F.D. Grave & Son of New Haven, Connecticut, is behind the Muniemaker cigar brand.
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94
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In terms of price, F. D. Grave's biggest edge over its competition lies in the fact that all of its cigars are machine made, not hand rolled. From 1884 until the late 1930s, the company's cigars were made by hand; but with the introduction of rolling machines in 1938, the company began to phase out its hand-rolled lines. By 1956, when the last of its hand rollers had retired, the company had switched to its 100 percent machine-made brands. "It was a matter of efficiency and productivity," says Hoyt. "In 1905, there were 150 employees here producing about 100,000 cigars a week. In the 1960s, we were producing twice as many cigars with less than a third the number of people."
In 1986, the rolling machines at the State Street factory were switched off for the last time, and the two top floors of the building were rented out as artists' studio space. "We took a lot of blows in the '80s," explains Hoyt. "We had a hard time replacing workers who were retiring or leaving for more lucrative jobs in computer and high-tech industries, and the state was talking about implementing a 20 percent excise tax on cigar inventories, which it finally did in 1989."
"That tax really put an end to cigar making in Connecticut," adds Fred Grave. "New Haven used to be quite a cigar-producing city; there were a lot of cigar companies here. But all that's over now, and I doubt, even if the tax were repealed, that cigars will ever be made here again."
All of F. D. Grave's production is now subcontracted to the F. X. Smith Co., a long-established, family-owned cigar maker in McSherrystown, Pennsylvania. "We were kind of sad about it," says Fred Grave of the production move. "We had about 40 people working upstairs, some of whom had been here for over 50 years. But when F. X. Smith approached us, it seemed like the right thing to do. They could make good cigars, but they couldn't sell them. We could sell cigars, but how were we going to make them?"
So far, says Fred Grave, it's been a perfect relationship. "It has kept them in business and given us a supplier we could relate to, because we're both small, family-owned businesses. I'd say we make up about 80 percent of F. X. Smith's total production. And they make our cigars every bit as good as we made them ourselves."
For F. D. Grave & Son, there has always been only one tobacco suitable for binding and wrapping their cigars: Connecticut-grown broadleaf. In the old days under Frederick Grave Sr., relationships were established with growers along the Connecticut River Valley and with growers in the famed Pinar del Rio region of Cuba to en-sure adequate supplies of broadleaf wrapper and long filler tobacco. Cuban filler was used in the company's cigars until 1964, more than one year after the Cuban Embargo Act had taken effect. The company then switched to a blend of domestic and imported short filler tobacco.
In his day, Frederick Sr. was known as a local expert on tobacco growing and processing. He frequently traveled to Cuba to inspect tobacco crops and personally supervised the buying and sorting of his Connecticut supply each year. "Tobacco is the key to the whole operation," says Dick Grave, the company's current tobacco expert. "My grandfather thought so, and his dedication to getting the best available has been passed down through my father to us."
The company still takes pride in the fact that it gets its broadleaf supply directly from growers and not from the wholesale tobacco market. "We work with a variety of small, independent farmers," says Dick Grave. "And the curious thing is that we've never had anything in writing. We inspect the crop, and when it comes time to decide what we're going to pay, we go into the old farmhouse, have a cup of coffee and shake hands. That's it. No lawyer, no contract, nothing."
In recent years, according to Dick Grave, demand for Connecticut broadleaf has soared due to its increasing popularity with premium-cigar smokers. In the past, the entire broadleaf crop was consumed domestically, now more than half of each year's production is shipped overseas. At the same time, broadleaf production has steadily declined. In fact, the total acreage in Connecticut planted to wrapper leaf (both shade and broadleaf) has dropped from a midcentury peak of 20,000 acres to about 2,000 acres. "The price of broadleaf is being driven by demand from offshore," says a concerned Dick Grave, "and it's being driven out of this world."
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