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"I am Jonathan Drew of Estelí, Nicaragua."
For the New York City born and raised Drew, the words echoed off the 31-foot-high walls of a new 61,000-square-foot warehouse that his company, Drew Estate, inaugurated last week in Nicaragua's main cigar-manufacturing city. The new facility joins a more than 114,000-square-foot manufacturing center across the street where the company creates its traditional cigar brands Liga Privada, Herrera Esteli (the number eight cigar in Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 Best Cigars of 2013), Undercrown, My Uzi Weighs a Ton and its offshoot, Kentucky Fire Cured, and such infused-tobacco brands as Acid and Java.
Drew Estate is producing nearly 25 million cigars annually in the factory, at the rate of 95,000 per day. The main rolling gallery is a gigantic football-field sized room with 245 two-person teams, bunching and rolling the cigars at traditional wooden benches. There are also 25 other rollers on hand to take care of any daily extra demand. More than 1,400 people are employed at the factory and the new warehouse, which replaced 11 smaller storage facilities spread around the tobacco-growing region in the north central region of Nicaragua.
The new $4 million warehouse, dubbed Drew Estate II, is a completely modernized version of a traditional tobacco storage and sorting facility. The metal shelves, which stretch nearly to the ceiling, are stacked with $20 million worth of inventory. The tobacco—some in burlap, some in plastic, some in palm fronds—comes from virtually every tobacco producing country in the world: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Brazil, Mexico, Cameroon and Indonesia. The shelves fill the room, from the front to the middle of the building.
The building also is outfitted with a computer controlled temperature and humidity system with more than 200 points of control, as well as a state of the art fire suppression protection system. The rear of the building is split into two levels. The lower level is packed with pilónes, or large piles of tobacco in various stages of fermentation. And the upper floor will be dedicated to sorting as well as a large conference room that will be used as part of the company's Cigar Safari program (visits by consumers) and for blending new cigars.
"This is part of our vision for expansion," Drew told Cigar Aficionado. "We want to be a complete tobacco company, to be vertically integrated and have more control of our tobacco from the earliest stages." Drew has a partner, Marvin Samel, who is also from the New York metropolitan area, and who was with him from the early stages of the company's beginnings in Brooklyn; today, the company is based in Miami and Estelí.
Drew emphasized that the company's entire manufacturing process is handmade, with "no machines." He said the tobacco used in the facility is "86 percent long filler, and 14 percent mixed filler, but 100 percent long leaf tobacco." While he declined to provide the exact percentage of infused versus traditional tobacco cigars, he said the natural cigars are now a "heavy percentage" of the overall total, and that the percentage is growing rapidly.
The young New York businessman arrived in Estelí in 1998 with $1,800, barely enough money to survive for very long. When he was on the verge of having to abandon his dream of opening a cigar factory, things began to fall into place. He finally secured a loan of less than $10,000 from a branch of Nicaragua's biggest bank, BanPro. The loan was approved by the local branch manager, Emilio Peralta.
"We believed in them from the beginning," Dr. Luis Rivas, the chief executive officer of BanPro said. "They had a vision, but they also were able to execute it. That's hard to find."
Drew also found "an angel" in Estelí. A woman named Candida and her daughter Yvonne fed Drew and some of the co-workers "three meals a day for more than a year," without compensation, something that Drew clearly has made good on since. She sat in the front row at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and he honored her by telling the story of how she had helped him out, and then Drew announced a $3,000 donation to a local charity—Mi Techo Mi Pais, which builds homes for people—in her name.
The ribbon-cutting was done by Estelí mayor Francisco Valenzuela and an invited guest. The mayor, a member of the ruling Sandinista party, is acknowledged as an astute politician with an understanding of good business practices, and all the local cigar manufacturers praise him for helping them to grow their businesses with confidence.
The presence of Drew Estate and the other cigar companies in Estelí has transformed the city from a sleepy agricultural outpost nearly two hours from the capital of Managua into a boom town. It is a small but vibrant city with new hotels, restaurants and nightclubs spread around the city, dotted with cigar manufacturing facilities, both old and new.
Drew cuts a wide swath in the town, known for his eclectic choice of hats, brightly-colored lenses in his bold frame eyeglasses, cargo pants, often in military style camouflage and an array of wild tennis shoes. While he now spends more time in the United States than in Estelí, he admits that at heart he still longs for Estelí.
"I am Jonathan Drew of Estelí," he said more than once during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. It was clear he meant it with all his heart.
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