Litto's Twist of Fate
From Cuba, May/June 2007
How Litto Gomez's La Flor Dominicana was spawned from disaster—and other things you probably didn't know about one of the industry's hottest brands.
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Gomez, now 53, seldom mentions that terrifying day. More than 14 years have passed, yet recounting the details seems to sap his confidence and bring an unfamiliar worried look to his face. He speaks haltingly, swirls his cup of Cuban coffee and stares downward, scratching at his chin. He remembers the pain of the plastic as it sliced into his wrists, the brutal, slow shuffle across the floor to get near a glass door and the hour-long wait for rescue. Then Gomez's familiar deadpan humor returns, and a wry grin comes to his face.
"I would like to know where they are," he says of the thieves, who took some $400,000 in jewelry and were never caught. Gratitude, not revenge, is on his mind. "I would send them a postcard."
The robbery changed him. He put the store on the market the next day and never reopened. If not for the thieves, he might still be selling necklaces and other jewels. Instead, he soon turned to crafting what has become one of the top cigar brands in the United States—La Flor Dominicana. "What seemed to be the worst moment of my life," says Gomez, "turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me."
Born in Spain and raised in Uruguay, Gomez drew early inspiration from his father, Adelio, a laborer in a paper mill who had a vigorous work ethic and lost his right arm beneath his elbow in an industrial accident. "He had to reinvent his life," says Gomez. "My father's character, his intensity, the way he recuperated and the respect the people in town had for him, it set an example for the rest of my life."
Searching for opportunity, Gomez moved to Toronto, Canada, with his older brother, Jose, in 1973 after being denied an American visa. He spoke neither English nor French, and took menial jobs to earn a living, washing dishes, busing and waiting on tables as he learned English. "There was a lot of work, but it was beautiful," says Gomez. The first winter was bad, the second worse, and he soon had a set goal—escape the cold weather. After five years in Canada, the brothers Gomez moved to warm south Florida, where they tried their hand at running two liquor stores, then a pawn shop. Naturally curious and possessed of a drive for self-improvement, Gomez focused so intensely on the volume of jewelry that moved through the shop that he found he could hold two necklaces in his hand and tell 14-carat from 18-karat. He soon turned the pawn shop into a jewelry store.
At the time of the robbery, Gomez was dating Ines Lorenzo, a tall former model with a master's degree in international relations who lived in Miami. The two joined with a Miami real estate investor to create a Dominican cigar brand called Los Libertadores in 1994. Lorenzo ran distribution in Miami (and posed for its early ads) and Gomez managed the factory, a tiny, modest shop in Villa Gonzalez with four rolling stations.
"Ines motivated me," says Gomez. "She was very responsible for us being in the business." (Today Ines is his wife, and goes by the surname Lorenzo-Gomez.)
A dispute with the invester led Gomez and Lorenzo to take over the company in 1996. The Los Libertadores brand was not part of the transaction, and Gomez and Lorenzo renamed the cigars the company made La Flor Dominicana. The cigar boom was in full swing, and tobacconists were clamoring for cigars. If you had to lose a brand name and start fresh, the timing couldn't have been much better.
Gomez began as an outsider in an insular industry, one in which many of the men running factories in the Dominican Republic learned the art of blending cigars and other myriad mysteries of tobacco from their fathers. While Gomez's father was a cigar smoker, he had no experience with making cigars, let alone growing tobacco.
"A lot of people thought that I was crazy to start in an industry that was typically in the hands of people that had done this for generations," says Gomez, staring from beneath the brim of his trademark Montecristi Panama hat. "If you were an outsider, you had to prove yourself. Twelve years later, we're honored to be considered a part of the cigar industry."
He's sitting in a chair near the tobacco farm that has invigorated his blends with full-flavored tobacco, a powerful Coronado by La Flor—his second cigar of the morning—in his right hand. Birds chirp as winds sweep away the warm February air on a stunningly sunny day. He looks younger than his age and has more than a passing resemblance to the actor Andy Garcia. His body is rail-thin. He's relaxed, at ease after showing off the farm and its bumper crop of tobacco.
His company's investment in the tobacco farm, a 120-acre property that La Flor Dominicana shares with cigarmaker Jochi Blanco, attests to Gomez's deep Dominican roots. His acclaim from cigar tasters has grown year by year, and most recently his Coronado by La Flor Double Corona was ranked second-best cigar of the year in the February issue of Cigar Aficionado.
