Marvin R. Shanken interviews the man behind Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.
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Young people are afraid to smoke cigarettes. They actually believe that cigarettes will do all these things to them that they say, but there hasn't been that much adverse publicity about cigars. They don't have to inhale the cigars. Cigars have a distinct taste where cigarettes don't. And [young people] are into the good life. They're into wine, they're into brandy, they're into fancy food, French cooking--everything that people didn't do in the past, unless they were very wealthy. So cigars are part of that lifestyle. And the young people today are emulating their superiors.
C.A.: Do you see this as a short-term increase in popularity or do you see this continuing for many years to come?
Blumenthal: I hope it'll continue for many years to come. I think that it'll peak at one point, but at what point I don't know. Right now, we have a lot of young smokers. As they grow older they'll probably continue to smoke. Now we need the next generation to come along.
C.A.: What are these young people looking for in terms of brand names, in terms of flavor, in terms of strength? Is the industry giving them what they want?
Blumenthal: I think the industry is giving them what they want. I think that they're getting better cigars than have ever been made before because, for one thing, prices have gone up considerably, so the cigar manufacturers can afford to make a better cigar and take more time with it.
C.A.: What kind of cigar are they looking for--a mild cigar, a strong cigar, more flavorful?
Blumenthal: I don't know. That's something that if I knew, I would be much more successful than I am. I started smoking when I was 16 years old. I started to smoke cigarettes, and my father told me he couldn't stop me from smoking. After all, he was in the cigar business. But he says that if you gotta smoke, smoke a pipe or smoke cigars. He called cigarettes 'coffin nails.' That was the expression they had when he was young.
I started with a very light cigar, a panetela. In fact, I remember there was a brand called Something Special that was a very big brand in New York City. It was made with a Sumatra wrapper. Then I graduated to Havana cigars. When I say Havana I mean Havana cigars made here. As the years progressed and I progressed, I started to smoke Cuban cigars. So I started very light. Then, I wanted something with a bit more taste and finally something stronger, so I moved up to Cubans. That's what's going to happen to everyone. They're going to smoke the very light cigars and find that eventually they want something a little more meaty. The manufacturer is going have to make a more meaty cigar.
C.A.: Could you give us more details about your history in the cigar industry?
Blumenthal: Well, my father was in the cigar business. He had retail stores in New York City, and I started as most kids do, helping out after school. I delivered boxes for him, or I filled in at his store when I was a teenager.
C.A.: Where was his store?
Blumenthal: He had one at 88th and Broadway, one on Christopher Street in the Village and one at 49th Street and Broadway.
C.A.: Which store did you work in?
Blumenthal: All of them. Then I worked as a salesman, after school, selling a cigar called Gonzales & Sanchez and Cuesta-Rey, which was from the original Cuesta-Rey people. I worked for the representative in New York for about two years.
C.A.: How old were you when you first started working, helping your dad?
Blumenthal: Thirteen or 14. [A few years later] I went into the service in World War II. I was in the service for three years, from 1942 to 1945, in the Air Force. When I came out, I worked as a salesman on the road, selling pipes and cigars for a fella by the name of Harry Goldfogle, the owner of Schilty Cigar stores. I worked there for a few years. Then I had an opportunity to open a store. I knew the landlord of the building at 86th Street and Broadway. My father in the meantime got sick. So I helped him out at his stores.
Finally, I opened my store at 86th and Broadway. In those days, I smoked dark cigars. You couldn't buy a dark cigar in the city of New York, except at Dunhill, which had Montecristo. But no one made an actual cigar, everything was candela wrapped. When I opened a store I said there must be a lot of people like me who want dark and natural cigars. So I opened a store about 1950, or '51.
C.A.: That was your first store?
Blumenthal: That was my only store, and it was called Daniel Cigars. I featured dark cigars. I went to Cuba in 1954. The first time I went to Cuba I imported a brand, El Rey del Mundo. The Cuesta-Rey people and I were very friendly at that time. They owned the El Rey del Mundo factory. I got the exclusive agency for the United States for El Rey del Mundo and for Ramon Allones. Then I started to import the cigars. I also had the exclusive agency on Quintero and Cano, which were not the best. They were not the normal import brands. But they were brands that were sold in Spain and were very fine cigars.
C.A.: So you became the licensed importer for those cigars?
Blumenthal: Yes, I had the agency for the United States. They had no one up to that point. I started bringing in anywhere from 700,000 to a million cigars a year. Meanwhile, I was wrapped up in the wholesale business because I didn't like doing retail business. That's a seven-day-a-week job, you know, from seven in the morning to midnight. I found that I liked the wholesale business better, so I put my efforts into it.
Before that happened, a writer by the name of Bernard Wolf came to see me. He was originally Trotsky's secretary in Mexico. He was writing an article for True magazine. Anyway, the article somehow wound up in Esquire. It was about the Greens versus the Browns. He mentioned my store and what I said about dark or natural wrapper cigars. The next day, I was in the mail-order business. Sacks of mail came in with checks. Actors also used to come in. Ernie Kovacs was there, he used to buy his cigars from me. There was the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I supplied the cigars to Burl Ives that he smoked on the Broadway show. Zero Mostel used to buy his cigars from me. Ira Gershwin I used to sell cigars to. Arthur Freed, a movie producer, I used to sell him cigars. Walter Matthau and the fella, the other actor that he pals around with?
C.A.: Jack Lemmon.
Blumenthal: Jack Lemmon.
C.A.: Today, you have an interest in Tinder Box, America's largest retail cigar store chain. What role does it play in the Villazon operation?
Blumenthal: It has nothing to do with Villazon. But I'm a major shareholder.
C.A.: And how many Tinder Boxes are there in the United States?
Blumenthal: 108 locations.
C.A.: Are the stores franchises?
Blumenthal: All the stores are franchised.
C.A.: What made you get into that business, and do you see that as a growth part of your business?
Blumenthal: I bought Tinder Box along with three other investors who, incidentally, sold out their shares to Fred Adler of Adler & Finck. It's run by my nephew Gary Blumenthal, who is the president and CEO. We had a lot of problems with Tinder Box. We went into Chapter 11. We've been out of Chapter 11 for almost two years. We're now expanding again. We're opening up five new stores in the next couple of months. We also have coffee stands that we're opening up. We're opening up coffee stands in the Philadelphia airport. We're starting to rebuild the company.
C.A.: Since you were in the retail business in the early part of your career, and over the last 40 years, having seen nothing but a decline in the number of stores, what's your reaction to seeing new stores opening up?
Blumenthal: Thirty or 40 years ago, there were new stores opening up somewhere all the time. There were thousands of outlets of tobacco in New York City alone--not cigar stores, but that sold tobacco. There were thousands of cigar stores. Today, there's nothing.
C.A.: What advice would you give to someone wanting to open a new store?