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
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.
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.
The Newmans remain very active in the charitable work, a pursuit which began with grandmother, Gladys. Eric and Carlos Fuente Jr. are principals in the Cigar Family School, which provides hope for underprivileged children living in the Dominican Republic. Bobby is chairman of the heritage society for Southeastern Guide Dogs, a charity that brings guide dogs to the visually impaired. Eric also serves as chairman of the Cigar Association of America and takes pride in the internal council provided by his son, Drew, a 28- year-old lawyer who holds no official title at J.C. Newman.
There's little quit in the Newmans. Founder J.C. died after driving home from work at the age of 82, and his son Stanford died at the age of 90, having suffered a heart attack in his office.
Cigars have been a part of the family for more than a century, and Tampa has been its home for 65 years. Expect that to continue for quite some time. Tampa, says Eric Newman, "has a special place in our hearts."
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