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A Century Mark

With Their Cuesta-Rey Brand Booming, the Newman Family Celebrates 100 Years of Cigar Making
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

(continued from page 1)

The return to hand-rolled cigars was filled with irony for Stanford: it brought the company full circle, back to its roots. "To go from a hand industry to machines, and pay a lot of money for those machines and then go back into hand rolling, well..." his voice trails off. "But we were always pushing for quality." As if to emphasize his dedication to the concept, just behind Stanford's desk in his office, on a wall by itself, not crowded next to the family photographs and framed articles about M & N on the other walls, is a framed poster that reads: The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.

Themes of quality and innovation run through the family history, dating back to Cleveland and Julius C. Newman. Newman emigrated as a 14-year-old from a small village in the Austria-Hungary area in 1889 and received his middle name when he showed up to vote and told the registrar that he had no middle name. The bureaucrat gave him the name Caesar, and he quickly became known as J. C. His brothers arranged an apprenticeship with a "buckeye," or small cigar maker, in Cleveland; for $20, he received four months of training. After training, J. C. got a job rolling cigars for $6 to $8 a week and, with the exception of a brief two-month stint in a New York cigar factory, was still at work at the same factory in 1894.

But 1895 brought a nationwide financial panic, and J. C. Newman was suddenly unemployed. He decided to start a cigar factory in the barn on the family's property and went out to find buyers. He received orders for 2,500 cigars, for which he figured he needed $50 worth of tobacco. In his memoirs, J. C. wrote, "...since my total capitalization was $65, I was in business." J.C. Newman Cigar Manufacturers had been born.

By 1903, J. C. Newman owned the largest cigar factory in Cleveland. His brands included A-B-C and Dr. Nichol, which used combinations of domestic and imported tobacco with a wrapper from Sumatra. But Sumatran prices jumped, and Newman began experimenting with a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper for a cigar called Judge Wright. This became Cleveland's best-selling five-cent cigar, according to J. C. Newman's autobiography. The company expanded quickly, opening two new factories outside of Cleveland and jumping in ahead of the crowd into cigar-making machines, even though they had not been perfected and cost $4,000--a large amount of money for the day. According to J. C.'s written record, everything went well until 1921, when a recession hit the cigar business and he ended up closing all the factories except the Cleveland one. That period eventually led to a merger with Mendelsohn cigar factory, the other main Cleveland manufacturer. That merger, in turn, created M & N Cigar Manufacturers.

"The name was originally Mendelsohn and Newman Cigar Manufacturing, which my father had agreed to, but as long as they were going to call it Mendelsohn and Newman, he was going to be president, and Grover Mendelsohn would be vice president," says Stanford, who was already involved in the business at the time. The company weathered the Depression. During the 1920s, M & N was the first cigar maker to wrap cigars in cellophane; before that time most cigar makers used foil. J. C. had also started a very successful little cigar called Little Cameo, which had 100 percent Havana filler, Connecticut binder and a Connecticut wrapper. With these successes, J. C. accumulated the resources to buy out his partner by the late 1930s. At that time, Stanford had graduated from Case Western Reserve University, which he attended while selling cigars, and had gone to work for a year at Hartman Tobacco Company in Connecticut. The Second World War interrupted Stanford's service at the company, but when the war ended, he was back on the job.

In 1946, M & N Cigar was making 250,000 cigars a day in two shifts at the Cleveland factory. J. C. Newman was getting more and more interested in Cuban tobacco, but he was concerned that it lost some of its character when shipped north in winter. In 1953, returning from a trip to Havana, J. C. stopped in Tampa to see a cigar-making colleague. Before he left the city, he found a building, called Stanford to come look at it and, against his son's advice, leased part of it to begin making cigars there. By 1954, Stanford had started up operations there with the understanding that if it didn't work they'd move back to Cleveland. But later that year the family's entire operation moved to Tampa and set up shop--originally as the Standard Cigar Company.

The company purchased the Cuesta-Rey brand in 1958, shortly after J. C. Newman's death. The brand became a huge seller in supermarkets and drugstores. Cuesta-Rey also led the family to dream up some unique packaging: when Walgreen's announced it was discontinuing its humidified cigar cases, Stanford came up with a polyethylene bag that held the cellophaned cigars. The bag kept the cigars moist and fresh for up to a year and was a key factor in making Cuesta-Rey a top-selling premium cigar. Stanford also bested his competition by buying Cameroon wrapper for his cigars shortly after the Cuban trade embargo affected supplies of Cuban wrapper leaf. He began attending the now defunct auction of Cameroon tobacco in Paris in 1963, about the same time that Consolidated Cigar started buying Cameroon and almost 15 years before General Cigar launched its Partagas brand.

"You have to be innovative in this business," Stanford Newman says. "Don't copy. Do something that's different. I mean, the worst thing you can do is copy somebody else." Even at this stage, Stanford isn't resting on the company's laurels. He offers a Diamond Crown as an afternoon smoke, a cigar that will be out sometime this year to commemorate the company's 100th anniversary. It is full flavored with a robust finish. "We've wanted to do something different, and this is different for us," says Stanford, who describes the flagship Cuesta-Rey brand as a milder cigar.

Bobby Newman explains that the Diamond Crown is a direct response to the growing demand for full-flavored cigars. The cigars will come in 54 ring gauge from four-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half-inches long and will range in price from $4 to $10. Bobby's other new project at this point is developing the Asian market for Cuesta-Rey cigars. The program is in its early stages, but he expects to establish a presence soon in Tokyo, Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong, with the latter serving as a base for moving into China.

The Asian project means more travel, and Bobby is already traveling 40 weeks a year. If he's not visiting a smoke shop, then he's headed to a cigar dinner where Cuesta-Rey cigars are featured. "It's not Monday through Friday, but maybe a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or a convention on the weekend," Bobby says. "And when I'm in the office, I'll make and receive 20 to 30 calls a day, whether it's about cigar dinners, or problems with export sales or new opportunities with retail shops. I cover sales to smoke shops, chain stores and military sales. I do the duty-free business, too. It's an eight-day-a-week job, 24 hours a day." But there's an upside for Bobby in his schedule, even though he knows it will get tougher. With the birth of his son earlier this year, he now says, "I'm doing it for myself [and] for the family. I'm not sure I could do that if I was doing it for someone else." He also notes, "It's not that I'm a better salesman out there, but I'm an owner, and I can do different things. You have to see the customer today."


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