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Puffing Along

F.D. Grave & Son of New Haven, Connecticut, is behind the Muniemaker cigar brand.
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

(continued from page 1)

"My grandfather made a lot of money in the cigar business," says Fred Grave, "mostly before World War I, when cigars were really big and there was no income tax. He had a flair for marketing. When he launched the Muniemaker brand, he had billboards put up with just the name on them, so that pretty soon everyone wanted to know what a Muniemaker was. Then a couple of months later he came out with the cigar, and I guess from the start it was a big hit."

Frederick Grave Jr. was born in New Haven in 1889 and joined the family business after he graduated from Yale in 1911. He served as a sergeant in the chemical-warfare service during the First World War, went back to making cigars when he came home and finally took over the business when his father died in 1924. Grave Jr. ran the business for 38 years until 1962.

According to Fred Grave, he and his brother got involved in their father's business more out of ambivalence than by design. "We'd graduated from Yale; it was summer, and we really didn't know what we were going to do with ourselves. I came down to the office one day and asked my father if he had a job for me and he said, 'sure, go out and sell cigars.' I've been selling them ever since."

Hoyt's interest in the company, on the other hand, started long before she graduated from Boston University in 1983 and went to work for her father and uncle. "When I was a school kid, I'd ask my father to bring home work from the office for me. My dream has always been to own the company and to buy back the family mansion," she says, referring to the Whitneyville estate, where her father and uncle were raised, but which her grandparents sold in the late 1950s because it was too big for them to maintain. There is now a fifth generation in training, Hoyt's six-month-old son, Charlie, who spends his days in a playroom that until recently was his grandfather's office.

"I used to have flow charts in there," jokes Fred Grave. "Now there are Barney posters."

***

In the early 1900s, F. D. Grave sold about half of its annual production of 5 million cigars in Connecticut and the other half via mail order throughout the United States. By midcentury, that market had shifted, and nearly all of the production was sold in the company's home state. "When Dick and I first came on board we were selling all our cigars out of the back of cars," recalls Fred Grave. "We had 16 salesmen, and every day they'd fill up the trunks of their cars and head out to service their accounts. Imagine selling 7 million cigars out of the back of a car."

But as times change, observes Fred Grave, so do markets. By the mid-1980s, the company's survival depended upon expanding its reach. "We found a niche for ourselves in the upscale cigar stores that began popping up in malls all across the country," says Grave. "They had the expensive brands, and they had the cheap brands, but there was really nothing in between."

Today the company's major markets include California, Ohio, Washington D.C. and the state of Washington as well as Connecticut. The last salesman retired in 1990, and now, apart from the few direct orders they receive in their New Haven headquarters, all F. D. Grave & Son cigars are sold through independent distributors. But personal contact remains an important element of the company's marketing strategy. "Dorothy, Dick and I still make courtesy calls on all of our accounts," says Fred Grave. "We try to visit every store that handles our cigars at least once every two years. And you know, they're always happy to see us."

Neither Fred nor Dick have any plans to retire. "Dad worked here until the day he died," says Dick Grave. Adds his brother, "This is sort of our home away from home, and as long as our health holds out, we'll probably hang in here. Anyway, the numbers don't mean much; there's no law that says you have to quit working when you turn 70."

What about the company's future? "Who knows? Dorothy is committed, and little Charlie seems to be literally growing up in the business," says Fred Grave. "There will always be cigar smokers, and there will always be a market niche for a good, moderately priced cigar."

"Anyway," he adds with a laugh, "they say nothing dies slower than a family cigar business. It just seems to puff along."


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