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Straight Talking with Pete Johnson

The creative mind behind Tatuaje tells Cigar Aficionado what drives him forward
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

(continued from page 1)

Q: You were still at Grand Havana when you started Tatuaje?
A: It wasn’t like I was printing money back then. It was a nice slow start. But after you guys did the Top 25 the second year, I was No. 4. Well, that year at the trade show, I couldn’t move.

Q: Let’s go back to the start of Tatuaje. How long was it in the back of your mind to make your own cigar brand?
A: I always wanted to do it. A friend of mine in the business, Ben Gehrman, had started working for Tropical. He said, “We got a guy who might be able to make you a cigar.” The first samples they sent me I thought were horrible. They showed up in Los Angeles in April 2003, and some guy named José Garcia, who they called Pepin, was there. He asked me in Spanish what I liked, and I said make me something on the stronger side. I still didn’t like them. We started a conversation about what he knew about Cuba, where he was from and that turned into me going to get a Cuban cigar out of my stash that I knew was smoking good at the time. He looked at me and he said, “You want one like this?” I said, “Do what you do best.”
Q: Did he make one on the spot?
A: Yeah. And it was great. He understood Cuban cigars better than what other people were making outside of Cuba. As soon as he tasted that Cuban he said, “This one’s easy.”

Q: How long did it take to go from that first meeting with Pepin to getting a product on the shelf?
A: They started rolling them right away. They were in a small space in another person’s warehouse. And the first dates on my boxes were May.  

Q: That was quick.
A: I remember going down to the warehouse. It was Pepin, Jaime [Pepin’s son], Janny [Pepin’s daughter], Pepin’s wife Maria, and Jaime’s wife Danny. It was all family. But Jaime was also in charge of making sure the packing was right.

Q: So what do you do with those first cigars?
A: I had 50 boxes of each size. Originally I wasn’t going to put a band on it, but people said name recognition is everything. So I came out with that thin, ugly brown band. I didn’t want to take away from what was beautiful, the cigar itself. I didn’t know where I was going to sell them. Thanks to Stan Shuster, I was able to sell them in the [Grand Havana] clubs. That was June.

Q: How was the reception?
A: It was different. People dug the unique character of it. And when I went to the trade show I borrowed space from Cyril Brizard. I put my price list on top of a humidor and I walked away, ‘cause I had to do my job for Grand Havana. And as I was walking around I would see friends who were running stores, and I would say, “Try this cigar and tell me what you think.” I think I left the show with five orders.

Q: We have to talk about the name Tatuaje.
A: The name came about because Robby Levin, Carlos Fuente, Wayne Suarez, they all gave me the name “Tattoo Pete.” I had tattoos, but my OpusX tattoo really stood out. I kept on looking at different brand names, then I thought “let’s try Tatuaje.” People said you can’t pronounce the word, but I think it worked to my advantage. People would say, “do you have those Tats? Do you have those tattoo cigars?” My first rating was the following trade show and I got a 90. That was a big deal for me. Every week I would pick up a new account, slowly, slowly, slowly, and I walked into the trade show in 2006 with 125 accounts, and I walked out with 350.

Q: That was a result of your excellent showing in the Top 25?
A: That really killed it for me. I could not move. I was stuck in my booth. I was stuck against the table the whole day. I didn’t have enough product. There were times, early on, when the factory [in Miami] would call me and say, “Pete, we need you to order some more cigars.” I said, “Be patient.” But after the whole craze of the ratings and everything I would call the factory every week—I need more of this and more of this and more of this.

Q: When did you realize you could make a full-time business out of your cigar brand?
A: In 2003 it was a hobby. In 2004 it started to become a business. In 2006 I said I should do this full time, or I shouldn’t do it at all. I realized I had something.

Q: Your first cigars all came from Pepin’s factory in Miami. Can you talk about the expansion into Nicaragua?
A: I knew I needed to do something different. I couldn’t get away with the seven [Tatuaje sizes] and the four Cabaiguans I had in Miami. It wasn’t enough. I knew I had to do something with the Tatuaje line because that’s what people wanted. But I didn’t want to just take the brown label [the original Tatuaje] and have that made in another country. So Tatuaje Havana VI [the red label, made in Nicaragua] had to prove itself.
Q: Did it take some time?
A: Everybody wanted the Miami cigars. But it’s funny. I love the rollers in Miami, but I feel like some of the rollers down in Nicaragua are making better cigars. The Garcias are down in Nicaragua every week, and some of the rollers there are just amazing. Miami will still hold a soft spot, and Pepin told me, “I’ll never stop making cigars in Miami, because this is the birthplace of Pepin Garcia.”

