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Last Men Standing

At 114 years old J.C. Newman Cigar Co. is the only big company still making cigars in Tampa, the Florida tobacco center that once rolled 500 million cigars a year
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Hugh Grant, November/December 2009

Eric Newman, president of the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Tampa, Florida, welcomes a visitor with a smile. He's wearing a tie despite the early September heat—tradition dies hard here—and he has a large cigar in his left hand. He walks across the weathered, distressed wooden floor, parts of which are covered with steel. The sound of active machinery strains the ears and the smell of tobacco is in the air as he walks up to an old machine with curved arms painted Fenway Park green that seems transported from the early Industrial Age or a Jules Verne novel. A woman sits in front of it, stretching cigar wrapper across an aluminum plate. The floor shakes as the machine dumps chopped filler tobacco into a hopper, which becomes the core of a cigar that will retail for all of $1.50.

Fifty years ago this scene would have been the norm in Tampa, then the cigarmaking capital of the world, but today the central Florida city is a city of cigar ghosts. Mighty brick factories, built east to west to bask the work floor in sunlight, stand as silent reminders of the days when this city made more cigars than any other place on earth. Tampa was once the heart of American cigar production—some 500 million cigars were rolled here in 1929 alone. But when Havatampa Inc. closed its doors in July, J.C. Newman became the city's sole survivor aside from boutique operations. Many mighty edifices still stand like dinosaur skeletons in a museum, only now they are home to office buildings, churches or nothing at all. Only at J.C. Newman, housed within a 99-year-old red building topped with a clock that can be seen for miles away, are cigars still being made—at a rate of 40,000 a day that totals around 10 million a year.

"What we make here is only 18 percent of our business, but it's an important piece of our business," says Newman, who runs the 114-year-old company with his younger brother, Bobby. "This is the way cigars were made 50 years ago in Tampa. There are very few cigar companies making machine-made cigars like this." It's a business that would have gone away, if not for Newman's considerably larger premium cigar sales—the company owns Cuesta-Rey, Diamond Crown (from the Dominican Republic) and the hot new El Baton (in Nicaragua) brands, among many others, and runs the U.S. sales force for Arturo Fuente cigars. "If we were just in the machine-made business, we would not be in business—it doesn't make economic sense," Newman says. "Up until recently, it didn't make sense to keep the factory open. It was almost like a working museum, but now it's a beehive of activity."

Demand for Newman's inexpensive smokes, sold under such names as Factory Throwouts, Rigoletto Black Jacks and Mexican Segundos, has been surprisingly strong in the down economy. Despite the increase in federal excise tax that boosted their prices, orders are on the rise.

"We increased our production by about 35 percent," says Newman. Today a dozen to 14 machines are working on any given day, compared with eight to 10 only five years ago. "We are pleasantly surprised how the business has grown. There's a niche, and I think in a recession people are becoming more cost-conscious. Not everybody can afford a $10 or a $5 cigar."

The vast majority of the 11.5 billion cigars sold in the United States last year were made on machines—only some 300 million were crafted by hand. Machine-made cigars come in many variations. Most resemble brown paper tubes filled with shredded tobacco and are made like cigarettes on so-called rod machines, incredibly fast devices that crank out cigars while using no whole tobacco leaves. "You push a button and they come out like sausages," Newman says of the method that is nowhere to be seen at his factory.

The machines used at J.C. Newman, typically as old as 60 years, are much slower. They make 11 cigars a minute. Rod machines do thousands in that much time, so fast "you can't even see it," says Newman. The substantive difference in the Newman machine-made cigar is in the wrapper. While the binder leaf is a sheet of homogenized tobacco, made from ground-up scrap tobacco mixed with binding agents, the wrapper is a real tobacco leaf.

"We don't make any cigars that don't have a tobacco-leaf wrapper," says Newman. "If the operator is feeling good, if the wind is blowing right, [one machine] can make 5,000 cigars a day," he explains. "This is the way cigars were made 50 years ago in Tampa. There are very few cigar companies making machine-made cigars like this."

The method is one that takes a considerable human touch to ensure that the decades-old devices operate properly. It starts with a wrapper leaf, which a worker stretches over an aluminum sheet riddled with air holes that suck the tobacco tight against the metal before a mechanical arm trims it into shape. (The goal is to make wrappers for three cigars from a half leaf, while in the handmade-cigar world, a half leaf becomes one wrapper.) The wrapper moves down a belt, heading for the back of the machine. A piece of homogenized tobacco leaf is unspooled and filled with chopped filler tobacco (the scrap from handmade cigar production at Tabacalera A. Fuente, the company that makes most of Newman's handmade cigars). This creates the bunch, and a mechanical arm pinches it closed, adding some heat to ensure it keeps its round shape. A second, slimmer spool puts a strip of the homogenized tobacco leaf around the head, for reinforcement, and then the wrapper is rolled around the cigar, which is dumped into a tray.

Most of these cigars are sold at smoke shops, as are the premium cigars from Newman. (Machine-made cigars are typically sold at convenience stores.) Ironically, the word Tampa isn't prominently displayed on the packages. Consumers place a greater value on cigars made offshore, so production in American, which was once a bragging point, is not trumpeted here.

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