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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 3)

According to Dick Grave, last year's broadleaf crop was a good one. Plentiful sunshine combined with other near perfect conditions combined to produce high-quality, robust leaves, the kind that make the best oscura wrappers. The crop will sell for about $3 a pound, a 50 percent increase over the $2 a pound that broadleaf brought in the late 1980s. But the real cost in wrapper tobacco lies in the special processing and handling it requires. By the time the Graves take possession of the leaf, it has been cut, cured in drying sheds and bundled. It is then shipped to a sorting shed, where it is graded into one of six different categories, packed in wooden crates, "sweated" for six weeks in a humidity-and-heat-controlled environment, then aged in a warehouse for up to two years.

"Cigar making is a very capital-intensive business because you've always got a two-year supply of tobacco on hand," says Fred Grave, adding: "Look at it this way, we have to buy and process a lot of leaf to make 7 million cigars every year."

***

As with many old, family-run companies, tradition plays as big a role as anything in formulating policy at F. D. Grave & Son. Take product packaging and presentation, for example. The company still packs its cigars in boxes of only 25 or 50 and refuses to use cellophane wrappers, except on a very limited portion of its production. "We have always felt that boxed cigars make the best presentation," explains Fred Grave. "And the reason we don't use cellophane is that my father wanted the cigars to touch each other in the box. He said that a 'marriage' of the tobaccos in the cigars took place, that being together made them taste better. Now it's a tradition with us."

Despite the importance they place on tradition, the family actually knows very little about the man who founded the company.What is known is that Frederick Grave Sr. was born in Osnabrück, Germany, in 1849 and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1861, arriving in Baltimore in the early days of the Civil War. He was apprenticed to a Cincinnati cigar maker at age 14, and seven years later moved to New York to work as a cigar packer at the Defiance Cigar Factory. In 1873, at age 24, he accepted a foreman's position with the Osterweis cigar company (which his grandsons later bought) and, in 1884, left Osterweis to form his own company and began making and marketing cigars under the Judges Cave brand. By 1900, Frederick Grave Sr. had made enough money to build the State Street factory and a huge home on a parklike setting in Whitneyville.

"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."


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