Moving to Miami
The historic home of the U.S. cigar industry is a new hot spot for creative cigarmakers
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Bridges, July/August 2013
The neighborhood is covered in spray paint. Not the kind that blighted the South Bronx in the 1970s, but a more artistic form of graffiti with deliberate use of color and shape. With the exception of an attractive young girl being professionally photographed on the sidewalk and a sleepy Rhodesian Ridgeback, there’s no one in the streets. Things probably don’t come to life around here until midnight.
This isn’t Little Havana. This isn’t Tampa’s Ybor City. It’s the Wynwood section of Miami, a gentrified arts district that doesn’t exactly have a reputation for cigars. And it’s one of the unlikely neighborhoods throughout the city serving as a new home for cigar companies looking to set up shop in Miami.
After Tampa, Miami was a haven for disenfranchised Cuban cigarmakers to start over again, and the city became a must-see destination for any cigar lover. But the high cost of labor sent most of the industry to Central America and the Dominican Republic, where labor and materials are considerably cheaper. Recently, however, some cigar companies with well-established offshore infrastructure have decided to open up small rolling galleries in Miami.
Companies such as CLE Cigars, Tropical Tobacco and S.T.K. now have Miami outposts where they produce, pack and ship cigars for national consumption. And rather than leave the city where it started, My Father Cigars has only expanded its Florida footprint. Given the higher cost of labor and tobacco importation, these moves might seem counterintuitive, but different companies are coming to Miami for different reasons.
“Cigars just don’t travel well,” says Christian Eiroa of CLE Cigars. He opened the Wynwood Cigar Factory in Miami with partner Robert Caldwell last year. It sits in a gravel lot behind a chain-link fence and is covered in murals and graffiti. “I wanted to preserve the right flavor and feeling as if the cigar was being smoked right at the factory after you leave. There are so many times when you smoke a cigar at a factory and then after it ships and reaches its retail destination, it tastes completely different. Too much travel stresses the tobacco. That’s where my Factory Fresh program comes in.”
According to Eiroa, having the cigars made in Miami means minimal travel time and therefore a lot less trauma to the final product, so by the time it reaches the smoker, very little has changed.
“The climate changes, the changes in pressure, the differences in humidity—I’ve eliminated all that,” he says. “Everything is sent via ground delivery. It’s something different and I got the idea from microbreweries. Small beer manufacturers found a way to present the product differently.”
The Wynwood Factory Fresh concept has brought an artsy, Bohemian theme to the Miami cigar industry. All the furniture in the factory is handmade or reclaimed, the walls have art that changes from month to month, and there’s a section towards the back that functions as a creative studio. Many of the cigar boxes that leave the factory-cum-gallery are customized with modern, avant-garde art, sometimes cigar themed, sometimes not.
Right now, Wynwood produces three main cigar lines: Rout, Coneja and Grenada, all of which are made with mostly Honduran tobacco. With six rollers working in pairs and one packer behind them, Wynwood is tiny, producing about 1,000 cigars per day. The Wynwood lines are made as an artsy alternative to Eiroa’s core CLE brand, which is produced in Honduras. The rollers behind the tables at Wynwood gained experience at the Camacho factory in Honduras—which was once owned by Eiroa and his father—and Eiroa paid for their visas and their lodging to have them participate in his new experiment.
“A legal visa is a huge incentive for these guys to work,” says Eiroa, “but I don’t want them to overproduce. And here in Miami, we can take our time.” Eiroa says the response from the local community has been strong. “Every month the neighborhood has something called the Wynwood Art Walk, where the surrounding businesses and galleries open their doors. People come in, buy a cigar, look at the art and have an experience they normally wouldn’t. We welcome this.”
Less people friendly, though no less serious, is the new Tropical Tobacco factory, which opened up in Doral, Florida, in 2011. Situated in an industrial park near the Miami airport, 10 rollers work individually to produce the Casa Fernandez Miami brand. Casa Fernandez was first rolled at the Raices Cubanas factory in Honduras, but brand owner Eduardo Fernández slowly relocated the operation to Miami. He didn’t choose Miami to cater to visitors.
