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
From the Print Edition:
Hugh Grant, November/December 2009
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Yet Tampa remains vital to the Newmans and their identity. "It means everything," says Bobby Newman, Eric's brother and the executive vice president of the company, "because Tampa was the Napa Valley of the cigar business. After World War II, if you wanted to be in the cigar business, the place was Tampa, Florida. There were more cigars made in Tampa than in Cuba."
The entire history of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. bespeaks a knack for survival. The company was founded in Cleveland in 1895 by Hungarian émigré Julius C. Newman, who hammered together a wooden rolling table from old boards and turned the family barn in his adopted home of Cleveland into a one-man cigar factory. In those days, cigars were all made by hand and many were sold in grocery stores. Newman's mother brokered a deal at her local shop and got her son his initial order of 500 smokes. He rolled them himself. J.C. Newman Cigar Co. became one of 42,000 cigarmakers in the United States, one of 300 in Cleveland alone. The early blends were made with imported Sumatra leaf wrappers and fillers from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Later, the company began using Cuban leaves, and in 1916 it was one of the first cigarmakers to use machines, which had just been developed. By the 1950s, the Newmans were working exclusively with Cuban tobacco, and had found that the northern winters had an effect on the cigar leaves, robbing them of some magic. In 1953, the operation had moved to Tampa to take advantage of its tropical atmosphere. Newman acquired the old Regensburg Co., which had been built in 1910. That factory's former production, a brand called Admiration, was all made by hand, so the Newmans were obliged to reinforce the second story on the rolling gallery to sustain the weight of their American Machine and Foundry machines.
The Newmans have maintained their family business through two world wars, the Great Depression, and myriad other trials, including the time in 1948, when they lost an order for one million cigars per week after raising prices by one penny (from five cents to six). The family weathered the loss of founder J.C., in 1958, and the death of his son and successor as chairman, Stanford Newman, in 2006. But through it all, the company proved flexible enough to move from Cleveland to Tampa, and from handmade production, to machine-made production, to the combination of the two, which exists today.
Perhaps its biggest challenge came in the mid-1980s, when the competition from offshore increased. "Who wanted to buy a machine-made cigar when you could get a much larger, hand-rolled cigar for the same price?" wrote then chairman Stanford Newman in his 1999 auto-biography Cigar Family.
Salvation came in 1986. Stanford Newman met with fellow Tampa manufacturer Carlos Fuente Sr., who was also facing a declining market for his domestic machine-made cigars. At the time, Fuente and his son Carlos Jr. had been rolling cigars by hand in the Dominican Republic for the past six years. Fuente wanted Newman to manufacture his machine-made cigars and to sell his product line in the United States. Newman asked that in return Fuente make brands for him by hand. A partnership was born. Originally named FANCO, the partnership was renamed Fuente & Newman Premium Cigars Ltd. in 1995.
The first cigar made for the Newmans by Fuente was La Unica, which was packed in bundles, followed by the Newman's premier brand at the time, Cuesta-Rey. (Created in 1884 in Georgia, the Cuesta-Rey is a true rarity: a cigar that was created as a handmade brand, was changed to machine-made production and then returned to handmade production.)
The partnership revitalized the company, and positioned both the Fuente and Newman families for the coming cigar boom.
Survival at J.C. Newman hinges far more on the premium end of the business. The company has created a line of Diamond Crown lounges, branded smoking rooms built into existing smoke shops. There were 53 at press time, and the company says a waiting list of shops want to include Diamond Crown lounges. The company also has one of the only cigar bars in a major league sports stadium, the Cuesta-Rey Cigar Bar at Tropicana Field, home to Tampa's Rays.
The company's premium business is its core business. Newman owns such venerable brands as Cuesta-Rey, Diamond Crown and Diamond Crown Maximus, made in the Dominican Republic by their partners, the Fuente family. The company has also recently expanded its premium portfolio with several lines of Nicaraguan cigars made at the previously unheralded Fabrica de Tabacos San Rafael S.A. in Estelí, Nicaragua. The first release, El Baton, did exceptionally well in a May Cigar Insider vertical tasting, with the three sizes scoring 90, 90 and 91 points. Brick House, which was released this fall, takes the name of one of J.C. Newman's early brands, which was named for the brick house in Hungary in which he was raised. "We want to offer a very flavorful cigar at an excellent price point," says Eric.
Eric and Bobby Newman continue to pay homage to their father and grandfather who came before them. Diamond Crown Stanford's 90th, a limited release made with Cameroon wrapper, came out in 2006 for the 90th birthday of Stanford Newman. In 2010, the Julius Caeser (sic) cigar will debut, honoring the company founder. When Julius Newman first registered to vote in America, he had no middle name. The registrar suggested that the diminutive man be named after the Roman general. Julius enjoyed the idea (not surprising, as both his father and grandson have described him as having a Napoleonic complex) and the misspelled Caeser became his middle name.
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