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An Interview With Robert Levin

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

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CA: Do you happen to know what percentage of your sales are single cigars?

Levin: No, because it's changed a lot since we opened the new store.

CA: To a higher percentage of loose cigars?

Levin: Yes. We have more loose cigars. As cigars have become more expensive, people, especially the younger smokers, will come in and buy two or three of one cigar brand, and they'll taste four or five brands.

CA: They want to experiment.

Levin: Exactly. They want to experiment.

CA: Do you have a lot of standing orders with your customers, where they say, "When you get in the order, please hold a box or two of this for me, a box of that"?

Levin: Yes. We have thousands. It's become a monster and we are always talking about what do we do with this because, when we get a shipment of Fuentes in, all you do is fill back orders. It's a big problem.

CA: What new brands do you think will do well three or four years down the road?

Levin: Padron, Saint Luis Rey, Montecristo, El Rey del Mundo and La Flor Dominicana are all very good quality cigars that will stick.

CA: Other than Ashton, what are some of the brands that are in greatest demand?

Levin: All the major brands. All the cigars the Fuentes make. Macanudo and Partagas. Hoyo de Monterrey, Punch, Excalibur and H. Upmann, La Gloria Cubana, Licenciados, Romeo y Julieta Vintage and Savinelli.

CA: What about shaped cigars?

Levin: I have a story to tell you on that. When I first came out with Ashton, I had two shaped cigars. I had a torpedo, called Ashton Sovereign, and I had a belicoso, called the Prince of Wales. I couldn't give them away. The two deadest sizes on the line. After three years, when we moved factories, and they didn't have the molds or the experienced rollers to make those particular shapes, I said let's just start with the basic shapes. Since then, the whole market for shaped cigars has exploded.

CA: Are you able to get those shapes? And how many do you make for Ashton?

Levin: The shipments for the shaped cigars total maybe 70,000 or 80,000 so far in 1996. Tops. And in the maduros, we have well over a million cigars on back order.

CA: Do you have any plans to add stores?

Levin: There's always talk of that, but we have to see how the new store plays out. I think opening new retail stores today is a problem with setting up and getting product.

CA: Tell me a little more about the conflict between being a brand owner and a retailer. Clearly, you compete with other manufacturers, but you are their resource, too. How do you balance the competing claims on your time?

Levin: I tread a very fine line in that area and I try to be very careful about how I conduct my business.

CA: You do business with everybody?

Levin: I do business with everybody. I'm very careful with that. I try to keep the standards of Ashton high, but I never compete with our customers with Ashton. As a retailer I have some insights into the business and I've tried to help other retailers in every way possible, because I knew exactly where they were coming from. I was in the same boat. And while one of the reasons Ashton became successful is obviously the quality of the cigar, I was also already friendly with every major retailer in the country. When I came out with the brand, they put it in the store right away. They didn't think of me as competition, they thought of me as a friend. Today, of course, the market is much different, and people are happy to get cigars.

CA: Is the marketplace more sophisticated today?

Levin: There are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable consumers today. And they are constantly trying different brands, new brands. In fact, people don't stick to one brand today.

CA: Is it becoming like the wine business, where people will drink a Mondavi or a Ch√Ęteau Latour but it doesn't stop them from drinking new wines?

Levin: Yes, and it's especially true when the chances are that you are not going to be able to get the cigar you want. So you have to try another cigar. There is simply constant experimentation.

CA: I can envision your customers coming into the store and they have a smile on their face. It's like they've entered heaven.

Levin: I know. A friend of a friend came in yesterday, and he's from Atlanta. He came in our store for the first time and he just couldn't believe it. He said, "This is like a dream! I'm moving to Philadelphia."

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