While his first cigars garnered few awards, they satisfied the young palate of Gomez. "When I started, I was a mild cigar smoker. And when I started, there was a tradition in the Dominican Republic to make cigars with Connecticut-shade wrappers and Dominican binders and fillers. I enjoyed very much those mild blends."
Like an unschooled chef working with a limited list of ingredients, Gomez was short on both experience and intriguing raw materials. "In the mid-'90s, there weren't many choices," says Gomez. Nicaragua was still reeling from its war years, the tobacco not what it is today. Cameroon was struggling in the wake of the French pullout and the Meerapfels had only begun the long process of trying to keep the wrapper alive. No one but the Fuente family thought strong, Cuban-seed wrappers could be grown successfully in the Dominican Republic. Los Libertadores and early La Flor Dominicanas were pale, mild and fairly bland.
Revelation came with trips to other tobacco-producing countries—Cuba and Nicaragua in particular—and long discussions with masters of tobacco about growing and processing. Gomez soaked up information wherever he went, always questioning how he could do things better.
"What might have been against me when I started worked to my advantage—the fact that I don't have ties to the past allows me to think out of the box. With all respect to tradition, we like to do things that were not done before."
Gomez broke free of the mild cigar mold with a unique shape he created in 1997 called the El Jocko Perfecto No. 1, an odd-looking cigar named after an incident at his farm. After watching a visiting cigar retailer named Jacko Headblade attempt to ride a neighbor's donkey, Gomez immortalized the raucous event by naming both the donkey and the cigar El Jocko. The cigar has a shape that's one part bowling pin and one part squash, with a narrow, rounded head, a fat belly that hangs below the cigar's equator and a thickish foot. It also has a full complement of bold tobaccos, including a Connecticut-broadleaf wrapper and some Nicaraguan filler.
A second innovation came with the 2003 release of The Chisel, a cigar with a wedge-shaped head. Gomez got the idea while driving to his factory one morning: chewing his cigar had turned a pyramid into something flatter, and it felt good in his mouth. He walked into the factory and instructed his rollers to duplicate the shape. It took 10 months to get right.
The shapes might catch a smoker's eye, but it's the taste that keeps him coming back. The El Jocko is distinctive, The Chisel as bold as a cigar can be, loaded with red pepper spice and a solid core of leather. Their blends are possible because Gomez's farm provides a special inventory. Owning the field rather than simply buying tobacco freed him to make more complex cigars. Like an artist with a pallet limited to black and white who suddenly discovers tubes of scorching crimson and brilliant yellow, Gomez blossomed creatively.
"This farm is like a huge blending room for us," says Gomez. "This is where the cigars start." Gomez's satisfaction is visible even in the dim light of the curing barns, which are full of tobacco. Bulks of cured tobacco lie under plastic sheets on the floor in several barns, each of which houses thousands of leaves curing either on wooden poles known as cujes or strings known as sartas. Less refined, the sartas hold leaves that will become filler and with which breakage isn't much of an issue. The leaves in which he hopes to wrap cigars require the coddling that the rigid cujes provide.
Gomez eagerly grabs a leaf, unwraps its wrinkled form and points to the rich, reddish brown color emanating from the edges of the still green center. "Perfect curing," he says. The next leaf is the color of tanned leather, and he puts it near his boot for comparison. The colors are nearly identical. "When it looks like my boot, it passes the test," he chuckles.
Gomez grows all types of seeds at the farm: piloto Cubano, the traditional seed of the area that yields the country's best filler; Sumatra, a toothy, difficult wrapper leaf that he has struggled to grow well; Corojo, which he plants in a range of shade and sun conditions. The various tobaccos add strength, complexity and earthy, robust flavor. The LG Diez, his pride and joy, is wrapped with Cuban-seed leaf he grows under shade at the farm, the first of his cigars to use that wrapper. "When you taste some of our blends and compare them to what a Dominican cigar was 10 years ago, it doesn't taste like a Dominican cigar," he says. "The farm has brought us choices."
