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Cigars Across America: U.S. Cigar Makers

Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 1)

The Tampa horizon is littered with them. Walk up three stories in any Ybor City building, and as far as the eye can see, there are giant brick factories, each running longitudinally, from north to south, and each, without much exception, is empty. In many ways Ybor City is a cigar-industry ghost town; the ghost of Vincente Ybor is the namesake for this section of Tampa.

Ybor moved a thriving Key West cigar business north to Tampa in the mid-1860s. His goal was to build a company town where every form of sustenance was provided by the Principe de Gales (Prince of Wales) factory. But labor unrest delayed the factory's debut, and rival Flor de Sanchez & Haya was the first factory to produce cigars in Tampa.

But it was Ybor who first dreamed of a cigar town, and eventually Tampa grew to become the center of worldwide cigar production. That dream has since faded, and only M&N Cigar Manufacturers (United States distributors of Arturo Fuente and Cuesta-Rey brands under the cooperative FANCO), has survived. Of course, there are still a few chinchales, or "buckeyes," as they are known locally. According to Stanford Newman, chairman of M&N, the term buckeye came from Ohio when his father's business (and many other cigar factories) moved operations to Florida. A buckeye in Ohio is "a nut that's too small," says Newman.

Whether you call the factory a buckeye or a chinchal, the Vincent & Tampa Cigar Co. is certainly small and old. On the site of the now-defunct Eden cigar factory, Vincent is a one-story brick structure that's seen better days. Inside, in the very back around some automated bunching machines and a large fumigation locker, six elderly women sit at their tables, rolling and not talking. Ruilovo Vincent and his wife Ida are side by side; he stands and bunches cigars, pressing them into molds while she takes them from the molds and forms wrapper leaf over their oblong surfaces.

Past retirement age, both Vincents are natives of Tampa, though they speak less English than Spanish. Their families and the families of almost every roller I met in Tampa were locals; but the language of cigars is Spanish, not English, so it was unnecessary for these people to learn what they would rarely speak.

The cigars here range from robusto-sized Barons at 5 1/2 inches by a 48 ring gauge to a soberano shape called the Supreme, 8 inches by a 52 ring. Regardless of shape, the blend is constant.

Much of the business is conducted by mail, yet today a customer strolls in. Vincent leaves his wife's side to help the customer, who happens to be from New Jersey and a customer of Boquilla in Union City. "These cigars are very good. But Boquilla is the only good cigar place in New Jersey, which is why I go there," says Chris Mara. Mara buys a couple of bundles in two different sizes after smoking one cigar just to test it.

Rodriguez & Menendez is the antithesis of the vibrant chinchales found in Miami or Union City. Isaac Rodriguez, 72, is the remaining half of the partnership at Rodriguez & Menendez. He stands alone in the center of the shop and says he will no longer take new customers through the mail, but doesn't mind if customers stop by. As we speak, a faithful regular enters, walks straight past the counter into the back of the store and grabs a bundle of the Dominican-made cigars. He pays and thanks Rodriguez. The whole transaction takes less than two minutes, held up only momentarily as Rodriguez digs for change in an old cigar box used as a cash register.

Rodriguez still makes about 300 cigars here a day, but the rest are rolled in the Dominican Republic and imported with the R&M band.

Once a master roller at the Havana Partagas factory, Rodriguez is not without pride, but he says, "I am old and tired. I couldn't fill many new orders now, and I don't really want to."

Like Sharon Moore Bode in Miami, Bob Schear in Las Vegas is an anomaly in the modern American cigar making business. Like Bode, Schear is a gringo in a field dominated by first and second-generation Latin Americans--most of them from Cuba. But Schear, an avid smoker since he was 18, never gave his heritage a thought when he started Don Pablo seven years ago. "I came through Vegas on business, and I couldn't find a decent cigar." Schear and a friend saw the immense potential of the tourist market in Las Vegas and set up shop in 1986 across the street from the Stardust hotel.

At first, according to Schear, things weren't easy. "If I had known what it would take, I wouldn't do it again." Now, however, Schear has more than 6,000 mail-order customers worldwide, most of whom discovered Don Pablo on a visit to Vegas.

The business of rolling cigars is based on the knowledge and expertise of Rubin Del Tauro, an old hand from Cuba and a master roller there. Del Tauro and fellow Cuban Alberto Medina assist in the tobacco selection, color grading and curing processes.

According to Schear, each cigar has a different blend, and five or six tobaccos go into each cigar; tobaccos from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil and the United States are the ones most often selected by Schear. But Schear's annual production isn't large--Don Pablo produces only 250,000 cigars annually. Measured against other buckeyes, an average daily output of 800 cigars isn't bad.

Schear does have a problem increasing production. All of his rollers are from Cuba originally, but he recruited them out of Miami chinchales, set them up with housing and raised their salaries. These measures are atypical in a business guided by 19th-century principles, but Schear needed some big incentives to bring people from Little Havana into a town with a paucity of Cuban culture. He still faces problems attracting workers to the desert.