“This isn’t a shop in Little Havana,” says Fernández. “It isn’t really for tourists. When we bought Pedro Martín’s Tropical Tobacco in 2002, this was his facility. It was used for distribution, but after awhile it seemed that I could have a lot more control over the quality of the Casa Fernandez brand in a smaller setting more easily controlled than in Honduras. Being here guarantees better consistency.”
It’s a bare-bones operation with little to distract the workers. At the front of the facility is a warehouse where the docking-bay doors are rolled up to let in natural light, which can often be a luxury in this type of industrial setting, and tobacco leaves are hand-stripped and sorted by one man. Further back, in a cooled environment, Fernández keeps bales and bales of cigar tobacco, the bulk of which is supplied by his agricultural conglomerate Aganorsa (Agricola Ganadera Norteña S.A.), a giant grower in Nicaragua. Aganorsa supplies a huge portion of the premium cigar industry with raw leaf and affords Fernández’s operation true vertical integration. The Corojo ’99 wrapper that he uses is proprietary to the Casa Fernandez Miami brand and that brand only. “I’m not telling you which farm it’s from,” Fernández says with a laugh. “Then everyone will want it.”
Fernández is seated at a table right in the middle of the warehouse floor. With his gunmetal-grey beard and generally austere countenance, one doesn’t expect him to speak so softly, let alone chuckle. But he lights up a Casa Fernandez and closes his eyes for a moment, then exhales and nods approvingly. He’s quite fond of the wrapper, calling it “a magical leaf with a unique sweetness.” Fernández is biased, of course, but the cigar has impressed. The Casa Fernandez Miami Toro was the number 12 cigar in Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars of 2011, scoring 92 points.
Fernández has staffed Tropical Tobacco with experienced cigar rollers who previously worked in Cuba. Unlike in most of Central America or the Dominican Republic, where one worker bunches the tobacco and a separate roller applies the cover leaf, the employees at Tropical Tobacco work individually in a more Cuban style of production.
“Each roller is responsible for the entire cigar. The personality and skill is evident in each stick,” says Fernández.
The staff rolls about 1,500 cigars per day, 80 percent of which are Casa Fernandez Miamis. Casa Fernandez Reserva, Aganorsa Leaf and Aganorsa Leaf Maduro are also made here in Doral. Fernández says finding good cigar rollers in Miami isn’t a problem, but it also isn’t cheap. By his estimation, the labor cost is at least 40 percent higher in Miami than in Honduras. “The extra cost is worth it,” Fernández says with confidence. “We’re looking to expand.”
A five-minute car ride from Tropical Tobacco down North West 25th Street in Doral takes you straight to the My Father Cigars warehouse and rolling gallery. More of a boutique operation than a true factory, the building is owned by the Garcia family, producers of such brands as Tatuaje, My Father, La Aroma de Cuba, Don Pepin Garcia and Flor de las Antillas, Cigar Aficionado’s 2012 Cigar of the Year. Most of the Garcia’s cigars are made in Nicaragua, but their business was born in the Calle Ocho section of Miami under the name El Rey de los Habanos.
José “Pepin” Garcia took on Pete Johnson’s Tatuaje brand as his first client in 2003, and it was in Miami where the original Tatuaje Selección de Cazador or “brown label” was born. Its small-batch, Miami-made identity was always was one of the brand’s defining characteristics, and still is to this day.
“It all started here with me,” says Johnson as he sits at a table in the middle of the My Father Cigars facility. It’s early evening and the warehouse space has been temporarily converted into a nightclub for the 10th anniversary celebration of both the Tatuaje and Don Pepin Garcia brands. White drapery, colored lights and a full bar turn the ambiance from industrial to festive and in a few hours, the music will be blaring at decibels that could stop a pacemaker.
