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The Change at C.A.O.

Now among the hottest of cigar brands, Nashville's C.A.O. began life as a pipe maker
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

(continued from page 2)

The tagline challenges the notion that Cuba makes the best cigars in the world with the statement: Cuban Shmooban. It’s copy that attracts some, angers others, but is hard to ignore.

Today, C.A.O. is experiencing growing pains. The company occupies cramped, charmingly dumpy headquarters in west Nashville. It’s a residential area, with cheap rent. Aylin shares an office with Cano; Tim shares an office with Mike Conder, a consultant who once worked for General Cigar Co. and La Flor Dominicana. They are the lucky ones. Most of the remaining staff sit in odd-shaped cubicles, which fill the space, which also serves as a warehouse. The company has no loading dock. Each shipment has to be broken down and hand-carried out the back and around the corner where trucks have access. It’s a smaller than expected operation, with 19 employees.

“We are very happy with the road we have made,” says Cano, 67. He’s philosophical, with an easy smile, an ever calm demeanor, and a self-deprecating wit he’s passed on to his son. His mood reflects the yoga he has practiced for the past two decades, and a recent scare with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—now in remission—has made him even more spiritual and reflective.

“We are performing through our cigars,” he says. “My daughter and my son have done a wonderful job. I compare it to the performance of a ballerina doing Swan Lake. There is the part of playing the notes and there is the part of feeling the notes…if they know how to combine the physical self with the spiritual self, they will be a better person overall.”

His children get the message. “We’re making a product that’s making a lot of people happy,” says Tim. Adds his sister: “We really enjoy what we do.” That much seems obvious.

Back in Danlí, the sun has set on another workday. The C.A.O. and Toraño workers file out toward the Pan-American highway as the rain begins to fall again, and the owners of the building settle into the back office. Tim Ozgener plops into one chair, Charlie Toraño another. The men are opposites, Ozgener short and bubbling with energy, Toraño tall and lanky and quiet. Bundles of unbanded cigars are spread across the table, ready for test smoking.

“This room I like. We discovered Brazilia here,” says Tim. Charlie nods: “Good karma.”

The men light cigars and settle into easy conversations about life, music, playing the guitar and raising families. They move from one cigar to the next, evaluating the blends of the day. Tim, a visual thinker, turns to his notebook, filled with sketches of tobacco leaves and cigar boxes.

Ozgener obsesses about the cigar: how it burns, how it looks, but overall, how it tastes.

“We want to have style,” he says, “but we don’t want to be just glamorous. We want to have substance, too.”

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