At first glance, Fast Eddie's Vape Shop and Lounge looks like a typical South Orlando bar. There are pool tables and chairs, beer taps and wine bottles, a haze in the air.
Then you see it.
A beach-ball-sized cloud of foggy, white vapor emerging from the mouth of a middle-aged woman on a couch. The bartender blows another billow, bigger and denser. The air gets thicker with a syrupy smell like Froot Loops cereal. No cigarettes allowed.
This is Matt Kleizo's world, which he says is now a $10 million company. Named after his 6-year-old son, Eddie, the vape shop is a store, a hangout and a forum for vaping competitions, in which the biggest and thickest cloud wins an award.
Kleizo, 47, a former cigarette smoker, currently employs about 40 people at his lounge and distribution business. Fast Eddie's also designs and manufactures vape mods – handheld electronic devices that produce vapor in larger volume than a simple e-cigarette. Kleizo struck gold by launching his vape company in 2014 and found a niche in high-end mods that now sell around the world, fetching up to $425.
"I started my business to help people quit smoking, not to start vaping," Kleizo says. "I would discourage people from starting to vape unless they are smokers. I say it all the time: Why start if you don't smoke?"
But he's landed smack in the middle of a battle – both statewide and national – over the public perception of vaping.
Five years ago, Kleizo was a CrossFit trainer who had just gone through what he describes as a bitter divorce. He'd gotten custody of Eddie, but he lost a lot in court, and emerged with just "three bags of clothes and a spatula," he says.
During the divorce, he started smoking. As a former trainer, he was embarrassed to admit his habit, and he tried to hide it. His girlfriend suggested vaping instead.
"I remember saying, 'That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard,'" Kleizo says. He'd heard mixed reviews about e-cigs when they were first introduced, and it seemed hard to believe anything could replace smoking.