An Interview With Robert Levin

Owner, Holt's Cigar Store, Inc., and the Ashton Brand

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CA: How did that happen?

Levin: We designed the Ashton logo. I went to a lot of people in the industry who were cigar makers and I told them what I wanted. We got samples, and we started. Over the years the business evolved and now I own the Ashton brand. I bought the name from Bill Taylor in 1992.

CA: So what year was this that you first started to sell Ashton?

Levin: I started working on Ashton in 1983. We came out with it in 1985. We introduced it at the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America convention in Washington that year.

CA: Who made the cigar in the beginning?

Levin: In the beginning, it was made by Henke Kelner at Tabadom. I got samples from everybody I knew. I liked the cigar we got from Tabadom.

CA: At the time, what other brands was he making?

Levin: That was pre-Davidoff. He wasn't actually making a lot of brands. He was making some for Europe. He had a pretty small production and Ashton, after a couple of years, became the factory's biggest brand.

CA: When did you leave Tabadom?

Levin: About 1988.

CA: How big a brand was Ashton in 1988?

Levin: The year we left Tabadom, Ashton was a 300,000-unit brand. That was fairly considerable because I was not advertising. I knew a lot of retailers in the business who were my friends and they took the brand on. We just built it up very slowly and we had wide consumer acceptance. It was a quality product. We always stayed on top of the quality.

CA: Of the 300,000, how much did you sell yourself versus other stores?

Levin: Mostly other stores.

CA: Was it a national brand?

Levin: Yes. I didn't want to just have my own brand. I didn't want a private brand. I wanted a national brand that was everywhere.

CA: Were you in 50 accounts, 100 accounts?

Levin: We started out very slowly. I don't remember exactly. But Ashton was really the first superpremium cigar.

CA: What did you sell Ashton for in those days in terms of average price?

Levin: The regular line of Ashton in the Churchill size was about $2.50, and now it's $6. The smaller ones went from $1.70 to $2.25. It was really the first superpremium on the market.

CA: Were there any higher-priced cigars on the market?

Levin: We were one of the highest, and when the Ashton Cabinets were released, they were the highest-priced cigars.

CA: So in 1988 you left Tabadom for the Fuentes.

Levin: Yes.

CA: What was the rationale behind the move?

Levin: My father had been doing business with the Fuentes for years. I knew them well, too, and they were very, very good friends of mine. I had my differences with Henke. I finally decided it was time to make a move for the brand, and for myself.

CA: Did you have a contract with Henke?

Levin: I didn't have any contract with Henke. When the time came, I just said it was time to move on.

CA: When you started with the Fuentes, was that on a handshake, too, or did you work out a contractual agreement?

Levin: The first few years was just a handshake. Carlos Fuente Jr. and I worked on the blend, worked on the product for six to eight months before we came out with the cigar again.

CA: So in 1988, Ashton was about 300,000 cigars. What was it in 1995?

Levin: We delivered 2 millon cigars in 1995 and that includes Europe and the United States.

CA: How many went to Europe?

Levin: About 300,000 went to Europe.

CA: In 1992, you shipped about one-half millon cigars. How much went to Europe?

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