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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 3)

Night falls outside the Cuba Aliados cigar factory in Danli, Honduras, and with it comes a sudden storm. Huge drops, drumming steadily on the roof of the single-story complex, pick up momentum and quickly become a deluge. Inside, despite the storm, an after-hours calm prevails. Bundles of newly rolled cigars are stacked everywhere, waiting to be checked for quality, sorted by size and color and sent to the aging room. The chocolate and leather fragrance of premium tobacco permeates the air. Apart from the noise of the rain, the factory is quiet. Its 100 employees, having met their production quota, have all gone home.

All, that is, except for Nelson Acuna. Working at the table he shares with one other roller, the soft-spoken 29-year-old is finishing the last of his quota of pyramid- and diademas-shaped cigars. His hands move with the slow, steady precision of a fine craftsman, stretching the dark wrapper leaves, placing the filler and binder bunch just so, then neatly rolling, sealing and cutting it into a finished cigar. Acuna and his 31-year-old tablemate, Benito Salinas, are the only rollers in the factory qualified to make these demanding, highly prized cigars. Though their combined production of about 200 per day is less than half the daily average of most individual rollers, they occupy a position of honor: Their table is at the front center of the room, facing the other rollers.

Looking up before starting his next cigar, Acuna smiles shyly. "I used to make coronas and robustos, and I was the worst roller in the factory...too slow," he says above the clatter of the rain. "Then Don Rolando taught me how to make pyramids and diademas, which require slowness and patience, and now I am one of the best rollers in the factory. I owe everything to Don Rolando."

Don Rolando is Rolando Reyes Sr., founder, owner, operations manager, chief of quality control, factory public relations director and head cook and bottle washer for Aliados Cigars. The excitable, feisty Reyes is a living legend in the world of premium cigars, having owned and operated hand-rolling factories in Havana, the Dominican Republic, Miami and New Jersey, as well as in Honduras.

A slight, fair-skinned man with pale brown eyes and short-cropped silver hair, Reyes has lived full-time at Aliados' Danli factory since it opened in 1990. At 74, he has the energy and stamina of many men half his age. He routinely works 18-hour days, six days a week, taking only a two-week vacation each winter to visit his wife, children and grandchildren in the United States. Because he started working in the tobacco industry at age 14 and has always worked long hours, Reyes likes to claim that he has 120 years' experience in cigar making: 60 years of normal, eight-hour days, and another 60 years of overtime. While most of humanity works to live, he is one of the few who live to work, and he loves it.

"Retire? I am retired," he says in response to a question, a twinkle in his eye belying the seriousness in his voice and bearing testimony to a playful, philosophical nature. "How can I retire when there is so much work to be done?"

Reyes is also an anomaly among many of today's cigar company owners and factory managers in that he can actually roll cigars. In fact, his vast experience in the industry has included jobs in all phases of cigar making--purchasing and processing tobacco, hand-rolling cigars, supervising quality control, shipping and handling, managing a wholesale operation. He has even owned and operated a retail smoke shop. To say cigars are in his blood is somewhat off the mark; they actually seem to be in his genes.

"My father is crazy about cigars," says Rolando Reyes Jr., the 38-year-old president of Cuba Aliados Cigars Inc., who runs the company's wholesale and retail operations from its Union City, New Jersey, headquarters. "When I was a kid, he insisted I learn about tobacco and how to hand-roll a good cigar. Most of the time I just wanted to be outside playing with the other kids. But he always said I would never go hungry if I knew how to roll. And I know now it was good advice."

Don Rolando's passion for cigars is clearly evident in his Aliados brand. He began making cigars under that name in Havana in 1955, and the brand has followed him through various moves in his search for the perfect cigar-making country. Aliados often receive high ratings from the Cigar Aficionado tasting panel. As Lew Rothman, owner of J.R. Tobacco and a marketer of Aliados cigars, notes, "Reyes makes incredible cigars. If you check the ratings, Aliados consistently have received the highest average mark of any cigar of its type."