Though Johnson no longer plays in a band, the 42-year-old still has the look of pure Rock-n-Roll. His hair, however, is neatly tied back and his tattoos and heavy silver jewelry are covered by a sports jacket. “We wouldn’t be in the position we’re at right now if it weren’t for what we did in Miami. We don’t need to be here. We don’t make any more money off of the cigars here than we do from the cigars made in Nicaragua, but something made in the U.S.A. is always special.”
After demand outgrew the capacity at the tiny El Rey de los Habanos factory, the Garcia family expanded to Nicaragua, keeping only Tatuaje “brown label” and Don Pepin Garcia Blue Label in Miami. Eventually, the Garcias moved from downtown Miami to an industrial park in Doral.
The My Father Cigars factory in Nicaragua ships its finished product to the My Father Cigars headquarters in Florida. Inside the building, behind the loading area and the offices and the inventory warehouse, is a room with less than a dozen rolling tables where small amounts of Tatuaje and Don Pepin Garcia are made. (One of the rollers, Rene Dominguez, has been making cigars with Pepin since before the Cuban Revolution, dating back to the days when he worked at his family factory in Baez, Cuba.) That room carries an old familiar name.
“The little factory we have is still called El Rey de los Habanos,” says Janny Garcia, referring to the Garcia’s original factory name. Janny, Pepin’s daughter and head of operations for the Florida location, is upstairs preparing for the party. “My Dad loves the name,” she says. Depending on the need, the rollers concentrate on crafting either Tatuaje or Don Pepin Garcia Blue. “There’s really no need for us to have rollers in Miami,” says Janny. “Our production is very good in Nicaragua and I don’t think that the rollers there are any worse or better than the rollers here, but my dad is attached to Miami.”
To underscore his Miami roots, and to celebrate 10 years in the business, Johnson has repackaged and rebanded all his Miami-made cigars. The new, redesigned bands read “Tattoo Tatuaje 10 Miami,” as does a new marking on the box. The Tatuaje “brown label” is arguably the quintessential cult cigar, and this is because of its small production and limited distribution.
According to Janny, the small factory produces about 350,000 cigars per year. It’s off the beaten path in Doral, and there is no tourist foot traffic, but if one has the inclination to take the trip, the facility has a small cigar shop and a fully furnished indoor branded lounge.
When asked why he’s kept a Miami presence, Pepin himself answers: “Miami is the city that received me and so many other Cubans when we left our country. It’s a place where Cubans can make a living and exist like human beings.”
This is not to say that cigar rolling on Miami’s iconic Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) has been abandoned. A little over a year ago, George Rico of El Rico Habano Cigars had the idea of opening up a small rolling gallery in Miami. Most of his cigars are made in Honduras at the S.T.K. factory, but Rico had aspirations of more creative control and saw an opportunity to make this possible in Miami. The sign over his 8th Street factory reads G.R. Tabacaleras Unidas Corp.
“My focus is on quality,” says Rico. “In Miami I can create a unique product in small batches without having to go all the way to Honduras to do it. All my rollers are Cuban, and most of my cigars out of Miami are made with a pigtail cap, similar to the Cuban Cohiba Behike.”
His first project out of Miami was a brand called Baracuda By George Rico, a cigar that contains Nicaraguan internal tobaccos and a Habano-seed wrapper grown in Ecuador. Baracuda has become the flagship brand of his Miami concern, but he also makes brands such as Opium, Zulu Zulu and the George Rico Miami Series. In his first year, Rico’s four rollers only made about 100,000 cigars, but he is very satisfied with the quality and has introduced an interesting concept directed at tourists who walk in the door curious about cigars.
