The El Producto Story
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"Both El Producto and Dutch Masters were interchangeable after a while," ruefully recalls a former El Producto salesman. "While each brand had a few distinct shapes, both cigars had the same taste, the same blend of tobaccos. The factories just packed them in different bands and boxes."
But "Much Dasters," as Kovacs liked to call them on television, drew a bigger advertising budget than El Producto. Joe Kissinger and other GHP salesmen resented this "inferior, stepsister treatment," and their feelings were further ruffled when Consolidated acquired Muriel cigars in 1956. Besides heavily promoting Muriels with Edie Adams' "Pick Me Up and Smoke Me Sometime" commercials, Consolidated asked the once-independent GHP salesmen to also sell Muriels, which had its own sales force as well.
In 1968, Gulf & Western purchased Consolidated, and to promote greater efficiency during an era of plummeting sales, it merged the El Producto and Dutch Masters' sales forces. The House Grabosky Built (Sam died in 1953) was now in the hands of "bankers," recalls Dave Goldfarb, another 40-year veteran at Consolidated. "They knew nothing about the cigar business and just picked off the profits."
Gulf & Western's continued to slash operating expenses in the 1970s. Joining the company back then, Jim Colucci recalls it was "cut, cut, cut," and the budgetary moves particularly affected El Producto, as G&W increasingly pulled the plug on all the brand's advertising.
"These were tough times in the industry, and deciding to emphasize Dutch Masters as the true national brand, G&W totally gave up on El Producto," says Colucci. "While it once had a $3 million ad budget, El Producto took a big hit every year. I tried to fight for more El Producto presence but it went unheard. All the money went to putting Dutch Masters on [ABC's] 'Monday Night Football', while El Producto got the leftovers for a few spots on bowling telecasts."
Combined with the 1960s consolidation of the sales forces (which meant the closing of many El Producto distribution facilities), the advertising cuts had a devastating effect on sales, especially in markets where El Producto didn't have a strong regional following, as in California. Salesman Joe Kissinger estimates that 35 percent of the brand's business was lost on the West Coast (20 to 25 percent nationwide), and ruefully adds, "Cutting the advertising just guaranteed the diminishing of the cigar."
But even more trouble loomed for El Producto. What one sales rep calls "a death blow for the cigar" was leveled once Gulf & Western divested Consolidated in 1982 to five of the cigar company's senior managers. Again looking to cut costs, the Consolidated executives decided to produce the majority of El Productos (except for the Queens and Escepcionales) with a reconstituted "sheet" wrapper. They insisted this wouldn't affect the taste of the cigar, or how it felt in a smoker's mouth. Disagreeing, Colucci, then Consolidated's western region sales manager, felt the use of a homogenized wrapper would mean "the beginning of the end" for El Producto. But "sheet" was the trend in the early '80s, as White Owls and Phillies had also begun to use synthetic wrappers, and so his protests went ignored.
Sales soon plunged. In 1982, El Producto sold more than 200 million cigars. That figure dropped to 132 million in 1984, 117 million in 1985, 83 million in 1990 and to 50 million by '95.
Part of the decline was due to the industry's overall skid in the late 1980s. Yet as Colucci says, "Consumers simply didn't like the synthetic, tobacco-substitute stuff. So we took big hits every year, a 25 percent dip in units the first year, then 12 percent, 15 percent declines. It was the wrong move, just a terrible decision to go to sheet, and El Producto got killed."
Now Colucci is trying to undo that wrong and to shape El Producto's revival. Working with George Burns' estate, and possibly utilizing a Forrest Gump-styled promo from Burns about El Producto's charms, Consolidated is launching four natural-wrapped shapes this spring, priced from about 75 cents to $1.25 for a glass-tubed cigar.
Colucci realizes "it'll be a slow build" to restore El Producto's reputation as a quality machine-made cigar. But he's still confident this "premium-looking George Burns' Collection" will be faithful to the cigar's storied tradition and to the spirit of Sam Grabosky.
"It's time to correct the past mistakes, the wrong turns that were taken with this brand in the 1970s and '80s," says Colucci. "I told George [Burns] years ago that El Producto merited better treatment, that we should do something special with his beloved cigars. Now I want to keep my promise to him, and to his 'little lady.'"
Edward Kiersh is a freelance writer living in Florida.
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