This August, Cuba Aliados Cigars introduced a new brand, Puros Indios, which is also made at its Danli factory. Like Aliados, Indios come in a variety of shapes and sizes. According to Reyes Jr., they are distinguished by their blend of ultrapremium tobaccos. Of the roughly 5 million cigars made annually at the Aliados factory, only half a million will carry the Puros Indios label. Prices range from $50 per box of 25 for the Petit Perla to $165 per box for the Churchill Especial. As with the Aliados brands, the highly regarded Indios are already on back order.

The secret of Cuba Aliados' success lies, first, in the quality of tobacco in the cigars and, second, in Reyes Sr.'s involvement in every step of the production process. Unlike other Honduran cigar makers, Reyes Sr. does not use locally grown Cuban-seed tobacco in his cigars. Despite increasing respect industrywide for the high quality of Honduran wrapper and filler leaf, he prefers to use Dominican grown Cuban-seed filler and Ecuadoran grown Sumatra-seed binder and wrapper in his cigars. Recently, he has also been buying some Cuban-seed filler from the Jalapa area of Nicaragua. All Aliados tobacco is processed and aged according to Reyes' specifications, which are a closely guarded secret. Both father and son are also tight-lipped about the tobacco blends that make up their cigars.

In judging tobacco, though, the senior Reyes has one overriding rule: Older is better. "Today, a lot of cigar makers are rushing the tobacco, and this is not right," he says. "You want high-quality tobacco, but you also want mature tobacco. If it is not aged for the proper time, the cigars will not be good." Aliados tobacco stocks include bundles from the '83, '85, '90 and '94 crops. In total, Cuba Aliados has nearly $2 million tied up in tobacco inventory. A heavy investment for a small, family-owned company, notes Reyes Jr., but a necessary one. "The tobacco has to be aged. You can't just buy leaf and make cigars the next day. Let's face it, cigars are only as good as the tobacco that's in them."

Don Rolando's mania for quality control is reflected in his attention to detail. A constant presence during work hours, he is continually on the move, supervising the tobacco handling, leaf stripping and grading, bunching and rolling, sorting and boxing. When tobacco shipments arrive, he supervises the unloading of each container, and when cigar shipments go out, he is there to see that the containers are properly loaded. After hours, often late into the night, he inspects and grades the day's production, sorting cigars for uniformity of size, shape and color. Many don't pass muster and are either sent back for re-rolling or set aside for his personal use.

"My quality control policy is very simple," says Reyes. "No tobacco comes into this factory and no cigars are shipped out without first passing by my hand. Sometimes I will inspect a single cigar six or seven times on its way from the rolling table to the shipping crates."

Reyes also maintains strict hiring and training policies for his cigar makers. Though the high demand for premium cigars worldwide has led some companies to hire inexperienced workers who are moved into full production after only a few weeks of training, Don Rolando insists that his employees have prior experience. He then retrains them to make cigars to his specifications, a process which, depending on the individual's skill, can take up to two years. "With demand as high as it is, we could use more cigar rollers," says Reyes Jr. "But you can't just take someone off the street, show them how to make a cigar and let them start rolling. It's practically an art form, and it takes a long time to master."

As in all Honduran cigar factories, at Cuba Aliados cigar makers work in teams, with one person bunching the leaves and fitting them into the pressing forms, and another rolling on the wrapper leaf, closing the end and sizing the finished cigar. (The only workers who both bunch and roll are Acuna and Salinas, which partly accounts for Aliados' small daily production of pyramids and diademas.) For quality considerations, each team is limited to making no more than 400 cigars per day. "Some teams could make up to 700 cigars, but we don't allow it because quality control would go out the window," says Reyes Jr. "My father has a reputation of turning people into perfect cigar makers, so they are in high demand all over town. We pay more than the other factories to keep our workers happy. Of course, my father is very demanding. If you don't want to do it his way, he tells you to leave."

