Normalcy in the Dominican Republic
The gold rush days of the cigar boom are gone, and so are most of the quick-buck artists who flocked to the Dominican Republic
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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Even though Kelner is sitting on vast inventories of tobacco, he bought more tobacco from the 1998-'99 crop, and he says he paid his farmers the same price he paid the year before. "If they reduce the price, in the long term we are the victims," he says. "If you try to reduce the price, [a farmer] will try to reduce his cost--and in the long term, that reduces quality." It's that type of commitment to quality that most newcomers didn't have, a long-term approach that many neglected to take. That's part of the reason why so many have left the Dominican Republic for good. Litto Gomez sticks his head out the window of his pickup truck and motions to the man standing in front of a deserted building. "¿Que pasa a la fabrica?" he asks. What happened to the factory? The man tells him that it's closed. There's no name over the door, but this small building used to make cigars. Gomez has just crossed between Santiago and Tamboril, and this is the third shuttered factory he's passed in the past two minutes.
"There used to be this packing office here," says Gomez, 45. "They would go to different little factories around Tamboril, take cigars from each place, and they would just put the same labels on them. So much for consistency." Gomez beeps his horn, and a worker opens the gate to Tabacalera La Flor S.A., the factory that makes La Flor Dominicana cigars. (A small fire in May destroyed 400,000 cigars in one of his aging rooms, but the damage was being repaired at press time, and Gomez said it wouldn't seriously affect the company's future.) During the cigar boom, it seemed as if every inch of real estate in Tamboril became a cigar factory, from large warehouses to back rooms in people's homes. Gomez estimates that as many as 60 Tamboril factories went out of business between 1997 and 1999, and a person driving through the town can't help but notice a dozen empty shells of factories. Today, locals say only three export-quality factories remain: Gomez's Tabacalera La Flor, Tabacalera Real Felipe Gregorio S.A., where Petrus Dominicana and Felipe Dominicana cigars are made, and Tabacalera Palma S.A., run by José A. "Hochi" Blanco.
The ride to Tabacalera Palma is a kidney-testing trek over a narrow country road. The drive past cows hardly makes one think about cigars, certainly not the possibility that a family would have been creating smokes here since 1942. Then the cigars were strictly for locals, rough cheroots made with all-Dominican tobacco.
"In the 1960s, my father had 160 cigar rollers each making 500 to 600 cigars a day," says Blanco, who was born in the Dominican Republic. The 37-year-old, wearing a constant smile, sits in his cluttered office on the mezzanine level of his factory. "The 1980s, those were bad days," he says, remembering how tough the market was for cigars, "but in those days nobody used green tobacco like during the boom. The new people came into the business and they didn't know anything. Dozens of people came wanting me to make cigars."
Blanco, who makes Cibao, La Diva and several private-label cigar brands, felt the sting of poaching when the newcomers flooded Tamboril. One day he walked into his factory and found only 17 rollers, half of his workforce. "Seventy percent of the new factories were in Tamboril," says Blanco. "About nine or ten small factories in Tamboril are still open in people's houses, and most are making counterfeit cigars."
Blanco says some of the counterfeiters produce what they call "Cohiba Crystals," a common counterfeit of Cuban Cohibas sold with a plexiglass or glass lid. Cuban cigar factories don't package any Cohibas in that way, yet people buy them regularly in the United States. Two counterfeiters even got into a fistfight one day over who had the right to make fake Davidoff cigars. (The real brand is made more than a half-hour's drive from here.)
Blanco's family once grew tobacco; now he and Gomez have created a partnership to grow their own Dominican tobacco in La Canella, a region about 20 minutes northwest of Santiago known for its full-bodied tobacco. They've harvested two crops from the 110-acre farm, and the tobacco is now aging. They haven't used any yet; Gomez plans to begin rolling it into cigars in 2000. Today, it sleeps in perfectly proportioned bales in his cigar factory in Tamboril. The Tamboril factory has lived up to Gomez's expectations. His rollers are busy and efficient, and capable of making even difficult sizes, such as his La Flor Dominicana El Jocko Perfectos, a stubby figurado. When Gomez told friends that he was moving from Villa Gonzalez to Tamboril in 1996, many tried to change his mind.
"Ninety percent of my labor force lived in Tamboril, and I had to transport them to Villa Gonzalez," says Gomez. "A lot of people said, 'You're moving to Tamboril? You're crazy,' because of all the labor problems they had years ago."
Tamboril has always been home to most Dominican cigar rollers, but when Cubans moved to the country in the 1970s and 1980s to make their cigars, they opened factories in Santiago.
"In 1980, Tamboril was Vietnam," says Carlos Fuente Jr., the president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., maker of Arturo Fuente and Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars. "They were shooting machine guns in the streets." Fuente and his father, Carlos Sr., have made cigars in the Dominican Republic since 1980. "In 1984, it was a war zone," says Fuente Sr. "We came to Santiago because of the free zone, and there's tobacco here."
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