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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 3)

Rolando Reyes Jr. runs the shop in Union City while his father oversees the operation in Honduras. According to the younger Reyes, his father began working in the cigar business when he was 17, as an unpaid apprentice for Cuba Aliados, an obscure Cuban brand made in Sancti-Spiritus, a city about 200 miles southeast of Havana. After seven years of unpaid work, Reyes earned the respect of the old woman who owned Aliados. She gave him the rights to the brand when she became ill, and Reyes eventually moved the company to Havana. "He had a hard time making cigars there," says the younger Reyes. Eventually though, Partagas, Por Larrañaga, El Rey del Mundo, and H. Upmann began to buy cigars from Reyes and labal them with their own brands. Business was booming.

And despite the rise of the Castro regime, Reyes managed to keep his business until 1968. "All the Cubans in Cuba kept on saying the same thing: 'He'll fall next year'." When the Cuban government took over "they took everything--even the chairs," says the younger Reyes, his voice shaded with bitterness.

When the elder Reyes moved to the United States, he chose to raise his family in Union City. "My uncle lent my dad $500 to start his business in 1970. My father had one, two, three cigar makers at the most here. My father was working in the day in the store and at night in a knitting factory."

But the elder Reyes encountered the same problems all present-day owners have. "We started making the cigars here in 1974. We didn't have enough cigars for the customers because we couldn't get enough makers. So we moved. First to the D.R. and then to Miami. In Miami, we went in 1979. We opened, and we had a lot of cigar makers. But we still didn't have enough cigars being made," recounts the younger Reyes.

To keep up with demand, Cuba Aliados went to Honduras in 1988 and solved their labor problems for good. "Face it. In Honduras there are cigar makers who are younger; there's always people learning because you can make good money on it." And Reyes says it is simply easier to make cigars where the tobacco is grown. His customers keep coming back. "I still have the same customers I had 15 years ago. Even if they move away, they send for the cigars from there."

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.

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