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The Quiet Man

You might not know José Seijas, but you probably smoke his cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

(continued from page 1)

When Seijas started working at Tabacalera de Garcia in 1974, the factory made Primo del Rey cigars, but cigar making was of minor importance at the plant. Then-owner Consolidated Cigar Corp. used the Dominican plant to process tobacco, most notably the Connecticut shade that it grew on its own fields near Hartford, Connecticut. Much of the wrapper went for export to Europe, while some was sent to the company's main cigar factory in the Canary Islands, the home of H. Upmann and Montecruz cigars. In 1978, Seijas's bosses sent him to the Canaries for a close look.

It was an excellent learning ground. At the time, Americans smoked more Canary Island cigars than any other premium, and Dominican cigars were a curiosity and not much else. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Canary Islands were losing their appeal as a manufacturing base. Strikes were common. Labor rates were rising, compounded by a strengthened local currency. The union of factory workers was pressuring the cigar company for even more money and benefits. The conglomerate Gulf + Western, owners of Consolidated, decided to shift the Canary Island cigar-making operation to La Romana. Consolidated had ceased growing its own shade tobacco in Connecticut, so the building was largely unused.

The people in charge of Tabacalera de Garcia wanted five years to move the operations from the Canary Islands. Gulf + Western insisted on no more than 18 months.

"It was a terrible timetable," remembers Seijas. "I think that caused quality to suffer."

Premium cigars can be made in a variety of ways. The simplest involves only hands. The bunch, which comprises the filler tobaccos and binder, is created using only palm power, a method common in Cuba and Central America. The bunches inside most modern-day Dominican cigars are fashioned differently—workers use a hand- powered device known as a Temsco, placing tobacco leaves on a flexible, thick sheet, then pulling a lever to form the bunch. Cigars manufactured with this process are still considered handmade.

The cigars from the Canary Islands circa 1980 had even less contact with human hands. The inside was bunched by a machine, not by hands or a Temsco, and only the wrapper was put on by hand. The machines were faster than human hands, and allowed for some short-filler tobacco to be used among the long filler, cutting costs. When Gulf + Western shifted its cigar production from the Canaries to La Romana, it brought along its bunching machines. Workers struggled to learn how to use them in the short time given for the transition. Quality suffered.

"We had a number of problems," says Seijas. Exacerbating the situation was the image problem of the Dominican Republic, which had little cachet with American cigar smokers in the early 1980s. Consolidated was faced with the challenge of quickly training a new workforce, while competing with emergent brands from the Caribbean, most notably Macanudo cigars, made by hand in Jamaica.

In 1984, new management at Consolidated decided to overhaul the cigar-making process at the factory. Machine bunching was out, and making cigars by hand was in. Seijas was key to overseeing the switch.

"It was slower, it was more expensive, but basically we set our sights to produce the best cigar in the world, and to be able to compete," says Seijas. The change allowed the company to make cigars of higher quality. A buncher working by hand can make minute adjustments to the irregularities in tobacco leaf that no machine could approach. Furthermore, the change allowed the company to make fatter cigars—the bunching machines couldn't make a cigar thicker than a 46 ring gauge.

As Tabacalera de Garcia switched to making cigars by hand, it worried about draw problems. In 1984, the company began draw-testing its cigars, sticking the bunch in a suction machine to ensure that enough air could get through before the wrapper was applied.

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