Avo Uvezian: The Man in the White Suit
The cigar showman in his mimbre hat and Brioni suit, Avo Uvezian is as recognizable as the cigar that bears his name.
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97
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Uvezian played in various bands in New York while studying at Juilliard. During the summer of 1951, he was playing at a resort in New York's Catskill Mountains, where he met his first wife, Marie. They were soon married. Uvezian continued his career as a budding musician until the Korean War interrupted his plans. "They drafted me and I said, 'Well, what can I do?' " he says with a huge grin. "I want to stay in America. I'm married now. So they put me in basic training, going through all the training obstacle courses. It might as well have been in Siberia. It was a cold, cold winter. I said to myself, 'What the hell am I doing here? I'm not even a citizen.' "
Being a musician paid dividends again for Uvezian. Instead of being sent to Korea, he was assigned to a marching band in New York. Unfortunately, he was told to first play the trombone and then the bells. He couldn't play either. He couldn't even march. Luckily, a few months later the Army found him a pianist position; he succeeded Burt Bacharach, who had just finished his tour of duty. Uvezian played mostly in New York for the Army, but toured on occasion. He was happy to miss the war in Asia. He left the Army in 1953.
Uvezian and his wife had started a family the year before when Marie gave birth to a son, Jeffrey. Two others sons were to follow, Robert and Ronald. Uvezian knew he had to make some money after his tour of duty. He soon joined his wife's family jewelry business, a career he stayed with for more than two decades. His job eventually brought him to Puerto Rico, where his in-laws owned a jewelry factory. "It was a waste of time. If I had stayed in music, I don't know," he says, slightly embarrassed. "Life was easy, shall we say. You never think otherwise. You have your priorities and you just keep doing the same thing."
In the early 1970s, Uvezian's marriage ended in divorce. He remained in Puerto Rico, still working with the jewelry company, living a bachelor's life in San Juan with plenty of friends. He often played the piano for fun in various bars on the island. "Some friends were developing the Palmas del Mar resort, which was next to my cabana in Puerto Rico," he says. "Every weekend they used to come to my house here and we would always have one hell of a party. And one night they said to me, 'Why don't you come to Palmas del Mar and do the opening for us at the resort?' That was January 10, 1974. I said, 'OK, I'll go there for a time,' and I resigned from my jewelry company."
Uvezian admits that "it was rough" after quitting his job. He was hustling at the bar for everything from tips to real estate and found it difficult to make ends meet. But he discovered something important while playing piano at the Palmas del Mar: people not only came to hear his music, but they also liked smoking cigars that he had purchased for himself, which he would place on top of the piano for anyone who cared to indulge. "Well, nearly everybody who used to come from the States to Palmas used to come to be at Paolo's bar where I performed. I was there for seven, eight years playing piano, but the hotel guests would come and say, 'Is Avo still at the bar? OK, then we are coming.' I became a very big draw, you know. I was Palmas del Mar; I was their secret weapon for selling, so to speak."
Uvezian remarried in 1975, to a woman named Nivia; they later had a daughter, Karin. He began selling more and more real estate and soon accumulated enough money to start an Italian restaurant in the early 1980s in Puerto Rico. The eatery did very well, but he found it to be too much work and went back to the piano bar. At the time, he began to think about making and marketing cigars. "I was getting a great response from Americans about the cigars I had to offer in my bar," which were made locally and not up to the quality that Avo would attain. "Customers and friends used to write me and ask me for the cigars. That's when I said to myself that I better look at getting serious about this."
A small incident involving Karin, who was five at the time, reinforced Uvezian's idea of going into the cigar trade. A customer was walking by them at the pool at Palmas del Mar, Uvezian recalls, and he saw the pianist and asked for a cigar. Uvezian, of course, gave it to him. "My daughter was shaking her head and making negative gestures at me," he says. "After he had gone, I said, 'Karin, why are doing that, going like that?' She said, 'Dad, if he likes your first cigar and he wants another one, let him buy it.' It was incredible, I can never forget it."
His wife was less positive than his daughter, however. "My wife said, 'Are you crazy? You know nothing about cigars. It's not your business. Why you?' I told her that some day this will be a good deal: 'Don't worry about it. I know what I'm doing.' "
Uvezian had a friend in Geneva who soon put him in touch with Henrik Kelner, who had just opened his cigar factory in the Dominican Republic after years with a government tobacco company. In 1987, Uvezian's first cigars from Kelner were sold under the Bolero label in San Juan, and later as Avo in New York City. The brand was created exclusively for the Davidoff shop. Uvezian launched Avo in the United States in 1988. It was way ahead of its time: a full-bodied blend, selected Connecticut shade wrappers ranging from claro to colorado, and packed in cedar cabinet-style boxes with no cellophane and contemporary original artwork on the packaging.
Uvezian had changed the name of his cigar to Avo after running into problems with another cigar manufacturer that had already registered the Bolero name. Uvezian modeled the packaging for the Avo cigar after the cigars that were being produced for Knockando single malt whisky and Absolut Vodka. The Avo packaging still slightly resembles the now defunct Knockando cigar brand. The marketing man for Absolut in the United States, Michel Roux, had become a friend of Uvezian's, and Roux emphasized that he should focus on the top end of the market. "He told me if I made cigars, that I had to do what he did with Absolut Vodka: come out with the best possible quality, give it the best packaging and always pay your supplier the most you can afford."
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Robert Martin — Flushing, New York, Queens, — September 30, 2011 6:50pm ET
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