An Interview With Manuel Quesada
The head of Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. (Matasa), makers of Fonseca, Cubita and other cigars.
In June 1974, Manuel Quesada, his brother Alvaro and their father, Manuel Sr., opened a cigar factory called Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. (Matasa) in Santiago, Dominican Republic. The Quesada family had worked with tobacco since the late 1800s in Cuba, but this was its first venture into cigar making. At the time, Dominican cigars were virtually unknown in the cigar world, but Matasa grew from making thousands of cigars a year to millions, thanks to the popularity of house brands such as Fonseca and Cubita, as well as a host of brands made under contract for other companies importing cigars to the United States.
Manuel Quesada, 57, visited the New York City offices of Cigar Aficionado in February to talk about his 30 years in business with senior editor David Savona, and to discuss his greatest challenge ever, dealing with the tragic accident that claimed the lives of his brother, nephew and right-hand man.
David Savona: This is a big year for you, 2004.
Quesada: Thirty years.
Q: Tell us about the history of Matasa. What month was it founded?
A: June ,74, with $100, a chair and a phone.
Q: You and your father?
A: We were running the leaf business, so I sort of moved over from the leaf business to start a factory. But my brother had come back already from college and the seminary.
Q: Why begin making cigars in the Dominican Republic?
A: In Miami, the cigarmakers that had come out of Cuba were getting older, and with the Social Security a lot of them had to be paid under the table, and it started to become a hassle. The free zones had just started in the Dominican Republic. So it was a good idea to transfer production from Miami to the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic at the time, even though it didn't have a cigar history of exports, it did have a local cigar history. But for exports, nobody had thought about it, except, of course, Consolidated, which had already started in La Romana.
Q: So when you started in the Santiago free zone, was there any other cigar factory there?
A: Nobody in the free zone. The free zones started in ,72, and the first free zone to open was in La Romana.
Q: When did Santiago's free zone open?
A: Seventy-four. The building where we are is where [then president Joaquin] Balaguer inaugurated the free zone of Santiago. Our building was used for the ceremony, and right after the ceremony, we moved in.
Q: What other companies were there?
A: There were three buildings. Ours was in the middle.
Q: That was it?
A: That was it.
Q: Today it's so large. You must look at it now and say, "My God, I don't even recognize this place."
A: There are 45,000 or 47,000 people working in the free zone. There aren't many towns in the Dominican Republic that have as many
people as the free zone has.
Q: And when it opened?
A: When we started the factory, there may have been a couple hundred people working.
Q: How many rollers did you have at the beginning?
A: Three. We started by trying to hire some people, but they had all kinds of ideas. They thought that they were worth more than they were really worth. So we decided to train. And we started teaching people with a Cuban guy that we had brought in from Miami. Espinosa was his name. And he was in charge of teaching the cigarmakers. I would case and strip and prepare the leaf and do everything for him.
Q: I guess there wasn't a lot of tobacco for you to get ready for just three rollers.
A: Yeah, so I would do all of that, and he would take care of making the cigars.
Q: What brands did you begin with?
A: Ah, we had Sosa and Fonseca.
Q: How many cigars did you make in the first year?
A: Oh, heavens! Twenty thousand.
Q: Could you be a viable business at that level?
A: Well, it was being supported by the leaf business at the time, because we were getting started. We had to buy a whole bunch of equipment, molds, and buy some tobacco, and the wrapper, binders, and so on. It was a very meager and very humble start. And difficult, because nobody knew the Dominican Republic blend.
Q: Was there ever a time when the cigar business looked a little bit dicey, when you thought this might not work?
A: Quite so. In the ,80s, it was doldrums. It was very, very slow. The leaf business was always steady because the dark cigarettes were always big in Europe.
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