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An Interview With Manuel Quesada

The head of Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. (Matasa), makers of Fonseca, Cubita and other cigars.

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Q: How cheap are we talking about?
A: A quarter. Twenty-five, 30-cent cigars.
Q: How can they do that?
A: Well, anybody can do that. Anybody can do that. And it's sad, because I sat with a big wholesaler and he told me, "These are my prices: bundles or boxes, this is what I pay." I said, "I can't sell you cigars at these prices, because I'm not going to give you consistency, I'm not going to give you quality." He says, "I'm not interested in that—I want price." I said, "Well, I'm sorry. That's not the way we do things." And we still sell him some cigars, but not many, because we can't compete.
Q: So what's your opinion of the market today? And how was last year for you?
A: In conversations I've had with a number of people, the gist of last year was, if you came out in 2003 as you did in 2002, tip of the hat and you're doing great. And basically, I was a standard of last year. If 2003 was as good as 2002, you were doing good, because the first four months of 2003 were the worst four months that I've ever seen in history. Weather had much to do with it. When weather hits from Chicago to Boston and from New York to Atlanta, that's a big chunk of the market right there. That's a huge chunk of the market. The rest of the year made up for the first four months and that's why, if you came out even, you were doing very well.
Q: What about this year? Are you optimistic about the current state of the cigar market?
A: Quite so, quite so, quite so. I think it's an exciting time, because manufacturers are in a situation where they have to be creative, they have to be innovative, they have to be consistent, and it's really fun. And again, if we overdo it, if we're creating new things every two months, then we're just adding too many things into the market. And then we're not making anything stable anymore.
Q: Tell us about some of your new stronger blends.
A: Well, the Cubita SMS [Spanish Market Selection], in particular, is a rather strong cigar. And of course, it's given the smoker a totally different area to smoke in the Cubita line. For example, the regular Cubita was a little stronger than the Fonseca, but still along middle-of-the-road strength. Now the SMS brings a different level of strength and aromas and tastes into the same brand. So we have been able to capture those that are looking for something different, something more exciting, something a little heavier for a particular time of the day or week or whatever.
Q: The wrapper on that is something unusual for you, right?
A: Yes, indeed. It's a Nicaraguan criollo seed that we are purchasing from Plasencia.
Q: Now, on the inside, is there stuff that you normally maybe haven't used in the past, too, or just more ligero from the Dominican?
A: A little more ligero, yeah. And the combination makes a different cigar altogether.
Q: Is it the strongest cigar you think you make?
A: Ah, that one and the [Fonseca] Reserve…different taste, but strength level, they're more or less in the same ballpark. And we also represent Joya de Nicaragua Antaño from Nicaragua, which is a very strong cigar.
Q: Tell about that relationship a little bit.
A: Brad [Weinfeld] decided to come back into the industry, and he decided to come back with us. Brad had a great relationship with Joya, which had been rebought by Alejandro Martinez, and he was looking for a distributor in the United States, so he came to Brad, and Brad came to me. Unfortunately, the old Joya de Nicaragua had been beaten so badly that it was a difficult proposition to get it off the ground. And then Brad, who came up with the name Antaño, said, "Let's do something a little different. Let's do something a little heavier in taste." And it's quite different. Unfortunately, it's a very limited production cigar.
Q: I want to talk to you about a difficult subject. The awful day in 2002, when you lost your brother, your nephew and—
A: And Julio.
Q: And Julio Fajardo, your right-hand man. Could you talk about what happened that day?
A: I was coming back from Spain. I was in Madrid. And Julio, Alvaro and Alvarito, my nephew, wanted to go to Haiti to look at a cigarette factory, because we were involved in the purchase of a cigarette factory in the Dominican Republic. So they wanted to go to Haiti to see the cigarette factory because they wanted to go see what their capabilities were. So I'm flying back, and they were leaving that morning to go to Port-au-Prince. And coming into Santiago, it must have been 5:30, 6 o,clock. And I called my niece to find out if they had come back from Haiti. And my niece tells me, "We have no news from them. They left this morning around 11 and we haven't heard from them since."
Q: They were supposed to be back…
A: Ah, 3 o,clock, 4 o,clock. So instead of going home, I went straight to the airport because they were starting a…not a rescue operation, but a flyover to see if they could find anything. So helicopters were going out and airplanes were going out. Weather was not good that day. Visibility was not good. So they came back around 6:30 or 7 o,clock, with no news. That night, we had no news. The next morning, which is April 18, rescue operations went out again and around 2 o,clock in the afternoon they found the airplane…from the air. They saw the airplane from the air. It was unreachable because of where it was and weather. Nobody could land where it was. Finally, Friday morning, they were able to land and a rescue team had left by land to go up to the mountain and try to see firsthand what had happened. So by the time they landed, on Friday morning, and the rescue team had gotten to the place where they had seen the plane, the news came back that all the…that it had been a fatal accident. So they were able to bring the bodies back that Friday. And we buried them that Friday afternoon.
Three-quarters of the company went down that day, so I was left sort of alone. I have my daughters and my niece, but, of course, they were, at the time, and they still are, works in progress. They're young and they're learning and they're involved, but not at the level that these three…well, my brother and Julio, because my nephew was also a work in progress.
Q: How old was your nephew?
A: Twenty-four.
Q: And Julio was your right-hand man.
A: Yeah. But, fortunately—in all the bad, you can always find some good things—Julio and I had talked of bringing up people from the factory, because Julio and I could no longer be casing wrapper,
following filler, seeing what the yields were on the floor, making
sure that the blends were being properly done. So Julio had been bringing up a lady called Lourdes Veloz de Rodriguez, and my daughter Raquel, who had come back from Boston, had finished her schooling and working for David [Kitchens] at Gloucester [Street Cigars] and she had been already in the factory for about a year. So both of them were being brought up by Julio and myself into running the factory.
So, when the accident happened, we just left Lourdes and Raquel where they were, now under my supervision instead of Julio's, now [that] Julio was no longer available. And thanks to that, I was able to maintain some sort of structure in the factory and some sort of sharing of the load as far as running the factory was concerned.
Q: That must have been crippling.
A: [Sighs] It still is. It still is. Because you can't walk into the factory and not see where these people used to roam and walk and talk and do. But I told the family, "You know, the world does not stop and, unfortunately, we have to deal with this as best we can individually, but we have to move forward, because there are other responsibilities. You, as children, you're working in the company, so you're young. There has to be a future. So we have to work towards that and make do as best we can."
And thank God, we have been able to maintain ourselves in the level of quality, in the level of commitment that we had previously. And we haven't put a lot of emphasis on real growth, because we don't have the capability of duplicating, for example, our efforts. But we have been able to grow ever so slightly and maintain our position within the industry.
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