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An Interview With Robert Levin

Owner, Holt's Cigar Store, Inc., and the Ashton Brand
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 9)

Levin: Yes. As the Holt's cigar company, we do a lot of dinners in the Philadelphia area and in the suburbs. And around the country we do them with Ashton.

CA: Ashton is certainly something that puts you in a special category. It's an established and respected brand. If my memory serves me correctly, it's an old line of pipes. But how did a retailer in Philadelphia originate this brand? Tell us the story.

Levin: The Ashton story. Let's see. I had been a retailer since the early '70s and, in 1980 when we bought Tint's, they were direct importers of Consolidated Cigar products from the Canary Islands. When we bought them, we became the direct importers. Unfortunately, we became the direct importers at exactly the moment when Consolidated moved to the Dominican Republic. There were major problems with the quality of the product. The company was totally unprepared for the move, and ended up sub-jobbing out to all the different factories in the Dominican Republic to make all their products. After that, Consolidated decided they weren't going to distribute their own brand, so they named 15 or so people around the country to do that; we were one of those retailers. So we became an importer/distributor.

CA: For your local market.

Levin: No. For any account we could get in the country. So it was very competitive between the 15 people who were importing Don Diego and Primo del Rey, etc. I finally decided that I didn't want to do it anymore. I was racking up huge bills and trying to get a profit on the slimmest of margins because it had become so competitive with the other distributors.

CA: Price-competitive?

Levin: Very price-competitive. Everyone had an 800 number. Everyone was trying to get every account they could and it wasn't a good situation for me. So I decided, I know the market, I thought I knew what the consumer wanted. I had been in the business a while. I wanted my own brand. So I stopped being a jobber.

CA: Did you make that decision on your own?

Levin: It was pretty much on my own. My father at that time was out of the business. He was retired. I took the creation of the brand step by step and went very slowly. But because I had Holt's, I didn't have to make a living from Ashton. I knew I was going to come out with my own brand. At the time, I had a relationship with Bill Taylor, who made Ashton pipes. They were becoming successful.

CA: And where were Ashton pipes made?

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