An Interview with Ernesto Perez-Carrillo

Owner, El Credito Cigar Co., makers of La Gloria Cubana, La Hoja Selecta, El Rico Habano and Dos Gonzales cigars.

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Carrillo: I'm not exactly sure when, but I know when he came here, he registered it and he had no problem.
CA: When did you enter your father's business?
Carrillo: I entered it in about 1968, '69. At that time, it was just mostly a part-time job.
CA: What were you doing?
Carrillo: I was at school. When I was 19 I got married. Then I started playing music; I wanted to become a drummer. And I still worked with him part-time also. Now, as time went by, I started getting more and more into the business, learning whatever I could from it and from the people that worked there. In 1980, unfortunately, my father passed away. I took over the estate and started going to the RTDA [Retail Tobacco Dealers of America] shows. I started trying to build the business up.
CA: When you took over the business in 1980, how many cigars was El Credito making?
Carrillo: That year we made 850,000.
CA: And what kind of cigars were they?
Carrillo: Well, they were the typical Miami cigar. They were a blend of Dominican, Brazilian, some Honduran tobacco and Ecuadorian wrappers. They were a milder cigar than the La Gloria is now. For about five or six years after my father passed away, I went through a lot of hard times because the demand wasn't really there. We were working with very little capital.
CA: How did you earn your capital?
Carrillo: Actually, I was losing money. I remember my accountant one year, I think it was in 1984 or 1985, told me, 'I think this is going to be your last year in the cigar business because you have lost $20,000.' I thought about it for a while and decided I couldn't let all this effort go to waste, so I fired the bookkeeper. I didn't want anybody tellingme that my business was in ruins. But, as it turns out, we were losing the money...
CA: But 800,000 cigars was a lot of cigars in those days.
Carrillo: But that was in 1980. By 1985, we had fallen to about 500,000 cigars.
CA: Was that the low point in terms of production?
Carrillo: Right.
CA: Because today, in Miami, you're only doing a million two. Would you be doing 10 million today if you'd had the capital?
Carrillo: Yes. But at that time, they were different times. There wasn't the demand that you have now.
CA: And you were selling them for nothing. Your prices were ridiculous.
Carrillo: There was absolutely no markup. I think at that time, the assumption was if you made $40, $50 on a thousand cigars, you were doing great.
CA: My understanding is that you made cigars in the 1980s basically for the Cuban and Spanish customer base in Miami.
Carrillo: Yes, that's true. We made a lot of short-filler, Cuban-style cigars. They were 40-cent cigars.
CA: Forty-cent cigars! What percentage of your cigars in those days were sold at that price?
Carrillo: It was about 70 percent. We sold in a lot of small cafeterias to other people that resold them.
CA: When did you start to believe that you had a national brand?
Carrillo: Quite frankly, I have to say it was pretty much after the [Cigar Aficionado story].
CA: When the story came out.
Carrillo: Right. That's when it started really.
CA: You started getting phone calls from retailers? From consumers? Who?
Carrillo: Everybody--everybody wanted the cigars. Before that, we sold the cigars in just a few places, like in the East.
CA: The brand wasn't hot?
Carrillo: It wasn't hot. I remember the sales on the torpedos. I mean, we'd sell them, but it's nothing like it is right now. Right now they are one of the most popular sizes that we sell.
CA: And that started after your Wavell got a 90 in Cigar Aficionado?
Carrillo: Completely. The day that the magazine article came out, we were at the RTDA [convention]. To be frank, when I used to go to those RTDA shows, if I sold 600 cigars, I'd be happy. I remember the times we'd go to RTDA and come back with orders for 400, 500 cigars. When we got rated in that issue, we got orders in one day for 26,000 cigars. In one day. Then, the phone calls into Miami were tremendous.
CA: People used to tell me they would call you and no one would pick up the phone.
Carrillo: It was impossible. We had to put in an answering service. One time we got like 170 calls a day. Who could answer those calls? It was incredible. And that's really when the brand became known nationally and worldwide.
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