Charles Johnston, 28, and Andrew Osborne, 31, are unorthodox businessmen who have been best friends for a decade. As co-owners of an electronic cigarette business in South Buffalo they are riding a popularity surge due in part to their quirky YouTube videos and radio ads.
Both men are hardcore vapers who started smoking cigarettes at a very young age. They started selling e-cigs out of a stall at the Super Flea & Farmers’ Market on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga before they opened Vapor Trail on South Park Avenue. They are planning a second location on Seneca Street.
People Talk: How old were you when you smoked your first cigarette?
Andrew Osborne: Twelve, maybe. If you’re a kid and your parents smoke, you think smoking is cool. My 7-year-old thinks vaping is really cool. He said he wants to vape when he’s 18. I don’t want him to do that, obviously, but he is me when I was 9 years old taking a piece of notebook paper and trying to roll up leaves to make a cigarette. By the time you are old enough to realize it’s bad for you, you’re so hooked on the nicotine you’re done.
PT: Describe yourself.
Charles Johnston: I’m a people person goofball who will give you the shirt off my back. I’m always silly.
Osborne: I’m a genius in disguise. A lot of people tell me I’m the most intelligent person they met in their lives but I’m always either drunk or yelling or swearing, whatever. So I always have this image of an obnoxious idiot.
PT: What has the business taught you about each other?
Osborne: How smart CJ is. CJ is the goofy joker. He didn’t go to college. When we got into business, I realized what a mind he has for dealing with people and marketing. This kid’s a lot smarter than a high school dropout. I dropped out of college, so we’re the dropout twins. I went to Rochester Institute of Technology for a couple of years and basically partied my way out of college.
PT: Is starting a business partnership like getting married?
Osborne: Absolutely. We love and hate each other all the time. It’s always a series of compromises and we frequently go to outside sources to settle an argument. We’re not afraid to fight.
Johnston: One of us is always sleeping on the couch.
PT: How did you get into the e-cigarette business?
Johnston: My stepmother had a stroke, and she had to quit smoking so my father got her e-cigs. She didn’t like it but I loved it. I was a heavy, heavy smoker smoking a pack and a half to two packs of Newports a day. I’ve been vaping for about seven years.
Osborne: He was vaping. I was smoking cigarettes and we were just basically drinking and hanging out. We had this little wrestling league (FCW Fierce Championship Wrestling) we did with our friends. We started selling e-cigs at the flea market.
PT: Is the Super Flea as bizarre as I hear it is?
Johnston: Every year it gets more like a circus.
Osborne: Most people go to the flea market to sell things and make a little money. Originally that’s what we did. We just wanted Christmas money to buy our kids big gifts. Very quickly we went from that to wanting to build a business in a very unique and individual way. When we first opened this store we were here Monday through Friday and stayed at the flea market weekends.
PT: Does your success surprise you?
Johnston: Not anymore, but certainly in the beginning. It’s amazing how we started with nothing, $120 apiece. I’ve never believed in the American dream, and now to an extent I do. We’re not businessmen but what we do works.
Osborne: I’m just getting to the point of being surprised. I had a career before this working as a project coordinator for a software company. I now make more money than I did there, and the potential is in every direction. We’ve never had a penny of credit in all the time we’ve had the business. We paid $10,000 for the name wnyvaportrail.com. We started a company for $240, and three years later we pay $10,000 for 16 letters and two periods.
PT: The e-cig business is on fire. How is the competition?
Johnston: It is very cutthroat sometimes and people are at war, but we see it totally different. We want more people to open up shops. We help people all the time locally and out of state. We want more vapers.
PT: What about hookah shops?
Osborne: Those are smoke shops, totally opposite of what we are about. There is no smoke in our product at all. You would want someone who uses hookah to use our product to quit hookah. Hookah is worse than smoking cigarettes.
PT: Are you addicted to vaping?
Johnston: It’s my life. It’s my business, what I talk about every day, so I’m completely addicted.
Osborne: It’s weird. Are we addicted to vaping? Yes. We’re both on nicotine so it’s just like being addicted to smoking but there’s so much more to vaping. If you go to Southern California, there are shops where the cheapest unit you can buy is $300 but it will have a lot more features. It checks your battery, gives you readouts. If you were to have lightning strike your house or something it’s not going to ruin your e-cigarette.
Johnston: I paid 800 euros for a Terminator skull online. Its eyes light up.
PT: What is your most popular flavor?
Osborne: Usually the tobaccos and the menthols, so our Tuscan and Oldport which is like your Marlboro and Newport. CJ’s Beard is always in the top five; that’s just a fruit blend. We’re turning ourselves into a brand in this thing and that was never really planned.
PT: Define the Buffalo consumer.
Johnston: In South Buffalo you get a lot of down-to-earth people who want to be your friend. They know I’m not some jerk behind the counter going after their money.
Osborne: The Buffalo consumer on the surface wants the best thing at the cheapest price always with a deal. They want to be hooked up, tax-free.
PT: Where’s the strangest place you vaped?
Osborne: Well I vape frequently at my kid’s school, but I don’t think that’s strange. It’s probably inappropriate. We‘re very cautious about where we vape. We would rather have a vape with the smokers. If they told me to stop vaping in a bar I would leave.
PT: What’s on your bucket list?
Johnston: I want to go to a WrestleMania before I die, as crazy as it sounds.
Osborne: I don’t even think I have a bucket list, but if I did it’s a one-item list. I want to make a difference. I want to be an old man and be able to look back on a legacy of change.
Johnston: Can I take mine back? I feel like mine’s silly.