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Generation Next

We look at the youth movement in cigars, from the fifth generation of Quesadas, to the Perez-Carrillo children and the Levin young guns at Ashton.

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The father, son and daughter trio is clearly excited about building a new brand from scratch together. "We've come closer together—I was always traveling," says Perez-Carrillo. Now, times are more like they were in the old days, when he worked in Little Havana and home was just a short drive away. "Our first house was very close to the factory," says Lissette. "My dad picked me up from school and we would go back to the factory. Anything we needed, he was there."

The Levins — Ashton's Brother, Sister Team

Just as he learned the cigar business from his own father, Robert Levin has brought his daughter Meera and his son Sathya into the fold at his ever-growing company, which sells Ashton and other cigars worldwide.

Six years ago, Ashton Distributors owner Robert Levin was asked during a Cigar Aficionado Q&A what his company would look like in 20 years. "I have no idea," he said at the time. "My son, Sathya, shows some signs of interest; he's a senior in college. My daughter, Meera, is a sophomore, so it's too early to tell."

Things have changed. Today, Meera, 25, is the director of marketing and international accounts at Ashton, and Sathya, 28, is vice president, deeply involved in most aspects of the Philadelphia-based business, which owns one of the best-known cigar brands in America.

"Meera handles all the international sales, works with our salesmen, in our bonded warehouse," says Robert Levin. "Sathya's like a work- aholic—he works his ass off. It's also the new generation. Sathya has a great relationship with all the newer retailers, the younger generation of retailers. I only know the old guys. He's definitely more technologically astute than I am. And so is Meera."

Sathya has been working full time at Ashton for more than four years. He first started working with his father during summer breaks and winter holidays when he was in middle school, primarily helping out with the company's retail store, Holt's, in Philadelphia. "I did odd jobs around the store and offices, breaking down boxes, sweeping floors, making sure the stock was straight," says Sathya.

"I was always drawn to the business, but there was never any real pressure from my parents—they just said do something you'll be happy doing," says Sathya. He immersed himself in cigars as a junior in high school, spending a month in the Dominican Republic as an apprentice to Carlos Fuente Sr., the patriarch of the Fuente family, which is a minority owner of Ashton, and the maker of all the Ashton cigar brands, including the highly acclaimed Ashton Virgin Sun Grown. He sorted leaves, prepared tobacco for fermentation, and even learned how to roll cigars.

"He sort of grew up in the business and he knew what he wanted to do," says Robert Levin. "Sathya has a great feel for the product and a very good palate. He knows quality." His son was at the helm for one of the company's newest projects, San Cristobal and La Aroma de Cuba Edición Especial, both of which are rolled for Ashton by Jose "Pepin" Garcia.

Garcia, the rising star of the cigar industry who seems to roll 90-point cigar after 90-point cigar, is also a partial fit for the next generation trend: while his cigarmaking son Jaime is 38, closer in age to the traditional second-generation men working in the industry, his daughter Janny is only 30.

She was the first of her family to arrive in the United States from Cuba, and runs the company's Miami operations and financials, and helps coordinate production and operations in Nicaragua with her dad and brother. She and her brother live with their father, and the family talks tobacco all the time. "It's not usual in the U.S., but in Cuba, we lived all together," says Janny. "It's impossible for my father to live without us, and it's impossible for us to live without him," she says.

At Ashton, Sathya also defers to the knowledge of the older generation. "We're lucky to be working with some great tobacco men," he says. "I smoke a lot of cigars, so I know what tastes good, but I leave the actual blending to the masters."

Like her brother, Meera Levin began working at Ashton as a child, gift wrapping packages during the winter holidays. When she was in college, she worked weekends and some weekdays at the retail shop. She also did an international apprenticeship, but in Japan, for Ashton's Asian distributor Bluebell Group. Meera, who is a sports nut (particularly about basketball), originally wanted to work in sports business, but felt a pull as she drifted from the cigar industry.

"I didn't know if I was going to go into the family business when I was in college," says Meera. She had interned with Comcast Sports Net, seemingly a dream job, but found that she missed the cigar business. "One year, I missed an RTDA," she says, referring to the former Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show, the annual gathering of the entire premium cigar industry. She had attended since she was a five-year-old. "My summer was not complete. I decided I had to go into the cigar business," she says. "It's such a family atmosphere, and I would be able to work with my dad and my brother every day."

Both Sathya and Meera feel a sense of responsibility. They are the third generation of Levins to work in the business, which dates back to 1957 when Albert Levin bought a cigar shop. Today it consists of a huge wholesaling, mail-order and retail cigar business.

"Hopefully my brother and I will live up to the expectations," says Meera. "My dad will never fully retire, but eventually the ball will be in my brother's and my court to expand the business."

Says Sathya, "We're a small family business—you feel that extra level of investment. It was my grandfather's before it was my father's. You have a legacy—you feel very strongly about our company, and everything we do."

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