An Interview with Oscar Boruchin
Owner of Licenciados and 8-9-8 Collection cigars.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97
Oscar Boruchin owns some of the most sought-after brands in the United States today: Licenciados and the 8-9-8 Collection. Boruchin, 63, has built those brands over the last 15 years since he left a job with General Cigar Co. to become a part owner of Mike's Cigars, a cigar shop institution. Today, Boruchin is the sole proprietor of the business, which includes not only his brands, but a large wholesale and mail-order operation and a world-class retail store in the exclusive Bal Harbour area of Miami Beach.
Boruchin's story is a true rags to riches tale. He fled Cuba after the family business was nationalized in 1960, arriving in Miami "virtually penniless." He began driving a cab, scrambling to support his family. His association with the cigar business began when a customer, a Cuban exile fresh off the plane, paid his cab fare with cigars, the only possession of value Fidel Castro allowed his countrymen to take out of the country.
Boruchin has a rare vantage point in the cigar industry. He is a brand owner, a wholesale supplier of other retailers and a retailer. He has seen a small, profitable business grow into a $22 million-plus enterprise in the space of four years. And, he's recently opened a spacious new store, confident that the cigar business will remain strong. Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, discussed all aspects of the cigar business with Boruchin in a wide-ranging interview.
Cigar Aficionado: You are a Cuban-American. Tell us about your life before coming to America.
Boruchin: My father and mother were born in Russia. They came to Cuba thinking that they would be able to go on to America--pretty quick. But after three or four years in Cuba, when they finally had the opportunity to come to the United States, they felt that the Cuban people were so nice, and that they were making a living. They decided to stay.
CA: What year was that?
Boruchin: My father came in 1923 and my mother came in 1926. He left her behind in Europe--she was his girlfriend--and then he brought her to Cuba and married her. So it was the late 1920s. I was born in Havana in 1933. My father owned a little store in the country for a long time. I went to school in Havana.
CA: Your father had a retail store?
Boruchin: My father had a general merchandise store in a little town called Calimete. Calimete is in the Matanzas province, almost on the border with Las Villas. It was about five hours away from Havana, near a sugar mill.
CA: How old were you and what year was it that you came to America?
Boruchin: I came to America in 1961. I was 27 years old.
CA: Where did you go to college?
Boruchin: In Havana.
CA: What did you major in?
Boruchin: I didn't major. I married and I never finished college. I went to work with my father-in-law in the shoe business. We were big importers of materials to manufacture shoes. When Castro came in 1959, we were well established. I didn't leave Cuba because I was persecuted but because my business died. Importations were not allowed. All the shoe factories were intervened by the government. I had no way to make a living. Since I had no way to make a living in that system, I felt it was not one in which I could progress.
CA: Do you still have family members in Cuba?
Boruchin: Very few. A couple of cousins.
CA: But you were the first in your family to leave.
Boruchin: I was the first one in my family to take the jump, in 1961.
CA: What was it like? Did you have difficulty leaving Cuba to go to America?
Boruchin: I had no difficulty because I always had an American visa. I used to come very often to the United States. I would travel here eight to 10 times a year on business or vacation. So I always had a current visa. For me to leave Cuba in 1961 was very easy. I just picked up a ticket and went to the airport and left. There was no problem leaving the country, although sometimes you would be subjected to searches. Because I left the country so often even before leaving for good, I would just go directly to the security office, because I knew they would automatically search me.
CA: What were they looking for?
Boruchin: In my case, money. American money. They wanted to see if I was smuggling money out of the country. But I never did. When I finally did leave, I left alone. My family--my wife, Rosita, and my one-year-old daughter--followed a few days later. You could call it penniless. I had maybe $2,000 in the United States. My in-laws came a few months later and my parents came three years after that.
CA: What did you do when you arrived in Miami? Did you have friends, relatives? How did
Boruchin: I had very few friends. I had nothing to do and very little money. We had an illness in the family at that time and no insurance because I was just a newcomer. So, the little money that I brought in disappeared quickly with doctor bills and stuff like that. I started to drive a taxi, and I was making about $40 a week for a few months.
CA: Forty dollars a week?
Boruchin: I was driving this car 10, 12 hours a day and essentially looking for Cuban fares because I didn't speak English. There was no way I could understand an address in English. I was going to the airport and waiting for the Cuban planes, which used to come two times a day. I was trying to take Cuban passengers. Otherwise, I stayed close to the refugee center in Miami and other places where Cubans would congregate. It was the easiest way for me to communicate and take fares. That's the way I got into the cigar business.
CA: How could you live on $40 a week?
Boruchin: It was 1961, and although $40 a week wasn't too much money, it was maybe the equivalent of $150 a week today. We--my father-in-law, mother-in-law, my wife and me and the baby--were in a one-bedroom apartment in Miami Beach paying $60 rent. We were making a living. We were struggling. It was a big change, because we had a much nicer life in Cuba. We weren't multimillionaires. But I was doing well there.
CA: Can you explain how your taxi driver job led you into the cigar business?
Boruchin: One day, I picked up a Cuban family at the airport. When we got to the destination, they had no money to pay me. But they were carrying a box of cigars because Castro let everybody out of Cuba with one or two boxes. They suggested that I could collect the fare with a box of cigars. I took it. I didn't know if I was going to lose money or make money, but I took the box of cigars for the fare and I went to Miami Beach, to Zelig's on Lincoln Road. He gave me $10 for that box.
CA: What was it? Do you remember?
Boruchin: Oh, yeah! Montecristo No. 4. Now, I figured if I could go to the airport and buy the cigars for $9 a box and manage to buy 10 to 15 boxes a day, I would make more money than driving a taxi and I wouldn't have to work 12 hours a day. So, I took a little money and went to the airport. The Cubans arrived without a penny, and the only thing they had that could be converted into money was that box of cigars.
CA: What did you pay for a box of cigars?
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