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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 7)

At the front of the store, a customer patiently leans on the wobbly, glass-fronted display case. Eventually a middle-aged woman gets up from her chair where she has been banding cigars and shows the customer a cigar-shape chart. No words are exchanged--they don't speak the same language--but the man points to the panetela cigar in the photo and holds up four fingers. "Quatro?" the woman asks. The customer nods, but when she pokes a hand into the case to grab four dried-out panetelas, the man says, "No, no!" and points wildly at the rolling table where three bundles of hour-old panetelas are resting. She slowly relents and retrieves four cigars from one of the bundles. The man hands the woman $4 and some change and lights up in a cloud of strong, rich smoke, which follows him out onto the boiling sidewalk.

At one time, a transaction like the one described above was common in large and small-town America. In 1905 there were 80,000 cigar-manufacturing businesses in the United States. Most of these were small drugstore-type shops where families sat and rolled cigars and sold them immediately.

Today, though buying a newly rolled cigar isn't as easy as it used to be, handmade, long-filler cigars can be purchased for about $1 each on certain streets in a few American cities. And the experience of smoking what was just rolled in front of you is something every cigar aficionado should try.

Finding a chinchal (a Cuban term meaning "sweatshop," though the connotation is less derogatory in the world of cigars) is only half the battle. In each city, the history of the cigar business invariably dictates both the kind and quality of cigars being made today. In three markets--Miami; Union City, New Jersey; and Tampa, Florida--the local production of cigars also is determined by the availability of tobacco, the vitality of the local smokers' market and the primary difficulty: hiring and keeping skilled cigar makers. But this is nothing new. As one roller put it, making cigars "is a life's work." That work is different in each city and, accordingly, in each chinchal, and the cigars reflect a distinctive character of place.

The hand-rolled cigar industry in Miami existed in one form or another for at least 100 years prior to the Revolution in Cuba. But it was Castro's rise to power that provided the impetus for making cigars in Miami. Beyond easy access to Central and South American tobacco, the South Florida location has given Miami first crack at fleeing Cuban cigar makers--still considered to be the most talented in the world.

As more Cubans left their homeland bound for Miami's Little Havana, the once dormant section of town became a dynamic center of economic and social vitality. The new arrivals smoked more cigars per capita than any other group of Americans and also preferred freshly rolled product. Those factors drove chinchal-production levels up.

The new arrivals also demanded something similar to what they had smoked back home: a strong, fast-burning cigar. Many of the blends commonly found in Miami's chinchal-produced cigars replicate that style, and explain the popularity of short-filler cigars, which are cheaper and pack a lot of smoke because they burn much faster.

Makers in Miami claim to use Dominican seed tobacco as filler, a Mexican binder and either Ecuador-grown Sumatra seed wrapper or Connecticut shade grown in the United States. These two blends, which are similar in almost every Miami chinchal, result in a relatively strong smoke, with some pleasant spiciness. However, most cigars made here lack a certain body in the smoke. In a cigar that hasn't been aged and cured for very long and in which the tobaccos have not had time to marry, nothing, it seems, can replace the sharp pungency of Honduran tobacco.

It should be noted that the chinchales listed below are a small sampling of what can be found in Miami. There are several more, some of them even well known to many cigar smokers. However, these owners were suspicious of the publicity or any possible critique and refused interviews or visits.

Antelo Cigars in Little Havana is owned by Arnaldo Laurencio, who speaks a smattering of English. His immediate, excitable love of the business gives Antelo an amicable feeling missing in other chinchales. Equally rare, Antelo makes several different blends for its cigars. And Antelo employs about 15 rollers, the most, next to El Credito (La Gloria Cubana and El Rico Habano) in Miami. The rollers sit four to a row, each rolling table connected to the next. Seen from behind, the workers' hands are a blur in the otherwise sedate one-room shop. They roll and talk quietly to one another in Spanish.

Berta Davila, a spirited woman in her mid-50s, sits toward the back of the room, separating wrapper leaves according to color, removing the center stem once the leaves are categorized. The leaves are then bundled in sets of 52. The two extra leaves (cigars are usually bundled in sets of 50 or 25) are added "in case a wrapper is broken or the cigar maker wants to smoke one," according to Laurencio. (Rollers are each entitled to three cigars at the end of the day, and they may smoke all day while working.)

