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Interview: Frank Llaneza of Villazon

A discussion with the president of Villazon & Co., makers of Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 11)

Llaneza: No, we were already rolling in Honduras when we got those brands. At the time, we were bringing the cigars in cedar chests by sizes. We brought them here to Tampa and we packed them, banded them, cellophaned them and put them in boxes. We didn't have a box factory in Honduras. We didn't have anything down there. It was still crude. It was only the beginning of an industry in that country. They had no prior experience in the cigar business, so we were bringing them new jobs and money. But it took some time to get it up and running.

It was wonderful back here in those days. You'd go into a humidor and you'd open those cedar cases, and man, the aroma was really excellent. Then, we could keep cigars in those cases for a long time because there wasn't the craziness that we've had in the last five years. They were properly aged before they were released.

CA: When did you shift all your hand-rolling operations from Tampa to Central America? When was the last time you made hand-rolled cigars in Tampa?

Llaneza: We kept making cigars here that were special sizes for Red Auerbach, the coach of the Boston Celtics, and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his son and some of the football players. Art Rooney took every one of those cigars that we made. And they were a ring gauge like a robusto but long, shaped like a baseball bat. The two rollers that made them finally got old and died. Before they died, one of them went to New York and made cigars on the old David Letterman show. He must have been 86, 87 years old. But when they both passed away 10 years ago, that ended the size and the company's hand-rolling operations in Tampa. We just started making it now in Honduras again on a very limited basis. It's not an easy size to make because it's so big, a 6-inch, 50-ring pyramid. It's called an Aristocrat.

CA: What was happening in the U.S. market 25, 30 years ago, when you shifted most of your production to Central America?

Llaneza: We were still in a normal market, in the pre-Cigar Aficionado period. Everybody was out there scratching. But we were selling more and more cigars and we started getting more and more customers. Garcia y Vega was moving from Tampa to Alabama, and Bayuk, the manufacturer, sold me this factory in Tampa. And, with it, I bought all their handmade cigars. Bayuk president Morris Wurman told me to take all the handmade cigars that they had made.

I think that was one of the turning points in Villazon's business when I got the Tampa building. I got more machines. A lot of the factories were going under in the United States. I bought all the machines from the Regina Cigar Co. in Pennsylvania and brought them down. And we were getting bigger in the mail-order side of the business by giving customers quality short-filled cigars in big sizes. At the time, the sizes that were sold were much smaller. But we got 10 or 12 machines making seven-and-a-quarter-inch cigars on short fillers.

We did a real good business with those cigars that put us up there with Thompson Cigar Co. Thompson had became a major player in the mail-order industry. But we were big players in it, too. And we made a lot of cigars for Lew Rothman.

CA: Is there a point that you can look back and say, "That's when our non-Cuban cigars really began to be accepted by American consumers"?

Llaneza: If you look at the statistics, the largest production year that Cuba had in the United States market was 21 million cigars in 1961. They were not all cigars that sold for a dollar, a dollar and a half. There were cigars that you could buy for three for 50 cents. But that was the largest year with Cuba. That showed that there were not a lot of smokers out there that wanted a full-bodied cigar. The majority of the population wanted mild cigars and everybody in the cigar business thought that by producing mild cigars you could start more cigarette smokers to start smoking cigars. And that was the logic.

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