Carlos Fuente Jr. has become one of the most recognizable people in the cigar business. While at the helm of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., he has seen the company rise to one of the preeminent positions in the industry.
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CA: What is the next biggest brand?
Fuente:The next one is Cuesta-Rey, which should come in at slightly more than 12 million.
CA: And Ashton?
Fuente:Maybe up to 5 million this year.
Fuente:Montesino is a brand that we're growing at a higher percentage than other brands. Montesino this year should be close to 3 million cigars.
CA: Tell me more about Montesino.
Fuente:It's a brand that doesn't have a very high visibility. And yet, it's a well-made cigar and it's very reasonably priced.
CA: What's the history behind it, and what is your plan?
Fuente:Montesino was a brand that used to be made with Cuban tobacco in Tampa, and my father bought it from Antonio Suarez, who was an old friend of the family. We've now owned it for many, many years. My dad has always believed that Montesino someday was going to be a very, very big brand.
We introduced the Don Carlos range when we were back in Nicaragua, but when we came to the Dominican Republic, one of the first brands we started working with was the Montesino. Between 1980 and 1983, we were making more Montesinos than Arturo Fuentes, and Montesino was outselling Arturo Fuente. We could not make enough Montesino. At that time, Montesino was sold on the East Coast and in the Midwest; there was not enough production, it was so hot. It was outselling Arturo Fuente, and at that time we looked at ourselves, and I said, "This is silly. Arturo Fuente's my grandfather." It's an extension of our family and ourselves. So, at that point, we really started concentrating on the development of Arturo Fuente, with new sizes, new packaging and so forth. Montesino was not really focused on.
CA: Was Montesino sold at a lower price?
Fuente:It was sold at a price just under Arturo Fuente. But in the last year, we've started to expand production again. We've introduced some new shapes.
CA: Tell me about the tobacco.
Fuente:Montesino is very close, well, actually it's an Arturo Fuente with a Connecticut-shade wrapper. It is a Fuente. It comes from the same kitchen. The blend is different, though.
CA: Is it a little bit lighter?
Fuente:Yes, it is lighter.
CA: Can you tell us about the specific blend of Montesino, and how it differs from your Arturo Fuente blends?
Fuente:You know, our blends are something we don't really talk about. We just don't give up that information. I don't even like to talk about the origin of the tobaccos that we use, although we do talk in general terms. Our blends are sacred to us. My father knows the exact blends and I know them, and a couple of other family members, but that's it. The proportions are secret. They are really our family treasures.
I can say that we have been influenced by all the places where we have made cigars, in Florida and the Cuban tobacco in those days, in Honduras, Nicaragua and, of course, the Dominican Republic. The tobacco that was available in those places had an influence on us. And, yes, there are some cigars [the OpusX] that use all-Dominican tobacco in the blends.
CA: But you've never lived in the Cameroon, and you use a lot of Cameroon tobacco. What's happening in the Cameroon today?
Fuente:We do use a lot of Cameroon. I see the future of Cameroon as very positive. The tobacco continues to improve, and with the Meerapfel family running their wrapper farming operation and overseeing the tobacco production, there has been an incredible improvement in the tobacco.
CA: Which of your brands carry the Cameroon wrapper?
Fuente:Cameroon is used on the Arturo Fuente brand, principally the Don Carlos.
CA: Are most of your other brands basically Connecticut-shade-wrapper cigars, like the Ashton, for instance?
Fuente:Yes, Ashton, Cuesta-Rey, they are both generally Connecticut-shade-wrapper cigars. And most of the other ones are at least Connecticut-seed wrapper. For the Hemingway series, we use a Connecticut-shade wrapper, although all of the Don Carlos line is Cameroon wrapper. We use a Connecticut sun-grown for the maduros, and we use Ecuador wrappers from the Oliva family for some Arturo Fuente cigars, depending on the size. We're going to introduce in the Chateau Fuente series a special aged wrapper grown by the Olivas in Ecuador, which we've been aging for a couple of years now.
CA: Where do you see the premium handmade cigar market going in the next five or 10 years?
Fuente:Believe it or not, Marvin, I really don't follow the industry too much. I stay focused inside our four walls. I don't look to see what's coming outside. Of course, it's clear that we are in a cleanup period. I think that the interest for premium cigars is still growing; I think that people are maturing, too. They understand cigars better today. The average consumer has become very sophisticated and much more appreciative. And I see the cigar business adjusting itself to those new consumers. The best news is that there's still a growing interest in cigars and I see it as a very, very positive trend. Things have never been better for us.
CA: Do you have any plans to add new factories in the Dominican Republic or anywhere else, such as Nicaragua?
Fuente:If necessary, but I would like to see us keep building what we have in the Dominican Republic. I really believe that the Dominican Republic has been extremely good for us and, in life, we have to give something back when something has been given to us. I really believe that I could, or my family could, give more to cigar lovers by continuously struggling to improve what we've achieved in the Dominican Republic rather than go to other countries and divide ourselves. I really believe there's so much yet to be done in the Dominican Republic and I think as a part of history it's important that we continue to contribute as much as we can there.
CA: Your father and your family have endured a number of setbacks through the years: fires that have destroyed warehouses and entire cigar factories, the lawsuit; there are other things, too. How difficult were those challenges to your company, and do you feel that you've finally entered the golden age of the Fuente family?
Fuente:I feel now that I'm on top of the world. But I think that it's going to be more and more difficult for us as each day goes by. One thing that all these obstacles has given us is that they have brought my family even closer together. And that's the reason why I would like to see our future focused on what we have, and try to improve what we have in any way we can.
If I look back to my younger days, my life was cigars; no, first God, then cigars, then family, then our customers. And one thing that a lot of these painful situations has taught me--maybe it's the age I'm getting into--is that I see that family is more important than ever. It's always been family, but I see now it's God, family, then cigars, then our customers. I would like to see my father being able to spend more time with all of us--with my sister, with my brother, Richard, with myself, with my mother, Anna--and not working 18 hours a day like he does. And the same with my sister and my brother-in-law; it's day and night; it has been so for a long time. It's almost unfair, because to try to achieve what our customers want and give them as many Arturo Fuente cigars as they want, it's going to reach the point that it's not humanly possible.
CA: Do you and your family talk about the day the trade embargo against Cuba ends, and what that might mean to your business? After all, you not only have deep roots in the Dominican Republic, but you have historical ties to Cuba.
Fuente:We all have very strong emotional ties to Cuba. We always will have emotional ties to Cuba. When I was born and then raised in Tampa, I didn't speak English until I started first grade. My heritage is Cuban; I'm very proud to be a Cuban-American. When I was growing up, the conversation in my home was always that when there was an opportunity to go back to Cuba, we would visit and so forth. But life changes, and it changes for a reason. I don't think that we should never look back, but you should only look back to learn.