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Cigar Kings

The Rolando Reyes family relies on time and traditional techniques to make Cuba Aliados cigars in Honduras.
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 2)

Each storeroom holds a different kind of tobacco: filler, binder, wrapper. In one room, stacked floor to ceiling with large bales, the air is thick with the aroma of finely aged Jalapa Cuban-seed filler. Taking a leaf from a broken bale, Don Rolando spreads it open, revealing its flawless, mocha-colored complexion. Leaning forward as though to give it a kiss, he touches the end of his ever-present cigar to the leaf. It immediately begins to burn in an increasing concentric circle.

"See how evenly it burns, smell the sweetness in the smoke," says Reyes. "This is good tobacco."

After a visit to the wood shop, where a dozen employees turn raw Honduran royal cedar into finely crafted cigar boxes, Don Rolando leads his guests out back to show off his pride and joy: a minifarm, complete with chickens, guinea fowl, rabbits, pigs, wild boar, a frisky steer, a herd of goats and a huge garden where sugarcane, corn, beans, tomatoes, lettuce and nearly every other vegetable imaginable grow. In the few spare moments left from running the factory, Reyes tends the farm himself, producing nearly all of his food needs. Later, over tall glasses of freshly pressed sugarcane juice in the large cluttered kitchen of the former motel, Reyes speaks of his personal odyssey.

Like many Cuban exiles in Honduras, Reyes traces his cigar-making past to well before the Cuban Revolution. The seventh of 12 children, he was born in Zulueta, a small town in the province of Las Villas in central Cuba. His father, who owned a fleet of freight trucks, was originally against his son's plans to become a cigar maker, but he finally gave the 14-year-old his blessing. "Being a cigar maker was all I thought about, all I talked about," says Reyes. "There was a saying in Cuba, 'A tabaquero is an artisan, who, having a good hand, always earns good money, and so, is one of those that dress and live the best.' I wanted to live like that, too."

After a two-year apprenticeship in a small factory in Zulueta, Reyes moved on to the major leagues of cigar making in Havana. His 30-plus years in the city included stints at H. Upmann, Partagas and Romeo y Julieta, as well as other major cigar factories. When Reyes' own Havana factory was confiscated by the Castro government in the early 1960s, it was producing 6 million hand-rolled Cuba Aliados cigars a year for the domestic market. "After I lost the factory there was no reason to stay in Cuba," says an embittered Reyes. In 1970, he succeeded in leaving the island with his wife and three young children.

"I was 14 when we left Cuba," recalls Reyes Jr. "When we got to Miami, the U.S. government gave $50 to my mom and dad and $5 to each of us kids. That was all the money we had."

With a $500 loan from his brother, Reyes Sr. moved to New Jersey and opened a small cigar shop in Jersey City. By day, he rolled and sold cigars in the shop; at night, he worked in a clothing factory to earn the extra money needed to support his family. Soon the Jersey City shop proved too small for his growing business, and Don Rolando found a better location in Union City, where the company is based today. Production was located in Union City and the Dominican Republic during the mid-1980s. When production outpaced the Union City factory, a hand-rolling factory and a second retail shop were opened in Miami in 1988; all production was finally shifted to Honduras in 1990.

"[Honduras] is the best country in the world for making hand-rolled cigars," claims Reyes Sr. "The climate is good, the people are hard-working and the government is very encouraging." Asked if he would like to return to Cuba someday, Don Rolando says emphatically, "Not as long as Fidel Castro is in power."

Like many premium cigar-making companies, Cuba Aliados is a family affair. While Don Rolando manages the production facilities and his son takes care of marketing and sales, Don Rolando's wife, Zeida, has helped manage the Union City store, and his oldest daughter, Oneida, oversees the Miami retail and wholesale outlet. Grandson Carlos, Oneida's son, who started college in September, admits that he will "probably end up in the family business" when he graduates. Reyes Sr.'s and Zeida's other child, Seida, is considering getting involved in the business. Of his own two small children, Reyes Jr. says, "You can be sure I am going to teach them how to roll cigars as soon as they are old enough to get the hang of it."

Also like many premium cigar companies today, Cuba Aliados is in the enviable position of having demand outpace supply. "We need tobacco and we need cigar makers," says a somewhat harried Reyes Jr. "It's the same with everybody: If you have 400 cigar makers, you want 500; if you have 500 bales of tobacco, you need 1,000. There seems to be shortages of everything these days--workers, tobacco, cedar to make boxes, cellophane wrappers--everything."


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