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Interview: Frank Llaneza of Villazon

A discussion with the president of Villazon & Co., makers of Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.

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CA: Which brands did you start making then?

Llaneza: We were making a lot of Bances, all handmade. And we started making Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.

CA: What year did you get Hoyo and Punch from Palicio?

Llaneza: It was two or three years after the embargo, about 1965.

CA: Did you ever make Hoyo and Punch in Tampa?

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.

But we were making a heavier, fuller-bodied cigar. We didn't notice that robust taste in our cigars until Cigar Aficionado started telling people about it. A lot of people who preferred stronger cigars were still smoking Cuban cigars when they could get them. I think a lot of those smokers, because of the rising prices and because of the deteriorating quality in Cuba, started smoking our cigars. And that is when we started seeing a big jump in the sales.

CA: But wasn't there a time when Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur was considered the best non-Cuban cigar?

Llaneza: No, I don't think so. I think there were a lot of cigars that were considered very, very good cigars. Punch had always been considered the strongest cigar we made. When I went to Honduras last time, I took Cuban cigars for the workers to smoke, just so they could see the comparison. But Cuba's reputation of having good, seasoned tobaccos isn't there anymore. Today, the uniformity isn't there. Sometimes you can pick up a Cuban cigar and you think that you're in heaven. Other times, it's not that good. I've told that to the Cubans. If you smoke one of our cigars, people say this cigar has a remembrance of Cuba. We get a lot of smokers that way. We're really not competing with the cigars made in the Dominican Republic. Because the people that smoke our cigars for the first time, sometimes can't smoke the second one.

CA: Is that because they're too strong?

Llaneza: Yes, because they're strong. There's another guy smoking a cigar from the Dominican Republic, and he says, "Man, what's this made out of? Straw?" You know? The taste is there in our cigars. But today, look at how many different blends there are, and different people making cigars that never knew what the hell a good cigar was. And they are selling them. There are a lot of different tastes in the market today. When you say that a cigar has a spicy, nut molasses taste, that's your taste. Someone else may not taste it.

As a result, we have been very fortunate because we were in the right place at the right time. If you look at us as a piece of the General Cigar Co., it makes them more rounded out. They have now a cigar for smokers who want a Cuban taste and they also have cigars for every other kind of smoker. We should be advertising it that way: cigars for all tastes.

CA: Let's keep going over the history a little bit here. Your business was first affected by the revolution in Cuba, but then you were also heavily invested in Nicaragua in the late 1970s, when the Sandinista revolution ousted Somoza. What did you do then?

Llaneza: I didn't have a real financial investment in Nicaragua but I was heavily dependent on Nicaraguan tobacco that the Olivas were growing there. When the Sandinistas took over, we had to immediately find a substitute because we had no wrappers. At that time, we were getting all our wrappers from farms in areas north of EstelĂ­ [Nicaragua].

CA: Cuban-seed wrappers?

Llaneza: Yes.

CA: What did you do?

Llaneza: Mr. Oliva brought me tobacco from three farms that were growing tobacco in Ecuador. He also had his own farm that he had purchased from a former employee of the American Tobacco Co. They were losing money, and it was going to be closed up. But Mr. Oliva bought it. He started making fire-cured wrapper there. We had already tested the natural wrappers, but he had one farm that had a distinctive taste and had the flavor that we needed.

CA: Was it Connecticut-seed wrapper or was it Cuban-seed wrapper?

Llaneza: No, it was Sumatran.

CA: Wasn't it a big change for your cigars?

Llaneza: A big change.

CA: When did that change take place?

Llaneza: Almost immediately. I would say 1980-'81. We had to make that transformation because we didn't have that kind of inventory of Nicaraguan wrappers.

CA: In the late '70s, I remember, the Nicaraguan wrappers were just like great Cuban wrappers. They were brick-red and smooth.

Llaneza: Yeah, a brick color, like this [Holds up a sample cigar].

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