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The Son of Montecristo

The Son of Montecristo Peripatetic Benjamin Menendez has left his imprint on nearly every cigar-making country
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

(continued from page 2)

"We did an enormous amount of Montecruz," says Ron Shapiro, the former owner of a 1960s cigar shop in Manhattan and now the co-owner of the International Cigar Factory Outlet in South Norwalk, Connecticut. Montecruz cigars were pricey for the time, selling for about $1 for a Churchill size, compared with about a quarter for many other cigars. "We were able to capture an entirely new business because of it," says Shapiro.

The Canary Islands success helped rebuild the ruined Menendez family fortune, and in 1972 it sold Insular Tabacalera to conglomerate Gulf + Western for around $7 million. Menendez stayed on until 1977, when he and his brother Felix opened a cigar factory in Brazil. It didn't work out as planned.

"I thought Brazil could be a very good place, but it doesn't have a name in the U.S.," says Menendez. "I personally lost money in Brazil." Inflation cut away "a pretty good portion" of what he had made from the sale to Gulf + Western. "Everything was like salt in water -- disappearing so fast."

A fourth life in the cigar business brought Menendez to a pair of new places to make cigars: Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. General Cigar Co. hired him in 1983, first as a consultant, then, a year later, as the head of its premium cigar operations.

At General Cigar, Menendez was working for a family that had done his father a great favor: the Cullmans, owners of General Cigar at the time. It was a Cullman who sold Alonso Menendez the American rights to the Montecristo name -- when the brand was in its infancy.

"In the early twentieth century, Joe Cullman Jr. went to [our] factory and saw my father making Montecristos. And he said, 'I own that brand in the United States -- do you want it?'" says Menendez. "My father said yes. And the price was whatever inventory of labels they had on hand, plus $1."

Menendez worked at General until 1997, when he took a job with the Spanish tobacco monopoly, Tabacalera. As the Madrid-based company's chief cigar creator during the most frantic time in the history of cigar making, Menendez was assigned to run the company's premium cigar operations for the U.S. market, overseeing factories in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. It was a challenging task given that tobacco prices were at all-time highs and competition for rollers and materials was fierce in the midst of the cigar boom. He bought large inventories of tobacco and created several brands, including VegaFina and Quintero, neither of which lasted on the U.S. market. He also expanded the Dominican Romeo y Julieta brand, which previously had been made by Menendez's closest friend, Manuel Quesada.

Tabacalera would later merge with SEITA of France, creating Altadis, the world's largest cigar company. Tabacalera has long had a close relationship with Cuba, being the largest importer of Cuban cigars, and Altadis has forged even stronger ties: in 1999, it acquired half of Cuba's Habanos S.A., the exporter of all Cuba's cigars.

Despite his new company's cozy relationship with Castro's Cuba, Menendez has never returned to the land of his birth. He came close in 1996. "I was almost ready to go," he says, "then they shot down those two planes." Cuba's attack on two aircraft flown by Brothers to the Rescue, the Miami organization that searches for rafters in the Florida Straits, froze the warming U.S.-Cuba relations, and kept Menendez at home. Now he feels that he cannot go back until Fidel Castro is no longer in power.

"We are one country divided by one man. If Cuba ever changed the system, I would be on the first available plane. But not to get anything back. I don't want anything back -- just to see how I can help my country. It is my country, and it will always be my country."

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