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A Star in Honduras

The Makers of Astral and Don Tomas Cigars are Expanding Operations in Danlí
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

(continued from page 1)

At the sprawling CACSA factory, evidence of that expansion is everywhere. In the tobacco curing and aging warehouse, workers are installing insulation panels and temperature and humidity controlling machines. Outside, a new climate-controlled warehouse is under construction, while additions are being tacked on to the tobacco processing and grading areas, and to the rolling, packing and cigar storage facilities. The box shop, which was recently renovated and expanded, is one of the most sophisticated in Danlí.

"The company has always treated the cigar division well," says Guys. "But the recent boom has really brought us a lot of positive attention from corporate headquarters. This year alone we are putting over $1 million into our Danlí operations. The way the market is going, we have to expand to keep up with demand."

Like its box shop, the rest of CACSA's production facility lacks much of the makeshift nature of many other Danlí cigar factories. Whereas some other local producers seem to have slapped their operations together in a few weeks or even days, CACSA has obviously benefited from its 25-year residence in Honduras. Here, a sense of established order and efficiency prevails. The suite of managerial offices is air-conditioned and comfortable, and computers, fax machines and multiline telephones are prominent, bearing witness to the long reach of CACSA's corporate overlords in far-off Connecticut.

Still, CACSA has much more in common with its Honduran neighbors than it does with the sleek efficiency that characterizes most cigar factories in the Dominican Republic. As with any Honduran factory, the energy and activity level at CACSA borders on the frenetic. With production expanding as rapidly as possible, construction going on at a breakneck pace, and the facilities filled to overflowing with workers, tobacco, raw wood, finished boxes, cigars, packing materials and the like, the ambiance is imbued with a rough-and-tumble, can-do local attitude.

Despite the rough edges, CACSA and the Honduran cigar industry have matured considerably over the past two decades. As Guys recalls, when he arrived in Danlí 22 years ago, the country had just four cigar factories. Today, there are eight in Danlí alone. "The Honduran cigar industry was very unsophisticated in those days," says Guys. "Since then, there have been big changes in the level of investment, the knowledge of the labor force and government support. In 1974, all the factories in the country together made about 10 to 12 million cigars a year. Now, there are a number of factories that are each producing that much, or more."

As in all Honduran cigar factories, bunchers and rollers at CACSA work in teams, making up to 500 cigars per day. In the large, rectangular rolling room, rows of work benches, similar to pews in a church, line the walls. Bunchers sit on one side of the room, rollers on the other. To make a cigar, the buncher gathers a blend of filler leaves in one hand and wraps them with a binder leaf. The "bunch" is then fit into a wooden mold and pressed for 20 minutes. The roller sizes the wrapper leaf with a crescent-shaped knife. Then, carefully removing the bunch from the mold, the roller rolls it in the wrapper, neatly caps the end and sizes the cigar with a device similar to a paper cutter. Rolling takes between 45 and 60 seconds to complete, depending on the size and shape of the cigar. The finished cigars are gathered into bundles of 50 by a counter, who weighs and inspects them for consistency and workmanship, the first of a five-step quality control process.

In total, CACSA's 500 bunchers and rollers made about 6.6 million cigars in 1995. The company plans to raise the output to 9 million this year, according to Rodriguez. As in all cigar factories, the rolling room at CACSA buzzes with activity; the constant click of leaf-cutting knives and sizing machines creates a great, clattering noise. But, as elsewhere, conversation is minimal, evidence of the concentration necessary to produce premium hand-rolled cigars. Guys has nothing but praise for his Honduran workforce. "In the 22 years that I have worked here, I can honestly say that I have never had any major problems with my Honduran employees," he says. "They are very patient, honest, hard-working people."

Guys does admit to having worries about CACSA's scheduled production increases. "You don't just push a switch and increase the RPMs," he notes. "People have to be trained, you need a good, adequate tobacco supply, box-making materials and so forth. It has to be done in a slow, methodical manner."

* * *

In fields just outside the town of Talanga, an hour's drive northeast of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, tobacco plants barely a month old are already knee-high in the hot afternoon sun. Soon, the brilliant green stalks will tower six feet or more and their broad, heart-shaped leaves will hang as heavy as ripe tropical fruits. UST International's 1,360-acre plantation here is something of a model farm. It boasts extensive plots of Havana-seed sun-grown filler and binder tobacco, as well as huge plantings of shade-grown Connecticut-seed wrapper tobacco. There are rows of giant drying sheds and several large irrigation ponds to assure adequate water supply during the dry winter months. Since two plantings are now the norm for all Honduran tobacco plantations, work goes on at the farm sunup to sundown, year round. It is here that UST International grows and dries all the tobacco for its premium cigar operation in Danlí.

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