Tricky business: Brothers find success in K-town with vape shops

October 10, 2014
Glenn Lee, left, and Jason Lee, co-owners of The Vape Source in Los Angeles

Glenn Lee, left, and Jason Lee, co-owners of The Vape Source in Los Angeles (Wesley Wheeler)

By Brian Han

In an industry surrounded by controversy, brothers Glenn Lee, 33, and Jason Lee, 24, teamed up to start their own “vape shop” called The Vape Source in the heart of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “vape shop” is a retail store that specializes in selling electronic cigarettes and accessories.

The idea came to Glenn about a year ago when he was desperately looking for a new business venture. At the time, he had been running a real estate appraisal firm and the market was especially volatile.

After making the switch from cigarettes to the electronic alternative himself, he wondered why he had never seen a retail shop dedicated to the latter.

“The next day when I told Jason about the idea, he told me that his friend had just opened one up,” said Glenn, co-owner of The Vape Source. “We immediately went to go see what it was all about.”

If anything, jumping into the e-cigarette industry might have been riskier than working in real estate. But the Lee brothers apparently saw a viable business opportunity and the plan was to be the second shop in town.

The brothers had never run a retail shop before and by the time they were ready to open their doors, two more local vape shops had opened.

“In the beginning, it was definitely a struggle. We were excited and had certain expectations,” Glenn said. “We learned the hard way that any retail business has to suffer in the beginning.”

Jason Lee, left, actor and comedian, Bobby Lee, second from left. (The Vape Source)

Jason Lee, left, actor and comedian, Bobby Lee, second from left. (The Vape Source)

After six months and a lot of hard work, the store had picked up enough momentum to warrant the opening of a second location in Chapman Plaza — one of the most popular areas in Koreatown.

“Vaping has to be your life or else you won’t survive in this business,” Glenn said. “It’s become a big part of my life, [of my brother's] life and… our employees’ lives. That’s probably the main reason we’ve had success.”

“There’s no time to relax,” said Jason, the other co-owner of The Vape Source. “I’m constantly checking Instagram and trying to keep up with what’s going on.”

It’s not that they feel trapped by the lifestyle that comes with the business. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. Glenn went on to elaborate that the reason they’re able to make this business work where countless others have failed is that they’re passionate about what they do.

Both Glenn and Jason used vaping as a way to curb and eventually quit their smoking habit. The jury is still out on what kinds of effects vaping can have on health, but so far they’re both optimistic about the fact that they’ve stopped using a product that is proven to be directly linked to cancer-causing agents.

There’s still plenty of stigma around vaping which at times puts those involved in the industry at odds with each other.

“My parents are proud that I work here,” said Josh Joun, 18, Vape Source employee. “Vaping also helped my dad quit smoking.”

On the other hand, another 20-year-old employee, who preferred to be unidentified, made it clear that he’d rather keep his place of employment out of the public eye. This individual went on to further state that it wouldn’t be a preferred topic of conversation with his parents.

One of the biggest points of contention surrounding the industry is the product’s potential appeal to minors with candy and dessert-like flavors.

Glenn made this statement on the topic:

“We card everyone who comes in. We’re not going to take that risk. Ever. Kids can easily get this stuff into their hands if they really want to. People will make their own decisions and you can’t control that.  If I was a parent, I definitely wouldn’t be happy if I found out my kids were vaping, but if they were going to choose one or the other I’d rather have them vaping than smoking a cigarette. One has been proven to kill you and I think it’s just common sense at that point.”

When it comes to adults who are trying to switch to vaping as a means to quit smoking, the business becomes a bit more gratifying.

“When the shop started getting more established, we would see customers coming back after two weeks saying ‘I feel so much better since I switched,’” Jason said. “At that point, it really felt like we were doing something positive.”

An event held at their Wilshire Blvd. location (The Vape Source)

An event held at their Wilshire Blvd. location (The Vape Source)

Much of their business comes from repeat customers who find that the level of customer service, knowledge of product trends and atmosphere are unparalleled in the area. Given their prime locations, they also get a healthy amount of walk-ins.

Even as the shop was doing well, a legislative barrier arose. In March, Los Angeles City Council passed a bill that would ban vaping in public areas, treating it the same as smoking.

In the months preceding the decision, the Lee brothers both showed their support by showing up to City Council meetings knowing that such a bill could shut down a portion of their business.

Usually, high-end vape shops will have a “vapor bar” where consumers can test flavors and products before buying them. With a vaping ban in sight, there was a possibility that a critical part of their business could be outlawed.

Then something unexpected happened that exposed much larger forces at work.

“These lawyers from big tobacco walked into our shop one day,” Glenn said. “It turns out they have a big stake in the vaping market.”

Although these lawyers had an ulterior motive to make sure the vaping industry would survive through oncoming legislation, the meeting spurred a movement in which vape shop owners worked together to eventually get a revised bill passed — one that would allow vaping inside of their establishments for now.

(Disclaimer: The Korea Times is neither affiliated with nor endorses electronic cigarette products.)


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