An Interview with Christian Eiroa

The man behind Camacho, La Fontana and Baccarat cigars from Honduras.

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Q: Where is that?
A: Gainesville, Georgia.
Q: That's probably pretty tough.
A: Yeah, it was terrible. It was a good time, but I hated the place.
Q: Now what made you end up there? Were you a wild kid?
A: When you grow up in these Latin countries and you have some means, you become somewhat of an untouchable. So eventually one of my friends got in trouble, real bad trouble.
Q: When did you start selling cigars?
A: I moved to Miami in '98. It was a terrible year for us. We had the bank notes, the business was cut almost in half. We had a huge drop. But of course, when you have tobacco in the fields, when you have everything going, you can't just shut off a switch. On top of that we had union problems.
Q: In Honduras? The factory was unionized?
A: Yeah, it was terrible. The union gave us a hard time and they locked us out of our own factory in '98.
Q: What was keeping the company going?
A: Baccarat. Baccarat is huge. It's still our No. 1 seller. In 1998, the business didn't die. I hit the road. I think I was on the road 40 weeks.
Q: Is that the first time you started selling?
A: Yeah. I didn't know how to sell. Sal hated me -- a young kid, cocky, coming in. Sal wrote a letter of resignation and everything, but he didn't do it. [Sal Fontana and Eiroa are now an unlikely pair that bicker in comedic style. Eiroa refers to the 80-year-old Fontana as his consigliere.] It was a terrible year. I got ulcers and everything. I hated the road.
Q: How old were you at this point?
A: Twenty-six, twenty-seven. Didn't know a lick about selling. But I ended up getting the simple joys of sales -- even if it was a one-box order. Most of all, I started really understanding the business. Around July or August, my father surprised me with the corojo leaf they had been growing. I didn't know anything about that. He surprised me. It was good, it was nice and strong. And we had a group of retailers down, and they liked it.
Q: At that point you were growing Connecticut and other seeds in Honduras.
A: Yes, Connecticut, Mexican -- my father loves to experiment.
Q: OK, before you came out with Camacho Corojo in 2000, what was the state of the Camacho brand?
A: I think we bought Camacho from Simon Camacho's family in 1995. We launched it just to throw a brand out there. It had Connecticut wrappers, some had Indonesian wrappers. Then we came out with the corojo leaf.
Q: And how big did it get?
A: I think it hit two million cigars.
Q: Which primings do you use for Camacho Corojo?
A: It's third and fourth priming. Second priming goes for binder. And the corona priming, the fifth priming, goes for the Camacho Diploma. Next year, I think we're going to grow around 400 acres.
Q: Can you grow more?
A: We could, but we don't want to grow the factory and the farms anymore. Looking at Fuente, it's very admirable the way they've disciplined themselves to maintain their production at a certain level. Currently our production is 14 million sticks. We'll be happy if we can keep that many sticks and maintain the consistency of each brand.
Q: Take us through your company's brands.
A: We have Camacho Corojo. We have Camacho SLR and SLR Maduro, which is doing very well. We just extended the line. We have the Camacho Liberty, which will come out every so often. We have Baccarat and La Fontana. We have Don Felo. And another one I'm real proud of is National Brand, a bundle cigar we pulled out of the market during the boom. The retail price is about two, two and a half bucks. During the boom, people were coming in, buying them and rebanding them. So we pulled it from the market. And we came back with it in '97, '98, and last year we hit the million-cigar mark. We have a couple of smaller brands. So Camacho sets off, in my opinion, makes the whole full-bodied cigar thing explode. Camacho comes up against 17, 20 brands competing for the full-bodied cigar smoker. And maybe four, five of those brands stick. And unfortunately, as our competition gets heavy, our quality dips.
Q: What happened?
A: The demand was so high. When we grow and come up with a brand, we try to keep at least two years of tobacco. And we ate up all the gravy, we ate up all the good stuff. To keep production as the next crop came in, we used second primings, the light ones. It was too much production.
Q: Was that a mistake?
A: A huge mistake. We paid the price for it. So finally we said, Let's nip this in the bud, stop production. We froze it from November, December [2004]. January we started producing the new stuff, and didn't ship Corojo again until March, April. We established a limit. A cigar can't just be strength -- and that's something corojo delivers. Corojo is one of the only leaves that you can blend 100 percent of itself and it's going to taste good.
Q: So the Camacho Corojo blend is all corojo?
A: It's all corojo.
Q: Filler, binder, wrapper?
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