung the other way. Payments on a loan started outpacing his businesses’ profits. On top of that, legal fees from a divorce were eating into his personal finances.
In 1997, Frisbee parted ways with all his business interests in Wayland and left town abruptly. He took his son camping for the summer.
The two bounced back and forth between state parks outside Excelsior Springs and Cameron, Mo. When their time allotment for camping at one park ran out, they would drive to the other.
Colton was unaware of the family’s hardship until recently, when his dad revised his established narrative that the two were simply on an extended camping trip.
“I had to tell him, ‘Son, we were homeless,’” Frisbee said.
He tried to instill in his son a drive to always aspire for something better: If you’re living in a cardboard box, he’d tell Colton, make sure you’re saving up for a wooden crate to put your feet on.
And if you’re living in a state park, he’d say, try not to dwell on it.
“Going broke doesn’t scare me anymore. Doesn’t scare me. I’ve been there, and you can come out of that,” he said. “You’ve just got to put your head down and work.”
Starting in the fall of 1997, Corey Frisbee found work in construction, building roads and water treatment plants, and adding improvements to school grounds. He did that for three years before he established his house-painting business.
“People always ask me, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’” Frisbee said. “It’s all about volume. I have plenty of bad ideas, too.”
At a recent wedding reception, Corey Frisbee acknowledges that fabricating a good cigar isn’t easy.
“How long did it take me to learn? Oh, about 30 minutes,” Frisbee said, not taking his eyes away from the pliant tobacco leaves he rolled into a thick brown baton with frazzled ends that he cut away with a trapezoidal, handle-less blade.
“But I must have rolled thousands of bad ones,” he said, placing the loose tobacco roll into a cigar press — two plates with grooves to hold the cigar drafts and a vise that presses the plates together.
Frisbee — long ago realizing that people enjoy watching him make his product and socializing — was rolling cigars while six people gathered around him to watch.
Frisbee began another round of cigars while he waited the two hours that the press needs to do its magic.
A woman approached, eyeing the finished product: firm, smooth cigars that Frisbee laid out from dark to light, shades corresponding to smoke strength.
Frisbee said he can usually get a good sense of what cigar is right for customers based on what they drink. The woman reported that her husband drank whiskey, and Frisbee directed her to the middle of the gradient — a Sumatra cigar — and the darker end — a Maduro.
Frisbee became skilled enough to show his son how to roll a proper cigar. Colton moonlights as a roller from time to time, but during the wedding reception he was working at the Weston store.
When this year is over, Frisbee guesses he will have rolled on site at about 80 events, including Dave Hickerson’s daughter’s wedding reception. Both Hickerson and his newlywed daughter have helped Frisbee build his shop and worked with him at his annual tobacco festival.
Hickerson first met Frisbee at a liquor store hosting the cigar roller. Working on a folding card table, Frisbee developed a devoted following, which includes Weston native and Kansas City entrepreneur David Shepherd.
Shepherd said he found Frisbee in Weston and could readily see that the tobacco man not only had the stomach for business but the vision to succeed.
“One of the things about successful people: They must talk about it as if they’ve already made it, even if you’re in the tank,” Shepherd said. “It’s not lying, exactly. You have to see yourself in a successful position to get there.”
Indiana-based photographer Lucas Carter had never heard of Weston Tobacco when he arrived in town. Carter was one of 44 professional photographers and students who’d come to Platte City for the annual Missouri Photo Workshop in late October.
The University of Missouri-run photojournalism conference gathers participants from around the world in a rural Missouri town and tasks photographers who may have no familiarity with the area with connecting with its culture and community, and producing a photo essay.
Carter, a photographer with the American Legion, was from the Midwest, so he wasn’t far outside his comfort zone. But the advantage was only slight, and a frenzied search for a subject led him, like other workshop participants, to a few false leads.
Then he drove down Weston’s Main Street and saw Weston Tobacco. A few minutes inside, meeting Frisbee, was all Carter needed to know he’d found his story.
“Not only is it a father-son business, there’s a whole culture behind it,” Carter said. “It’s built around this extremely close friendship” between the cigar businesses’ owners and clientele.
Carter conveyed that conviviality through photos of a weekly poker night at Weston Tobacco. His submission to the prestigious photo workshop included images of a grinning, paint-covered Colton Frisbee pawing a stack of poker chips after a day moonlighting in the family’s former trade.
As Carter and his instructors clicked through the photographs, they paused to admire one of Corey Frisbee reaching to place a handful of chips in the center of the table while cradling a phone in his shoulder and neck in midconversation.
“That’s just how he is. He’s always working,” Carter said.
Next frame: Same poker night, but now Corey Frisbee has moved to the background. He’s still on the phone but now at a cash register, removed from the game, which continues without him.
Next frame: A far-off shot of Frisbee seated at a folding table on a golf green, rolling tobacco as players approach. In each shot, there are two constants: Frisbee’s hat and his customers.
“It’s the people,” Frisbee said. “I fell in love with business because of the people.”