Lakeport company capitalizes on e-cigarette boom

Sarah Lemmon and Michael Ferguson label bottles of e-liquid at Virgin Vapor in Lakeport, California on Thursday, September 25, 2014. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


The exploding popularity of e-cigarettes is helping fuel the growth of a Lakeport company that started out in the home of its founder and now supplies “Snakebite” and other cleverly-named e-liquids to vapers around the world.

Virgin Vapor manufactures “gourmet organic e-liquids” for use in battery-powered e-cigarettes, or vape pens, as they are commonly known.

Inside the company’s Bevins Street headquarters this week, employees swirled the aromatic substances in mason jars, one step in the manufacturing process before the liquid is emptied into tiny bottles capped with what looked like medicine droppers. The bottles are then labeled and shipped around the world.

The liquids are given colorful names such as “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Best Damn Tobacco” and a woodsy concoction called “Southern Exposure.” Based on its own market research, the company’s most popular seller for men is “Celestial Honeydew.” For women, it’s “Death by Chocolate,” according to Deborah Mills, the company’s chief operating officer.

Annette Rogers founded the company in 2009 because she didn’t want to vaporize liquids made with artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and other ingredients. Virgin Vapor uses flavorings that meet federal standards for organic purity. Nicotine, which is optional, is sourced from tobacco leaves grown in North Carolina.

The company, which employs 40, is on track for sales of $5 million this year, Mills said. It is planning to relocate from its 6,000-square-foot warehouse in Lakeport to a 28,000-square-foot facility in Clearlake, and to upgrade to a higher standard of cleanliness in the room where the liquids are processed, she said.

Rogers, who is on personal leave, was not available for comment this week. Mills said the company’s founder wants to keep Virgin Vapor headquartered in Lake County to help stimulate its depressed economy.

“There’s hardly no work up here,” Mills said.

Mills was hired in April to help lead the company. Her work experience includes helping run Petroni Vineyards in Sonoma and serving as a vice president for Healthwise, a company that distributes health information globally.

Mills said some of her friends found it strange that she would want to help lead a company like Virgin Vapor, given her background in the health care industry. She said she was initially skeptical herself.

“But now that I’ve been here, I totally get it,” she said. “People want to vape.”

Virgin Vapor sells products around the world through its website and through an extensive network of distributors and retail outlets. The company’s products are the top seller at Valhalla Smoke Shop, which opened six months ago in Penngrove.

“Pretty much anything that says organic, they love,” owner Dashiel McKenzie said of his customers. “It might be a Northern California thing.”

He also said many of his customers prefer the taste of Virgin Vapor products to synthetic varieties.

“Certain brands, it’s like eating candy, and some people don’t like that,” he said.

Some health advocates warn that e-cigarettes are being marketed to children. Earlier this year, the American Lung Association issued a statement saying it is “very concerned about the potential safety and health consequences of electronic cigarettes, as well as claims that they can be used to help smokers quit.”

In California, people must be at least 18 to legally use e-cigarettes. In Sonoma County, several cities and the unincorporated areas have restrictions similar to those for tobacco smoking.

Mills said she considers the e-liquids manufactured by Virgin Vapor to be a healthier alternative to those processed with synthetic compounds. But she said the company does not bill its products as promoting health.

“We feel it’s healthier because we don’t know what’s in those synthetic products,” she said.

The company’s premium line of e-liquids, called Absolute, are made from flavorings that do not contain alcohol and retail for as much as $22.50 for a single ounce.

The company’s website includes a disclaimer noting that nicotine is a poisonous and addictive substance, and that e-liquids are to be used only by “committed smokers” of legal smoking age and not by non-smokers, children, women who are pregnant or those suffering from medical conditions. The site also notes that the company’s products have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Mills said the science on e-cigarettes isn’t yet settled. But she said she’s convinced the products are safe “based on the analysis we have today.”

In her office this week, white boards were filled with her strategies for the company’s future growth. She’d taped a hand-written note on the wall near her door with reminders about how she wants to conduct herself as a manager.

The reminders, placed under the heading of “Joy,” included “Positive, can do attitude,” “Desire to resolve issues” and “Forgive.”

She might also have added, “Buckle up.” E-cigarettes, which were a niche consumer product a few years ago, are now a $2 billion industry worldwide, thriving in a business environment Mills compared to the “wild west.”

“This keeps growing without much effort,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadline derek.