There is a strong feeling of community at Antelo. The workers are old friends and even in silence they seem at ease with one another. Still, most of the workers at Antelo echo a common sentiment heard in Little Havana: "If Castro fell, the next day we'd go running back." In this case, the speaker is Antonio Concepcion, a roller in his mid-50s who was forced to leave a pregnant wife in Cuba "for political reasons."

Concepcion is quick to say that he has grown to like the perks of making cigars in America: "I like the air-conditioning in the U.S." This is one of the advantages to rolling cigars in a First World country. Yet in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and at one time in Cuba, cigar rollers were respected craftsmen, and even today their wage can support a family. But in Miami, at places like Antelo where the art is appreciated, the pay only supplements retirement funds or Social Security benefits. It is not a job for the young, not even for the children of these rollers. Most here, like Petra Hurtado, are happy that her children don't smoke or make cigars. Hurtado's son is a policeman, and she clearly has no regrets that the family tradition will die with her.

On the other side of Little Havana, only a five-minute drive away, is El Canelo ("the cockfighter"). It is a small shop, employing four to six rollers, depending on the pace of business. Perhaps the most dignified of all rollers to be found in Miami (also one of the more skillful makers of panetelas) is Adolfo Cuevas, who works here. Cuevas came to Miami when he was 48. A judge in Havana, Cuevas was forced to make a fresh start. He returned to the job of rolling cigars, which is how he worked his way through law school. Now 78, Cuevas augments retirement income by rolling at El Canelo, and his panetelas have the tightly rolled appearance of Cohiba Lanceros.

Cuevas' boss, Orlando Rodriguez, the owner of El Canelo, is a quiet salesman. He will show you the humidor, but he doesn't force anything on you. And he is relaxed about his Cuban heritage, too. "Even if Castro fell, at my age, what am I going to do in Cuba?" Rodriguez did say he would use Cuban tobacco if it ever becomes available. Clearly, however, he doesn't need to change his blend. Rodriguez claims that almost all his customers are "Americans" (not Cuban-Americans), and he seems very content with the job he is doing. For a mere $17 for 25 panetelas, it is not hard to see why business is humming.

Across the street from El Pub, a diner that has become an institution in Little Havana, it is hot and sticky in the bright, tidy shop of Moore & Bode. Despite the lack of air-conditioning, the reserved and very serene Sharon Moore Bode seems undaunted by the heat. But she is used to defying expectations. An enigma in the cigar business, Bode is not only a woman, but a Caucasian with a limited understanding of Spanish. Her entrée into the business has as much to do with her husband, Roberto Bode, a Cuban-born exile, as her own artistic longings. According to Sharon Moore Bode, "art is the No. 1 reason for being in the business."

Moore & Bode cigars are truly works of art, especially the small and large pyramids, 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 inches long, respectively. They also are pricier than cigars made at other chinchales. Bode, again acting very American and untraditional, justifies the high prices by saying that her rollers are paid more than those at other shops. "The bottom line is that other rollers in Miami are paid about $200 per 1,000 cigars, while we pay about $650 per 1,000."

Bode claims that the industry is dying in the United States because rollers are underpaid. "The owner eats out of the same rice bowl as the cigar maker," she says, and she "abhors" a quota system where each roller is required to make a certain number of cigars for a fixed price. Bode pays by the hour, a very unusual practice in the old world of cigar making.

Despite her husband's desire that she take up the mainstream career of stockbroker, Bode runs the shop, buys the tobacco and is unabashedly proud to turn some heads in the business. "We import our own leaf. I stand in line at customs with my little daughter, Margarite. I'm a little lady among all the guys. I wait my turn and select my own leaves." But Bode denies any grand pretense: "We are not a mass-produced cigar--we never desire to be." Still, Bode will not reveal the secret of her blend, which she guards with the same quiet but firm politeness she most certainly uses when buying tobacco.

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.

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.


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