Marvin R. Shanken interviews the man behind Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.
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Blumenthal: Call Tinder Box. [Laughter.] First of all, you have to remember you are in the retail business. Some people don't know what they're doing. It used to be you could open a store with very little money, where today you need a lot of money. So, I don't know what advice I could tell them.
C.A.: We recently went to a new store opening in Philadelphia that was quite the opposite of the traditional store. It was large. It had an enormous selling area, not only for boxes that were stacked but also displays for accessories and so forth. In the back it had a lounge area with lockers. Is that the store of the future?
Blumenthal: We're opening a store very similar to that. It should be open in the next couple of months. That could be the future. We'll find out if these stores pay off. If they do, yes, that could be the future. I'm afraid, though, that I don't see this type of store doing what the owners expect it to do. They expect people to come in and sit down and smoke a cigar and make a sort of a club room out of it. They may get some people, but the average man is not going to do that. He's not gonna make a cigar store his hangout. Cigar stores used to be the place where people hung out. There were always people standing in the front of the store, and that's where men used to go. I don't know if these stores will work. I hope they'll work. We are trying now with Tinder Box to see if we could also do something like that.
C.A.: You go home tonight and have a nice dinner, cup of coffee, maybe a Cognac, cigar, you go to sleep. Tomorrow in The New York Times, you open the front page and it says: Clinton Signs Bill to End Cuban Trade Embargo. I can't think of an industry that will be more turned upside down than the cigar industry by that action. What do you see happening?
Blumenthal: We've all thought of this. It's always in the back of our minds. But I feel the price of Cuban cigars today is too high. Cuba also has the same problem that we all have. They don't have enough cigar makers. They haven't been training people to be cigar makers. They've been training people to be lawyers, doctors, et cetera. And they haven't been producing enough tobacco to fill their own demands. So even if they start to sell cigars here, they'll be expensive, and there won't be enough. After all, the biggest year of Cuban cigars in this country was 15 million in the '50s.
What we are really interested in is the tobacco. As I said, before the embargo all cigars were either made of all-Cuban tobacco or contained some Cuban tobacco. So while there may be an initial surge of people trying to get Cuban cigars, I don't know if there will be that many available, and I think that for a lot of the people who smoke them, either the price will be sky high or they'll realize that they could get just as good a cigar made with Cuban tobacco.
C.A.: So you would buy raw Cuban tobacco immediately?
Blumenthal: Right. We have to wait three years, too.
C.A.: Will you make the cigars in Tampa or Honduras?
Blumenthal: We will have them made in Honduras.
C.A.: So, you ship the Cuban tobacco to Honduras, you age it, and then you come out with...
Blumenthal: We'll blend it with what we have. I mean, after all, we can't all go into Cuba and start a factory.
C.A.: Do you have plans someday to go to Cuba and start a factory?
Blumenthal: If it's viable.
C.A.: In the meantime, if you owned the Hoyo brand in the United States, legally, will they be able to sell the Hoyo Cuban brand here? Or will they have to make a deal with you?
Blumenthal: They will have to sell it to me, like they'd have to sell their brands to all the other companies that own the rights here.
C.A.: Isn't that a very difficult situation?
Blumenthal: Who knows what's gonna happen? We hope that the embargo will end, but both of us will gain from it. We should gain, and they should gain.
C.A.: Having been in the business all your life, is it more fun today?
Blumenthal: Right now, I find it a lot of fun and a lot of pleasure. I have a business that's booming. There's a demand for my merchandise, and my business is growing. I don't feel any different than I felt 40 years ago, except when I look in the mirror.