Gomez is a demanding boss, and he often finds himself at odds with his agronomist over how to do things. Standing in a curing barn that's being filled with piloto Cubano, he frowns at the sound made by the women sitting on the floor, binding leaves to the sartas. "You hear that cracking?" he asks. "That's the stem being snapped. I hate that sound." Walking through the tightly packed plants in a nearly mature field, he stomps on two that have been damaged to ensure that workers won't harvest their inferior leaves.
Gomez is not afraid to innovate within the tradition-bound world of tobacco. He instituted a system of marking harvested leaves with different color strings to denote the primings they came from. (Primings are locations on the plant from which the leaves are harvested—leaves closer to the top of the plant, known as upper primings, need more time in the fermenting bulks than lower primings.) He also installed an advanced climate-controlled barn at the far end of the farm. After some trial and error, it's fully operational, allowing for better, faster curing.
The gorgeous farm includes a small house decorated with purple bougainvillea. On its patio Gomez can reflect on a day spent in the fields. A barn holds three Paso Fino horses the high-stepping beauties that are the equine equivalent of tap dancers. Gomez is an expert rider—as a child in Uruguay he, along with his brothers, would often sneak into a farm at night and ride horses bareback, using their belts as makeshift stirrups.
La Flor Dominicana recently acquired a second, smaller farm virtually next door. Measuring 40 acres, this one will be owned solely by the company. It has sat largely idle for the past three years, so the soil is rested and ready. "I probably want to do Corojo and Sumatra there," says Gomez, envisioning the possibilities of having even more tobacco inventory. "I want to have tobacco that's 10 years old. We're experimenting. It gives you untold options for your blends."
Business has never been better for La Flor Dominicana. All its cigars are made by hand in one factory. Most are sold under the La Flor Dominicana name, which spans everything from the very mild Connecticut-shade-wrapped cigars in the original La Flor Dominicana line to the bolder Ligeros and absolutely powerful Double Ligero Chisels. There is also the limited LG Diez brand, created when Gomez celebrated his 10th year in business, as well as the Coronados. Few La Flor cigars are extremely expensive—special releases such as the Factory Press sell for around $16—but none are cheap.
Unit sales have nearly doubled in only two years. The company made 1.5 million cigars in 2004, 1.9 million in 2005 and 2.9 million last year. This year it hopes to produce around 3.7 million. "We've been preparing for this," says Gomez, "building inventory for a long time."
Contributing to La Flor's growth has been the creation of an in-house sales force that has virtually ended its reliance on brokers. "For a small company, it's very expensive to hire your own salespeople," says Gomez. "Ines and I debated that." Company salespeople are the uncompromised face of the brand, but they draw a salary and incur expenses. Brokers operate on commission, but they represent many brands and operate on their own.
For La Flor the process started in 2002 and came piecemeal, as it added one salesperson at a time, beginning in Texas, where sales were slim. Today the company has five salespeople and only one broker, as well as a national sales manager.
Last year's soaring increase in production came without adding many workers—Gomez pushed the number of hours they worked, a good short-term fix but not a practical long-term solution. Gomez has 66 cigarmakers working now, and intends to have 80 by around midyear. "That will be the full capacity of the rolling room," he says. Over the summer, he'll have the rollers begin working Saturdays as well. Between the longer hours and the additional workers, his production will rise to nearly 4 million cigars.
He doesn't want to get much bigger. "By the end of this year, we will be as big as we want to be," he says with a puff of his cigar. "This is where we feel comfortable, without having to delegate too much—that's the part I don't like. There comes a moment when you start delegating and it all becomes corporate. You lose touch."
Gomez has proven himself to his colleagues, and to critics and consumers as well. He flies each Monday or Tuesday to Santiago from his home in Miami, and flies home at the end of the week. Lorenzo-Gomez runs the distribution from the offices of Premium Imports Inc. in Coral Gables. "She runs the most difficult part of the company," Gomez says with admiration. "Her contribution to the company is what allows me to be here, thinking about cigars and creating. It's such peace of mind."
He takes another pull on his cigar and squints at the full curing barns across the dirt road. The air is momentarily still, and from far away the braying of El Jocko, who still roams nearby, can briefly be heard above the melodic song of the birds.
"I wouldn't change this for anything. Retirement is not in my plans. I never dreamed of having the amount of personal satisfaction that I've had," he says with his charismatic smile. "Our goal is to build brand loyalty and to be recognized as one of the great brands in the cigar world. And I think we still have a lot of work to do."