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Recollections

These friends of Cigar Aficionado were there at the beginning in 1992, and they are still working with cigars today.
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

(continued from page 2)

Chuck Levi

While Chuck Levi, owner of  Chicago’s Iwan Ries & Co., the second-oldest cigar shop in America, has, of course, not been there for the entire 155-year history of the store founded in 1857, he nominates the epoch begun 20 years ago as its period of greatest change. Levi saw cigar sales pick up steam and his pipe-heavy business transform. “We expanded the cigar department,” he says. “We added a lot of space to cigars.” He also admits to being confounded by the steady stream of new products, which have spawned a new kind of customer who clamors for innovation and is far less brand-loyal. “Every third customer asks, ‘What’s new since I was here last.’ It keeps us on our toes.” As the changes continue, Levi has added a large smoking lounge to the store, which he says is “the only place you can smoke cigars after five o’clock in downtown Chicago.”  —D.S.

Guillermo León

It was two years before Guillermo León would start running his family’s La Aurora S.A. cigar factory, but León remembers 1992 very well. At the time, his father Fernando was heading up the operation while Guillermo was focused on logistics. Cigars were a secondary commodity for the León family. “The industry was flat,” says León. “We had a strong and steady local business here in the Dominican Republic, but things were quiet. Especially at the RTDA [now called the IPCPR] trade show. Then, with Cigar Aficionado, cigars were shown in the magazine along with very expensive luxury items, so there became great interest.” Then La Aurora was producing primarily two premium cigars for the U.S. market—León Jimenes and La Aurora. The boom followed shortly after and León says: “The demand was unbelievable, but there were a lot of problems too. It didn’t happen right away. The magazine came out, and shortly after, everything was crazy.” —G.M.

Robert Levin

Robert Levin has seen his business transform over the past 20 years from a focus on retail to becoming a nationwide brand. The Ashton brand, which he launched in 1985, was growing but still small in 1992, while most of his revenues came from Holt’s, his retail shop in Philadelphia. Today, that has reversed, and wholesaling Ashton and the other brands his company owns is by far his biggest segment. “The magazine really changed the way people buy cigars,” he explains. “Before Cigar Aficionado, people would be brand loyal, come in once a week for cigars. Now, they come in with the ratings and they want to try a bunch of different brands.” All Ashtons are made by the Fuentes, and the Levin and Fuente families are close. Levin’s son, Sathya spent a month with the Fuentes as a youngster to learn the art of cigarmaking from the ground up. Now, at 31, Sathya is increasingly involved in Ashton. “Sathya’s really running [the business] now,” says Levin. “He’s coming up with all the new stuff, all the new brands, all the new sizes.” —D.S.

Benjamin Menendez

Twenty years ago, Benjamin Menendez’s hands were full overseeing the General Cigar Co. factories in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. General was owned by the Cullman family and Menendez’s focus was not on creating new cigars but on maintaining such well-established brands as Macanudo and Partagás. He worked with Alfons Mayer ensuring the requisite tobaccos were properly conditioned. “And then things changed,” Mendendez, now General Cigar’s senior vice president, recalls. “Cigar Aficionado came and changed the premium cigar category forever. Without question, the magazine started the boom and the market developed around it.” Premium cigars, he says, were demystified and this led to the creation of many new brands. “I’m proud to say that Partagás and Macanudo and have stood the test of time.”
—G.M.

Ana López Garcia

Ana López, the current director of marketing operations for Habanos, S.A., remembers 1992 very well; she was in charge of the 500th anniversary celebrations of the discovery of Cuba, which included the launch of the Linea 1492 and the Cohiba Siglo line. She also remembers hearing about Cigar Aficionado during a meeting with Marvin R. Shanken: “We were excited by a magazine dedicated to cigars.” Surveying her 37 years experience, López notes a marketing shift in the last 20 years: “The events, the tastings …the way celebrities got in involved, was fundamental in changing the way people see cigars, as part of a legend, as an art.” Some favorite memories involve Alejandro Robaina, the renowned tobacco grower. “I remember him in the fields, I remember introducing to him the brand with his name on it. And, I remember when he came to Havana to talk with us about the brand, and his thoughts about what we were doing. This image of a humble man to be involved with one of our products was a beautiful thing.” —G.D.M.


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