“I started something called the ’Gar Deli concept,” he says. “I give a little seminar on blends and then a customer can smoke the different component tobaccos. After that, I explain how to blend a cigar and then let the customer make his own blend. It’s like making a sandwich, so that’s where I came up with the name ’Gar Deli.” Any prospective walk-in blender has 12 different types of filler tobacco to choose from, as well as six different wrapper types that include Ecuadoran Habano, Nicaraguan Habano and Pennsylvanian broadleaf. After the blend is established, the commitment is for a box of 25 at $250 per box. The entire process takes about four hours.
Rico tries to keep the cost of his cigars in a reasonable realm. “Even though it costs so much more to make a cigar in Miami than it does in Honduras,” he says, “Baracuda only retails in the $7.50 to $9.00 range.”
In Rico’s same Calle Ocho zip code is another small factory called El Titan de Bronze. It’s a charming little boutique decorated with old photos and cigar memorabilia. While this factory isn’t new to Miami like the others, it has only recently become relevant within the realm of premium cigars since picking up a number of national brands such as La Palina and Padilla.
Eighteen years ago, El Titan started making its own namesake brands for walk-in tourists interested in smoking a local cigar. The factory was and still is owned by Cuban-born Sandy Cobas, who started as a wine and liquor retailer before getting into the cigar business. She’s since left the spirits industry and devoted herself entirely to the factory. “I never leave,” she says as she walks into the small cigar aging room. Here, in this closet-size walk-in, a number of finished cigars sit on shelves in bundles of 25 and 50. “I can’t. We’re small and we want to stay in business so you have to be the best. Miami is expensive but it’s worth it. I’m a niche operation for people interested in classic Cuban-style cigars.”
Rolling tables take up most of the space in the factory, and Cobas walks up and down, checking cigars and looking at their construction. She says that the operation was not profitable when it first started, but the real turning point for the factory came about two years ago when a Cuban roller named Maria Sierra started working for her. Classified as a Category 9 roller, Sierra had made cigars at the prestigious El Laguito Factory in the Miramar section of Havana for 32 years, giving her somewhat of an elite status among rollers.
“Usually the rollers from Cuba that come around are from Upmann or the Partagás Factory if you’re lucky,” says Cobas. “But El Laguito?” Cobas walks over to Sierra’s rolling table and picks up a cigar, holding it up, showing off its excellent construction and pigtail cap—undeniable proof of remarkable training. Sierra does not look up from her work.
In Cuba, Sierra primarily made Cohibas, including Behikes, and her skills have been put to good use in Miami. Last year, she made a limited-edition cigar for Bill Paley’s La Palina brand called the Goldie Laguito No. 2, which was rolled with the same parameters as the Cuban Laguito No. 2—a 6 inch by 38 ring panetela. It was the only La Palina made in Miami until this year’s Goldie Laguito No. 5, an expertly finessed pigtail cigar the same size as the Cohiba Behike BHK 54 (5 3/4 by 54).
Sierra is the only one who rolls these smokes for La Palina. Only 25,000 are scheduled for production. While she concentrates on that, the nine other rollers are busy producing the Padilla cigars, including the Padilla Miami 8 & 11 (a cigar that was once made in Miami, relocated to Honduras, and brought back to Miami), Chinnock Cellars cigars (a brand owned by Brian Chinnock of Chinnock Cellars winery) and some of the El Primer Mundo brands, including the Epifania and Liga Miami.
Cobas mourns the loss of some of the factories that have left the neighborhood. El Credito Cigars, which rolled La Gloria Cubanas just across the street, now only sells cigars. And El Rey de los Habanos is now in Doral. “I wish that some of the people who left Calle Ocho were still here. It brought more foot traffic, but I love it here,” says Cobas. “The rollers are artists and I don’t ever get tired of watching them work. They’re the best at what they do. Miami still has that mystique.”
A mystique indeed. But also something simple—the cigars are made well and with distinction. It’s a city where displaced artisans are anxious to show their skill and passion. Fernández, when assessing his cigars and his rollers, puts it plainly: “Being in Miami is the closest thing you can get to rolling in Cuba. Each cigar is rolled in Cuba’s image.”
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