An Interview With Ashton's Robert Levin
Best known for creating Ashton, Robert Levin is a 30-year veteran of the cigar business.
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03
(continued from page 1)
Q: What did cigars cost back then?
A: Fifty cents. When you got into totally handmade, it was a dollar. In those days, and this was pre-Cigar Aficionado,
people were much more brand loyal. They would come in and they would smoke the same cigar -- buy a box a week, two boxes a week. And there were a lot more people buying cigars in those days. When I began managing the store full-time, that's when I started thinking about how we could expand the business, but I had a lot to learn before that. And in the early '80s, I wanted to have my own brand. I was looking for other things to do besides the retail store.
Q: Why did you want to have your own brand?
A: We bought a business in 1980, Harry A. Tint & Sons, which was another old Philadelphia shop that went back to 1898. The original Holt's was started in 1911 by a gentleman named Arthur Holt. Tint's was still importing directly from the Canary Islands, from Consolidated Cigar Corp. And Consolidated went through a lot of changes, ownership and management changes, and they decided that they weren't going to have a sales force, and the importers would do all the selling for them. So I ended up being a jobber. And I didn't like being a jobber.
Q: What is a jobber?
A: A jobber is a distributor. You're distributing other brands to other tobacco shops around the country.
Q: Was that a profitable business?
A: No. It was a very unprofitable business. Everybody was competing for the same business with the same stores, so the only way to get the business was to give discounts. So it's buying huge quantities of cigars, selling them for a few points profit, and it was obvious to me that that was not the way to go. Everybody was fighting for the same business. You're racking up huge bills for very low profit. That's when I started thinking of having my own brand.
Q: And what brand did you create?
A: I created Ashton. I knew exactly what I wanted: a cigar that had a little more flavor and more taste than was being sold then, because people were smoking very mild cigars then. And I wanted a Connecticut-shade wrapper. I knew all the manufacturers, so I got samples from everybody, and a friend of mine was importing and distributing Ashton pipes, so when I was searching for a name, he suggested that I use Ashton. And I didn't have a better name, so it was Ashton.
Q: Who made the original Ashton?
A: It was Tabacos Dominicanos, which was Henke Kelner. I was there for two or three years. But at the time, Henke was in Colombia, and I didn't meet him for a couple of years. Other people were operating his factory. And it was a fairly new factory, because Henke had been running the government factory, and he started Tabadom with several partners.
Q: This is before he made Davidoffs?
Q: Was the cigar much like it is now?
A: I think it's much better now than it's ever been, and I think it's
getting better every year.
Q: What year did you launch Ashton?
A: We came out with it in '85, '86 -- so we started working on it in
Q: What was the original reaction to Ashton?
A: Ashton started out very slowly. I remember when I introduced it at the trade show, I took three or four orders from my friends in
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