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Comments   11 comment(s) July 10, 2012 12:01pm ET

Pete makes some of the best and most sought after cigars out there. Always seems like a down to earth guy who just wants to put out a great product! Good luck, brother. July 11, 2012 5:46am ET

The Good Life world needs more people like Pete Johnson!!!I have never met him but I know that Tatuaje Pete is un hombre bueno!
Hasta luego compañero.
La Casa del Habano Luxemburgo.

Toar — Simi Valley, Ca,  —  July 11, 2012 10:14am ET

Great interview Pete, I remember Big Easy was the only place I could find your cigars back in 04 and gladly trecked across the Valley to get the 03 Cojonu! my all time favorite cigar!!

John Davidson — Lakeside, Ca, United States,  —  July 13, 2012 7:50am ET

Wow, what blind loyalty.

Twice now at two different IPCPR conventions, we visited his sales booth, with a third party salesman. We didn't just present ourselves and expect to be recognized. We were acknowledged with a dis-concerning smile and a wave. After we stood there for several minutes and were completely ignored, the four of us left without ordering. Mind you, at that time, we already stocked Tatuaje Cigars.

It's very busy at IPCPR and so with many other vendors to see and many other appointments to keep, we decided to go to another company and at least be appreciated.

Pete Johnson couldn't give us the time of day. I was very unimpressed. With three locations to stock, two of which are Cigar Lounges, everyone lost. He lost one very significant order, we lost profit and my customers have to search elsewhere. That was 2010 at N.O. We no longer stock those boutique cigars.

Sorry Pete, but first impressions are sometimes the the most important part of any type of sales. My impression is the Tatuaje cigars are huge but it would appear so is one persons ego. Oh well. Maybe next time. July 13, 2012 2:37pm ET

Do you feel better getting that off your chest?

Tim C. July 13, 2012 4:14pm ET

Great interview. It's nice to get to know the man behind the cigar. I have been to a few IPCPRs and never got to really talk with Pete but it's a busy time as many of us know. maybe one day :)

Jason Simpson — Rockwall, Texas, USA,  —  July 16, 2012 8:40pm ET

Just an observation but, I hardly believe this to be an area provided to air dirty laundry. John obviously had what he believed to be a bad experience with Pete at the IPCPR.

As a cigar enthusiast and fan of Tatuaje I have to say that I have had several opportunities to meet and talk with Pete. Every time I walked away with a huge appreciation of how he conducts himself and doesn't treat the end user of his product as a number and/or dollar sign. Pete clearly loves cigars and provides us with some of the best out there. My bet is that had this situation been addressed with Pete directly and not published for the world to see, it would have been handled with utmost professionalism by Pete himself.

Congrats to John for being the first person I have ever heard utter a negative word about Pete or Tatuaje.

Keep up the good work Pete! I'll take whatever John decided not to order.



I'm a little confused. I'm not familiar with any stores in Lakeside California. Maybe because I have never visited that area. I don't recall your situation as that happens at every show where I never have enough time to visit with everyone. I'm not even sure what sales rep other than the broker I use would have brought you to my booth. I'm sorry if I didn't have time to talk with you but I was probably already in a conversation with another client.
If you are at the show in Orlando, I would like to talk with you as this all sounds a little strange.

Pete Johnson

Alex Anderl — Crystal Lake, Illinois, United States of America,  —  July 29, 2012 6:20pm ET


I think what you had was an odd-ball experience, maybe even a fluke. Meeting Pete myself, and having the experience to talk to him, having him share his story with myself, my brother, and my dad, really made me enjoy his presence. Everywhere I go ( cigar bars, shops, forums, etc. ) everyone has said how Pete is one of the most genuine guys in the industry. I understand you had an unpleasant first impression, but please give him another shot, and he'll prove you wrong.

Just my .02


Gary Bazdell — Ottawa, ON, Canada,  —  August 14, 2012 6:29pm ET

John Davidson. Please understand that this is an enthusiasts forum and should be respected as such.

Dwayne Campbell — Pickering, Ontario, Canada,  —  August 29, 2012 9:26am ET

Great article. I really like this magazine, very classy, great writing and great pictures. The magazines look good on my tables in my office and home.
I just ordered some leaves to roll my own cigars, thinking I could save some money and get the taste I want. Well, I got neither, but it is fun rolling cigars. I wished I knew where to get the really good tobacco from! I'm currently buying from the only place that sells online to the general public.

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