When Fred Diebel returned from his World War II duty as a U.S. Navy pilot of lighter than air craft (blimps), he knew he wanted to own his own business. Diebel, who earned a degree in mathematics from Kansas City University (now UMKC), saved for his life’s ambition while working successively for two venerable retailers in Kansas City: Rothschild’s and Montgomery Ward.
In 1950, Diebel capitalized on his first entrepreneurial opportunity, buying into Afflick & Co., a tobacco shop located at 11th and Walnut in downtown Kansas City. The company was re-named Afflick & Diebel. There, Diebel became an avid pipe smoker and developed an interest in the arcane craft of pipemaking. He sought a noted local pipemaker, Fred Metz, to teach him the craft. Initially, the elderly German native refused. But eventually, Diebel’s persistence paid off and Mr. Metz consented, saying, “Young man, I will teach you to make pipes on these conditions. You buy the proper equipment and you promise to do it my way, the right way.”
In 1954, Diebel determined it was time to strike out on his own. He saw the Country Club Plaza as a shopping and business district on the rise. So with a bankroll of $1,000, he purchased two display cases for $100 each, tools, tobacco product, and signed a lease. Fred Diebel, Pipemaker, Tobacconist was born at 4625 Wornall, across from Putchs’s Cafeteria (now Houston’s) and next to Renner’s Shoe Repair. The enterprise was successful from the beginning, though not in the way Diebel expected. He underestimated the strong demand for pipe repair and found little time for the pipe making work necessary to supply his retail pipe business. In order to manage the growth demand for new pipes, he began importing pipes from England.
For more than a decade, Diebel specialized exclusively in pipes, pipe repair, and pipe tobacco. Customers requesting cigars or cigarettes were politely but firmly referred elsewhere. Mr. Diebel’s philosophy may have been guided more by personal disdain for any smoking related product that did not involve a pipe than by visionary marketing theory. Nonetheless, he became one of the early niche retailing pioneers.
The company’s first watershed event came in 1964 with the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning on the dangers of cigarette smoking. The warning created a boom demand for smoking alternative to cigarettes. The company seized the opportunity and began expansion, opening a second shop in 1966 at the new Metcalf South Shopping Center at 95th and Metcalf. Shops at the Blue Ridge Mall and Crown Center soon followed.
The company also began manufacturing pipe tobacco. Conditioning, cutting, casing, blending, pressing and packing operations occurred in a warehouse located in the caves at Bannister and Holmes. Manufacturing continued through the early 1980’s. The business continued to grow as a family business, with Diebel’s wife plus his two sons and daughter working in the shops and manufacturing facilities during their teen and young adult years.
In the early 1970’s cigars began to appear in the Diebel shops. Premium cigars enjoyed a renaissance and offered diversification. In 1975, Curt Diebel graduated from college and chose to make the business his career. The decision not only assured a line of succession, but also brought new ideas and new opportunities. Since the senior Diebel’s disdain for smoking products other than pipes had not completely abated, he assigned the new cigar part of the business to the junior member of the family.
In 1980, the opportunity arrived to expand the Country Club Plaza store. The Nichols Company offered a location at 426 Ward Parkway, where we are currently located. With the relocation, gifts for men became an important part of the product mix.
In 1984, Fred Diebel, Pipemaker, Tobacconist evolved by a peculiar turn of events into Diebel’s Sportsmens Gallery. Diebel’s was enjoying only marginal profits from its Crown Center operation and decided to close the shop. Crown Center’s owners did not wish to lose a valuable long-term tenant, so posed the question, “What would it take to keep you?” Mrs. Diebel’s talent and interest in merchandising gentlemen’s gifts led her to suggest expanding the business and taking over a neighboring men’s gift store operated by Hallmark called Sportsmens Gallery. Crown Center executives agreed, Diebel changed its name and combined the tobacco store into the gift location.
With the cigar boom that started in 1992, the next opportunity for expansion was seized in 1996. The company expanded into adjacent space formerly occupied by Verl Custom Tailor. The move allowed the company to build the metropolitan area’s largest walk-in humidor and increase the shop’s assortment of gifts for men.
On October 31, 1997 the Crown Center location was relocated to Hawthorne Plaza at 119th and Roe in southern Johnson County. The suburban location offered access to the growing Johnson county population.
In May 1999, expansion came in the wholesale distribution of cigars to restaurants, bars, liquor stores and grocery stores. As the cigar boom subsided, the opportunity arose to service accounts that would provide for impulse cigar sales outside our retail locations.
November 2006 brought an expansion of the Country Club Plaza humidor. It now measures 1250 square feet and contains all major brands plus many boutique.
Today, with combined retail operations at the Country Club Plaza and Hawthorne Plaza and wholesale division, Diebel’s Sportsmens Gallery offers Kansas City’s most extensive selection of premium cigars, cigar accessories and gifts for men. The company is noted for its emphasis on service and its expertise in tobacco products.