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One Hundred Years of Fuente

As the Arturo Fuente brand turns 100 this year, the family dynasty commemorates its many triumphs, always remembering that the road to success presented challenge after challenge
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
100 Years of Fuente—Celebrating a Family Dynasty, January/February 2012

The warehouses were completely engulfed in flames, and the firefighters were losing the battle. The men and women attacked the fire, spurting water through the windows of the blazing buildings until the smoke and the heat overwhelmed them. Even when they could fight no longer they called for milk in hopes of fortifying themselves for another round. But it was too late. Two large warehouses with irreplaceable stocks of tobacco were lost.

Veritable bunkers, the two structures had seemed impregnable until Hurricane Irene raged to within 70 miles of Villa Gonzalez, Dominican Republic, stirring winds that fed the flames. Even as the blaze leapt toward the sky, rains lashed the scene, almost in irony. Inside was a treasure trove, tobacco that was years and even decades old, leaves from around the world that had been destined to be rolled into celebratory smokes for its owner, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.

There watching the disaster unfold this past August was Fuente president Carlos Fuente Jr. He stayed all day, leaving near midnight. When he returned home, reeking of smoke, his 11-year-old son hugged him and looked up into his father’s dark eyes. Young Carlos III had heard about the fire at school and joined his fellow students in a prayer. “Daddy,” he asked his father, “are we going to be OK?”

It’s a question that has been asked by the Fuentes, son to father, wife to husband and sister to brother time and time again over the past 100 years. Since the first Arturo Fuente cigar was rolled in 1912, eight fires have plagued the company. The first catastrophe, in 1924, put the young company out of business for 22 years. But time and time again, the Fuentes have come back from the flames, rebuilding, and starting anew.

“It’s a major setback,” says Fuente Jr., a passionate man with a slim mustache and an intense gaze. “We lost so much tobacco. All the money in the world could not replace it, and you can’t wait another 30, 40 years for that tobacco. The angels smoked it all. It happened at the dawn of our 100th anniversary. But, I said, this is not going to take me down. Things happen for a reason.”

And undeterred, the Fuente family is now planning its centennial despite the fire, making special cigars to commemorate the occasion. “If we can’t make it with salt,” says Fuente Jr., “we’ll use pepper.”

His family will mark the milestone on November 18, the birthday of patriarch and founder Arturo Fuente. To be sure, there will be commemoration in the Dominican Republic where the family plans to open a small cigar factory on the grounds of its Chateau de la Fuente. But the big celebration will take place in Ybor City, Florida, near the scene of another family milestone: the purchase in the 1960s of the landmark Charles the Great cigar factory, that is now being refurbished. Built in 1895, it was a tall and majestic brick building that Carlos Arturo Fuente Sr. had dreamt of owning when he made cigars in far smaller, more modest settings in the city early in his career. Now the family is renewing that realized dream.

“I used to tell my father, someday we’re going to own this building,” Fuente Sr., the chairman of Fuente, says over the clamor of workers who are hammering away on the floors above the conference room of the brick factory, now Fuente’s U.S. headquarters. A small man with a quiet but gravelly voice and a thick head of hair that belies his 76 years, he’s smoking an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Robusto, holding the cigar upside down, the burning foot near his thumb, so he can examine how it performs. “I always had the vision that we would be in a factory. The others were buckeyes, mom-and-pop shops. I knew that someday I was going to be a large manufacturer. I never cared about being the largest cigar manufacturer; I always cared to be the best. But I wanted to have a building like this.”

The four-story building is laid out east to west in the style of Ybor City’s great cigar factories, its huge windows welcoming the sunlight. The interior walls are yellow brick, but the building has a core—floors and beams—of sturdy heart pine, stained mahogany brown from decades of being bathed in tobacco dust and cigar smoke. The freshly oiled floor bears scars from the pitchforks that were used to move piles of short-filler tobacco off of it. The first workers here made cigars by hand, but it was mechanized in the middle of the last century, and holes made to route the steam pipes that powered the cigar-making machines still pock the floors. This building is a survivor. Where Ybor once had hundreds of factories like this one, today only a dozen or so remain, only a trio that have anything to do with the cigar business.

The Fuentes are survivors too, having endured not only fires, but political upheaval, lawsuits and hurricanes. One of the world’s largest cigar companies, Fuente makes more than 30 million cigars a year, all by hand, in three factories in the Dominican Republic. It owns the brands Arturo Fuente, Hemingway, Don Carlos and Fuente Fuente OpusX, all of them acclaimed by this magazine. It makes Ashton, Diamond Crown and more cigars for other companies and was the first to grow quality wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic.

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