Dawn comes early after the rains. By 6:30 a.m., the sun is up, dissipating the mist and drying Danli's mostly dirt streets to a fine, powdery dust. Despite three banks, a half-dozen pharmacies and a busy municipal market, the town is a backwater, little more than the last major settlement before the Nicaraguan border. From here the road rises steeply into the thickly forested mountains, where big cats roam at night and the cries of exotic birds and monkeys pierce the morning calm. During the U.S.-backed Contra War, Danli held the dubious distinction of being the primary staging area for the anti-Sandinista rebels. Today, tobacco and cigars save it from complete obscurity, with cultivation being constantly expanded and new factories coming on line in record time.

By 6:45, workers have begun arriving at the Cuba Aliados factory. Some come by company-sponsored bus, others walk and many ride bicycles, the most affordable rapid transit available in these distant Honduran hills. By 7 o'clock, they are at the rolling benches, turning out the first of the day's hand-rolled premium cigars. Don Rolando is already on hand, giving instructions, checking quality and supervising the packaging of a shipment to be sent out that afternoon. He wears the clothes of a serious working manager: a pair of worn pants, an old T-shirt, black Chinese slippers that have seen many miles. "My son said I should dress up today," says Reyes. "But I told him, 'Why should I dress up? Let people see me the way I am everyday.'"

By 7:30, a proud Don Rolando is leading a pair of journalists on a tour of his factory. At his side is his son, who has flown down from New Jersey for the event. After a visit to Cuba Aliados, Lew Rothman described it as "the strangest factory in all of cigardom." To be sure, even in the world of rough-and-tumble Honduran cigar making, the Aliados factory is unique. Housed in what was once a motel, and for a time a Catholic convent, it is decidedly bare-bones and no frills. From the outside, the low cinderblock-and-stucco building looks like a 1950s rest stop on the road from Phoenix to Albuquerque. Inside, a series of rooms open onto a central courtyard. Production takes place in what was once the dining room. Most of the other, smaller rooms hold stores of tobacco. In the courtyard, bicycles and picnic tables crowd together beneath giant rubber tree and bamboo plants. Chickens and ducks wander about pecking the bare earth. Over a PA system comes the voice of a reader, who sits on a central dais in the rolling room, reading the news of the day and selections from novels, to entertain and educate the workers.

"Here we do everything the way we used to do it in Havana," says Reyes Sr. "This is a little corner of old Cuba."

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."

It is Thursday night, approaching the end of a busy week at Cuba Aliados. Outside, another storm breaks over Danli, sending sheets of rain across the town. Inside, Nelson Acuna sits alone in the rolling room, finishing the last of the day's pyramids. In the old kitchen behind the rolling room, the elder Reyes hosts an informal dinner party. Guests include Nestor and Herminio Plasencia and Fidel Olivas of Fabrica Plasencia and Benny Gomez of the Miami-based Inter-American Cigar Co.--all seasoned cigar men. The talk is of tobacco, Fidel Castro, this magazine's cigar-rating system. The host has laid down a sumptuous Cuban-style feast, 90 percent of which has come from his own backyard. The dishes include a whole roasted pig, sliced avocados, a garden salad with boiled eggs, black beans and rice, steamed yucca in garlic and butter, and plates of fresh fruit. There is iced beer and fiery rum with lime. A plastic bag chock-full of Aliados coronas goes round, and people smoke as they eat and drink. Don Rolando, seeming at complete peace with the world, shrugs off his son's worries.

"Here we are concerned with quality, not quantity," he says. "Our goal is that every cigar we make be a perfect cigar in its appearance, the way it burns and in flavor--a true work of art." When the subject of retirement comes up again, the indefatigable Reyes gives another shrug. "I suppose one day I will have to stop working," the cigar master says with a note of sadness in his voice. "But for now, I have my responsibilities." He pauses for a moment. "Anyway, 10,000 cigars a day isn't so many. For me, this is like retirement."

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