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Dominican Flowers

A Relative Newcomer to the Cigar Industry, La Flor Dominicana Is Taking Root and Blooming
Jim Daniels
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

Litto Gomez and Ines Lorenzo are driving the narrow road back to Santiago after visiting their new tobacco field at La Canela, in the beautiful Valle de Cibao at the heart of the Dominican tobacco growing region. They're a striking couple. Gomez is a handsome man with an electric smile and Lorenzo, his wife, is a statuesque blonde with classic good looks. They might be models returning from a photo shoot instead of owners of one of the Dominican Republic's rising cigar companies. A Dominican group is singing a love song on the CD player and Gomez is describing his passion for tobacco: "Sometimes when I smell a wonderful leaf, I don't want to smoke it, I want to eat it." He goes on, using words like noble and dignified, and in mid-sentence he pulls the car over sharply. Opening his door, he says to a guest, "Come look at this."

A few minutes later, after negotiating a barbed-wire fence in his expensive shoes, Gomez is standing in a field, proudly holding out a tobacco flower. "It's beautiful, no?" he asks. As he examines the soft pink petals, puffing away on his robusto, he looks like a man who's found his love. And it seems all the more appropriate that this flower is the name and symbol of his and Lorenzo's cigar company, La Flor Dominicana, the Dominican Flower.

Since breaking into the tobacco industry nearly four years ago, Gomez and Lorenzo have become one of the major players in the Dominican Republic. Starting with just 150,000 cigars in 1994, when the brand was known as Los Libertadores, La Flor Dominicana quickly expanded production, making three million cigars last year and shooting for four million in 1997. Last year's output included 2.4 million La Flor Dominicanas and 600,000 Habanos Hatueys, which is a stronger blend alternative to the company's main brand, for total sales of $3.6 million.

The couple's rapid ascension in the cigar world wasn't exactly what they had in mind when Gomez and Lorenzo met in 1989 at South Beach in Miami. After his initial overtures went ignored, they ran into each other again at La Guardia Airport, in New York, before boarding the same plane for Miami. Lorenzo made a point of dropping her suitcase to get his attention, which worked, and before long they were dating and eventually married.

Lorenzo was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States with her mother when she was 11. Gomez grew up in Uruguay and in 1973 emigrated to Toronto, where he worked in the restaurant business. In 1981, he moved to Miami, opened a pawnshop, and then operated a jewelry business, until a near-tragic event turned his life around.

One afternoon in 1993, while Gomez and a jewelry maker were alone in the store, two armed men burst through the front door. With a loaded gun pointed at their heads, Gomez and his employee were tied together on the floor. The intruders proceeded to clean out the shop and then bolted, leaving them still tied. A neighbor who happened by could see their bound feet from a back window and immediately called the police. The robbery shook Gomez deeply. He decided that he needed a change and, four months later, he was out of the business for good. Gomez loved cigars and had a number of friends in the tobacco business in the Dominican Republic, so he decided to give cigar making a try.

Los Libertadores, a cigarmaker in the Dominican Republic, offered Gomez a position as the manager of its manufacturing factory in 1994, and he accepted. He had enjoyed smoking cigars in the past, and although he had no history in tobacco, he had always had a great deal of respect for the industry. He saw in this venture a means of finding a new beginning, a new life. Gomez and Lorenzo entered into a partnership with Los Libertadores in early 1994 with the intent of producing high-quality cigars. But the couple soon learned that their partners were more interested in entering the high-volume market of cheaper cigars rather than the premium market that they had envisioned. A serious rift developed that proved irreconcilable.

A year later the partnership of Los Libertadores was dissolved, and although Lorenzo and Gomez owned the Los Libertadores brand, they decided to start fresh with a new brand instead, and La Flor Dominicana was born. The couple, who each own 50 percent of the company, made it their mission to produce high-quality cigars worthy of the proud industry for which they had such high regard. Despite the enthusiastic reception their cigars received from the beginning, they were very much aware that they were newcomers in an industry filled with tobacco bloodlines that in many cases went back for generations. Those great cigar families cast an intimidating shadow and spurred Gomez and Lorenzo to start La Flor Dominicana on solid ground, making every attempt to ensure that their company was worthy of the great tradition of tobacco. They sought the best raw materials, exceptional rollers, and a factory where they could consistently produce fine cigars for their customers at a fair price.

Gomez went to see Oscar Boruchin, owner of Mike's Cigars in Miami, whose wife used to buy jewelry from him, and, as an unknown, showed him some of his cigars. "He was nice enough to receive me at his office," Gomez recalls. On the strength of that single sales call, Boruchin placed an order and became a promoter of Gomez's cigars. At the Cincinnati meeting of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America in 1996, Boruchin pulled aside Lionel Melendi, the owner of De La Concha Tobacconists, in New York, and said, "Come on, Lionel, it's time you buy from these guys." Today, Melendi is one of Gomez's and Lorenzo's best customers as well as their good friend. "Through Oscar we acquired some of our best accounts," Lorenzo says. "We definitely owe him part of our success."

The couple spared no expense in the production of cigars at the state-of-the-art facility they own in Tamboril, outside Santiago, the capital of cigar manufacturing in the Dominican Republic. The factory, a converted disco, is itself something of a showcase. In the entranceway are columns that have been painted to resemble lit cigars, and a huge tobacco flower, the company's logo, bursts from an adjacent stucco wall. Inside, a massive mural of colorful tobacco fields adorns an entire wall, and in the center of the factory floor is an atrium that vaults 20 feet above a raised platform. Here Gomez, Lorenzo and the factory manager, Papito Pichardo, can discuss business. Seated in rattan chairs, they smoke cigars and sip coffee as rollers and sorters work in the background. In a room just off the factory floor is a walk-in humidor paneled with Spanish cedar that holds 330,000 cigars, one of two such storage rooms in the building.

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