Bob Schear is not the only man who's dreamed of taking tropical tobacco leaves to the arid Vegas Strip. Rich Goldieri "semi-retired" to Las Vegas four years ago, leaving a profitable dental-ceramics business behind in New Jersey to get away from the "aggravation." But Goldieri, 50, wasn't ready to sit on his hands. When he was approached by several Cuban-Americans, he decided to open the Las Vegas Cigar Co.

Fast-forward to 1993 and you'll find Goldieri's shop right across from the Dunes hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard. What started as a one-roller operation in 1989 has blossomed to six rollers producing about 1,000 cigars daily. Inside, it's a bit more homey than most chinchales. There's coffee and doughnuts for visitors who, according to Goldieri, often hang out and socialize or talk business over cigars for hours. "It's like the old barbershop used to be," says Goldieri.

Like Bob Schear, most of Goldieri's business is conducted through the mail. Goldieri says that his 2,500-person mailing list is constantly growing because of his blend (all cigars have filler from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Brazil, with wrapper and binder from Ecuador) and his Vegas location. Goldieri says that running a Nevada-based business hasn't deterred rollers from pulling up their Miami roots to make cigars in the West, and he uses one incentive to keep people happy: "Cash. I pay my employees very well, and I let them take their time. I'd rather have them make fewer cigars with better quality." And what will Goldieri do if Cuban leaf is available someday? "I'll have Cuban tobacco in my cigars." But for now, Goldieri isn't changing the blend. Why gamble with success?

OK, this is Los Angeles in Southern California, and you're definitely not in Little Havana anymore. Pinch yourself. The owner of La Plata, Victor Migenes Jr., is a serious drummer in a rock band. But La Plata isn't all hype. The business, started by Victor Migenes Sr. in 1947, is well established. True, the younger Migenes is only in his 30s, but he fits the scene when he says things like, "Cigars are working their way into creativity now. These Young guys are taking cigars into their own space, which is more diverse than it used to be."

Migenes knows what he's talking about. Celebrities smoke his cigars in public, like in the old days, and La Plata cigars were featured in a spot on Entertainment Tonight last summer.

Migenes also sponsors smoker nights at upscale Los Angeles restaurants like Pierre's, McCormick & Schmick's, and Ma Maison. All this is far from the way his late father ran the company, but Migenes is still very much in touch with the cigar making process. He buys leaf from Oliva Tobacco in Tampa and visits the Olivas regularly.

The effort has paid off--La Plata is selling cigars as fast as they are made. But Migenes knows that his rollers aren't getting any younger. "It's a dinosaur business, and the dinosaur is going to die. I'm not scared, but as the years go by it will he tougher."

Even with a booming business, Migenes says that someday La Plata will be gone from L.A. And there's no telling whether Migenes will want to try to make cigars someplace where the rollers are as young as the rich and famous smokers in Hollywood.

Knowing the Rules

Getting your hands on fresh cigars requires a bit of common sense and insight--along with the pure luck of living in the right part of the country or having the means or desire to get yourself there. Not surprisingly, most cigar making operations in the United States are confined to the coasts.

Miami, Union City, New Jersey; Tampa, Florida; Las Vegas and Los Angeles all have at least one cigar factory to their credit. But the factories, or chinchales, are rarely located next to the local mall. Finding them can be difficult and usually requires some patience.

Don't expect timely customer service. When you enter a chinchal you are really stepping onto the factory floor, even if the factory is only two or three rollers strong. In time you will be helped.

Now comes the hard part. If your Spanish skills are lacking or you have only a scant understanding of cigars, you may be bullied into buying something you don't like. Be firm. Even with the language barrier, your money speaks Esperanto, and you should demand that you get the cigar that you're looking for. Here are a few rules:

Consistency

The biggest knock against small operations is that they can't afford to buy and store large quantities of leaf. This is true. Most chinchales rely on the goodwill of men like John Oliva, president of Oliva Tobacco, one of the largest, privately owned tobacco-trading companies in the world. "We bend over backward to help these guys. They're all that's left." Oliva says that it is rarely profitable to store tobacco in small quantities, but with so few rolling operations left, he is happy to accommodate them. Oliva says the chinchales "pay more to carry less," but keeping less tobacco in-house is also costly because the maintenance of leaf quality is relinquished to another party. And once preaged cigar tobacco winds up in a chinchal, it is likely that other, more powerful cigar manufacturers rejected it.

There is also a problem at chinchales with inconsistent maintenance of cigar humidity. (Miami is the exception, where most chinchales have walk-in humidors.) At some shops, cigars are rolled and simply left out in a cupboard until they are purchased. Buying straight from the rollers' table is better in this case.

Sizes and Blends

At many chinchales, the blend is the same throughout the size range, so choosing a size is less important than finding a shop that creates the right blend for your taste. This takes some experimentation. If you ask politely, you may be able to determine which tobaccos are used, but there is no better barometer than your taste buds.

Some places actually make unusual sizes like pyramids, but it is more common to find simple sizes like double coronas or Churchills and even smaller ones, like miniatures.

Prices


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