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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 2)

Chavelo is nothing like Moore & Bode. Large, dimly lit, with an old patriarch, Mariano Martinez, in charge, it is a typical chinchal. Despite the modest production capacity of the place (800 cigars a day), there is a walk-in humidor, and Chavelo is more modern than it appears. Mario Martinez, the owner's son, has created slick brochures that advertise 800-numbers and invite customers to use credit cards.

Mario Martinez is unassuming. A tall man in his mid-30s, he dutifully stands by and translates his father's Spanish. Mario explains that the elder Martinez began Chavelo in Cuba in 1955, but finally left in 1972 with his wife and son--and not a shred of his original business. Despite his father's uphill struggle to make something in the United States, Mario is uninterested in taking over. "I could maintain the business," Mario acknowledges, "but there's experience I don't have. I can't buy that from my father. That, only time can give you."

Gazing across the Hudson River from Pier 78 in Manhattan, the heart of Union City, New Jersey, is not visible, but a few relics of once grandiose summer homes are outlined on top of the cliffs. A brief ferry ride can alter this first impression. Once on the bustling streets of Union City, the community is vibrant, relatively young and has the same nuances of any ethnic American neighborhood. It has a proud cigar history, too.

Unlike Miami, much of the Cuban population came to Union City long before Castro. These new Americans arrived in the '20s and '30s at the behest of American cigar manufacturers. Labor prices skyrocketed in Cuba because of unionization. To maintain profits, major corporations like American Tobacco shifted operations onshore to places like Trenton, New Jersey, and Union City--beating the unions while still importing cured tobacco from Cuba (which was taxed at 10 percent rather than the exorbitant 100 percent rate on finished cigars). A few decades later, labor prices at home would escalate, and major manufacturers would shift their operations back to the Caribbean; but the Cuban community in New Jersey stayed behind to make cigars for its own consumption--and occasional outsiders.

La Isla ("the Island") is a cigar factory that looks more like a one-chair barbershop. There is an almost bare counter display--something like the way state stores looked in television images from the former Soviet Union--and to the left, three rollers sit so close they literally touch shoulders as they make cigars and talk quietly. They gaze at their gringo guests with a bit of wariness.

In the back, a bathroom doubles as a makeshift kitchen, with an ancient, two-burner stovetop keeping the morning coffee warm. The presses and molds used to hold and shape finished cigars look as old as the burners, and Berto Ale, the owner of La Isla, says he cannot remember when they were purchased, but he speculates that they have been around since 1970. At the front on the unadorned counter, three old Partagas boxes hold whatever the three rollers produce daily. However, if you look through the glass and don't see what you want, don't be shy. Persistence pays at La Isla. If you like what you see on the rollers' table, ask for it. If your Spanish is rusty, point.

Berto Ale has owned the business for eight years. At 58, he is relatively young for this segment of the cigar industry, which is dominated by 70-year-old men. Still, his wife Elsie, who runs the outlet store in Manhattan (May Rosa) laments that both stores will be gone in a few years. "My children don't want to have anything to do with the business, and even if we sell the store, the new owners wouldn't be able to find workers."

A few blocks from the heavily trafficked streets of downtown Union City, Boquilla Cigar looks abandoned. Inside, that feeling doesn't change much. Composed of little more than a countertop, four walls and a three-dimensional plastic relief of the Last Supper, a healthy skepticism about the quality of the product seems in order. But after speaking with the very genial owner, José Suarez, and his tiny staff, the expectations grow. Suarez was a former employee of Rolando Reyes Sr. (see Cuba Aliados, below) in Cuba and learned to roll cigars in his factory.

Now, some 25 years later, Suarez is making cigars to compete with the cheap, short-filler bundle cigars sold in every drugstore in Union City. He uses the same blend for each size: filler from Honduras or the Dominican Republic, binder from Brazil or Mexico and Mexican wrapper because, according to Suarez, "it is the strongest," and the locals like strong cigars. Suarez says most of his clients are older, and most like a soberano or Churchill size. They also like the price; 25 soberanos, 7 1/2 by 52 ring gauge, go for a very modest $30.

Having a look around Aliados is a look into the future, or would-be future, of every chinchal in the United States. Cigars are no longer made here, they are manufactured in Honduras, with a "showpiece" roller who comes in occasionally yet adds little to the massive stock of Aliados cigars. Still, the enticing aroma of spicy tobacco permeates the walls of the upstairs room of this cigar store, and in a shed out back 20,000 cigars are aging. Most of what is sold here are Cuba Aliados, which explains the smell; these Honduran-made cigars are very fresh and the aroma is much stronger for that reason.

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