Litto's Twist of Fate
How Litto Gomez's La Flor Dominicana was spawned from disaster—and other things you probably didn't know about one of the industry's hottest brands.
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007
The two men were well dressed, neatly groomed and appeared to have money, so Litto Gomez buzzed them inside. Another day was ending at Pekin's, the jewelry shop he owned on Miami's North Beach, and Gomez was already preparing to go home. He checked over his selection of gold, hoping to close the day with a decent deal. Then he saw the pistol. One of the men pressed the gun to Gomez's skull and told him to be quiet. Gomez had a gun in the shop, but it was out of reach, useless. He was forced to the back room, where his jeweler was working, and they were gagged with duct tape, their hands bound behind their backs with plastic ties, each lashed to the other to make it harder to escape. Gomez struggled to breathe through the thick tape covering his mouth and to steady his pounding heart. He thought he was dead.
Gomez, now 53, seldom mentions that terrifying day. More than 14 years have passed, yet recounting the details seems to sap his confidence and bring an unfamiliar worried look to his face. He speaks haltingly, swirls his cup of Cuban coffee and stares downward, scratching at his chin. He remembers the pain of the plastic as it sliced into his wrists, the brutal, slow shuffle across the floor to get near a glass door and the hour-long wait for rescue. Then Gomez's familiar deadpan humor returns, and a wry grin comes to his face.
"I would like to know where they are," he says of the thieves, who took some $400,000 in jewelry and were never caught. Gratitude, not revenge, is on his mind. "I would send them a postcard."
The robbery changed him. He put the store on the market the next day and never reopened. If not for the thieves, he might still be selling necklaces and other jewels. Instead, he soon turned to crafting what has become one of the top cigar brands in the United States—La Flor Dominicana. "What seemed to be the worst moment of my life," says Gomez, "turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me."
Born in Spain and raised in Uruguay, Gomez drew early inspiration from his father, Adelio, a laborer in a paper mill who had a vigorous work ethic and lost his right arm beneath his elbow in an industrial accident. "He had to reinvent his life," says Gomez. "My father's character, his intensity, the way he recuperated and the respect the people in town had for him, it set an example for the rest of my life."
Searching for opportunity, Gomez moved to Toronto, Canada, with his older brother, Jose, in 1973 after being denied an American visa. He spoke neither English nor French, and took menial jobs to earn a living, washing dishes, busing and waiting on tables as he learned English. "There was a lot of work, but it was beautiful," says Gomez. The first winter was bad, the second worse, and he soon had a set goal—escape the cold weather. After five years in Canada, the brothers Gomez moved to warm south Florida, where they tried their hand at running two liquor stores, then a pawn shop. Naturally curious and possessed of a drive for self-improvement, Gomez focused so intensely on the volume of jewelry that moved through the shop that he found he could hold two necklaces in his hand and tell 14-carat from 18-karat. He soon turned the pawn shop into a jewelry store.
At the time of the robbery, Gomez was dating Ines Lorenzo, a tall former model with a master's degree in international relations who lived in Miami. The two joined with a Miami real estate investor to create a Dominican cigar brand called Los Libertadores in 1994. Lorenzo ran distribution in Miami (and posed for its early ads) and Gomez managed the factory, a tiny, modest shop in Villa Gonzalez with four rolling stations.
"Ines motivated me," says Gomez. "She was very responsible for us being in the business." (Today Ines is his wife, and goes by the surname Lorenzo-Gomez.)
A dispute with the invester led Gomez and Lorenzo to take over the company in 1996. The Los Libertadores brand was not part of the transaction, and Gomez and Lorenzo renamed the cigars the company made La Flor Dominicana. The cigar boom was in full swing, and tobacconists were clamoring for cigars. If you had to lose a brand name and start fresh, the timing couldn't have been much better.
Gomez began as an outsider in an insular industry, one in which many of the men running factories in the Dominican Republic learned the art of blending cigars and other myriad mysteries of tobacco from their fathers. While Gomez's father was a cigar smoker, he had no experience with making cigars, let alone growing tobacco.
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