When Mark Angelo decided to open a cigar store in Orlando, Fla., he knew he would have to compete against the slick stores at nearby Universal Studios CityWalk. Surrounded by themed shops such as Bob Marley's, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and a NASCAR store, Angelo decided his theme would be a Cuban cigar factory/store.

Angelo hired locally based VOA Associates Inc. to implement his idea for Cigarz. The concept VOA developed created a look that is unique among its surroundings. Instead of a shiny, modern space, the designers have gone great lengths to create a well-worn look for Cigarz.

"We didn't know what customers would be like, other than that Universal Studios would bring in people from all over the world," Matthews says. "So we tried to make the space unique with the mystique and flavor of Cuba. When people in the United States see images of Cuba, they're usually of decay, unkempt buildings and cars," Matthews notes.

VOA searched the Internet for props they could use and found two barns built in the 1880s to 1890s - one in Maine and one in Virginia -dismantled them and brought those timbers, wood and other elements to the Orlando site

"We were very clear to the contractor that they should leave any leather straps, rusty nails, cobwebs, etc. as intact as possible. this gives the store an old look," says David Matthews, associate/project manager with VOA. Then, VOA used those materials to construct what a Cuban drying barn would have looked like back in the day.

To carry the drying barn idea further, the company hung several "hands," or bundles, of tobacco leaves from the ceiling.

"This was fairly tricky to do," Matthews says, noting that the old wood and dried leaves did not meet modern-day building and fire codes. Consequently, VOA hired a company to spray the wood and dip the hands of tobacco with a coating to make them noncombustible.

Upon entering the store, visitors now have full view of the cigar-stocked counter, which is constructed with rusted, galvanized metal from the original barns. Pulley ropes that would have been used to take tobacco from the lower to upper areas, immediately draw the viewer's eye to the ceiling to emphasize the heavy, wooden beams, columns and tobacco hands. To the right of the doorway sits the humidor cases on a dark, stained floor.

"We went so far as to have rusticators go around the perimeter of the space and paint a crud line so that it looks like the humidor and fixtures are permanent pieces that have been sitting around for a hundred years," Matthews says. "The other thing we did was patch knots or holes in the floor with galvanized metal, like they would have in an old barn." And freshly painted doors appear to be peeling and cracking because of "rustication."

To further dress-down the space, VOA shopped for themed furnishings, such as old fans, crates and barrels, as well as pre-Castro license plates, Pesos and Cuban cigar box labels, to place around the store and hang from the rafters.

"We had the theming company give an old, worn plaster look to the wall," he explains. "They put mortar between the joints to make it look like it had aged, fallen out and deteriorated. The rusticators also put a coating on the back of the windows, which were brand new, to make them look aged." VOA even went as far as to accumulate dust, open the windows and dust the mortar joints to give patrons the authentic feel of the cavity in the wall, Matthews says.

But more importantly, going the extreme to make the store look old and dusty has made the store successful, Angelo says, noting that the store is doing more than $2 million per year. "We're not loud, flashy or transient," he says, "so people feel comfortable sitting. The more they sit, the more they spend."