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Reaching New Heights in Miami

The Havana Club at the Miami City Club
Alejandro Benes
Posted: December 19, 2006

"It's like your bar mitzvah," Robert Katz, dressed in a white dinner jacket, was overheard to say on Friday night, moments before he introduced the world to the Havana Club at the Miami City Club. "You can't have fun at your own party."

Few bar mitzvahs count more than 1,000 people coming through the doors, and fewer still have Cuban jazz player Arturo Sandoval, Cuban singer Jon Secada, various rappers and the city's mayor. They had gathered with the other guests on the 55th floor of the Wachovia tower in downtown Miami celebrating the inauguration of Katz's new private cigar club. Benji Menendez, former heir to the Montecristo brand, and Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, founder of La Gloria Cubana cigars in Miami, also lent their support.

Just last month, Katz told the South Florida Business Journal that,"some guys want to open a vineyard and winery; this is my personal quest."

The Havana Club journey began more than two years ago when Katz and his colleagues met Miami Mayor Manny Diaz at the Grand Havana Room in New York. Katz, a businessman with many interests, served for years on the Grand Havana board and was one of the club's first members in Manhattan. Originally, the Miami venue was to have been another Grand Havana Room, but that arrangement fell apart in August 2005. Katz pressed on.

Diaz, a Cuban who's been known to enjoy cigars, told the crowd on Friday night that he had then given "my word and a handshake" that the Havana Club would become a reality. For that to happen, Katz and crew had to clear several hurdles, not the least of which were Florida's regulations against indoor smoking and the installation of a system that would clean the air of cigar smoke well enough to satisfy the building's management.

An ice sculpture at the bar fashioned to look like the Havana Club insignia.
"We spent a million dollars on this system," Katz explained of the Bioclimatic bipolar ionization machine that, as advertised, kept the 15,000-square-foot establishment largely free of the haze of smoke that often plagues grand ballrooms.

"We spent 100 percent more than we planned to build the club," Katz said, putting the price tag at $5.5 million. "This is the largest club of its kind in the United States." Katz was referring not only to the cigar-friendly nature of the room. "The vision was to create a high-end place where people could network and do business. The ability to smoke cigars is a value-add for our members, especially the international businessman who wants to smoke cigars."

"Value-add" is what the Havana Club at the Miami City Club is all about. The Miami City Club is an 85-year-old institution that had, by more than some estimates, grown a bit stodgy. With the Havana Club becoming the "managing agent" of the Miami City Club, there is some hope that the room will attract a bigger, hipper clientele.

On this opening night, the lounge was reserved for a private birthday party for Scott Storch, the 33-year-old producer of hip-hop music whose company is called Tuff Jew Productions and whose net worth has been estimated at around $70 million by Rolling Stone magazine. Hipper you can't get. At about 9:45p.m., the music began blaring inside the establishment's Club Macanudo Lounge, and Menendez, who had been enjoying a drink with Perez-Carrillo and recounting how his grandfather had begun growing tobacco in Cuba, decided to call it a night.

The Club Macanudo Lounge is a big part of what makes the Havana Club -- which is housed in the Miami City Club -- distinctive. Kind of a lounge within a club within a club. The lounge, two right turns from the entrance, was born of a sort of joint venture with General Cigar Co., the owner of the Macanudo label and the eponymous clubs around the world.

Trumpet great Arturo Sandoval plays for guests at the opening.
"General Cigar is not a financial partner," explained company representative Victoria McKee of the relationship with the Havana Club. "General Cigar will work with the Havana Club to market the room. We want to make this very aspirational," McKee said, adding, "we will be receptive to having celebrities attend" even if they are not members. Clearly.

The Havana Club venture has essentially resulted in a two-tiered membership structure for the facility. The 700 members of the Miami City Club will be entitled to use the Havana Club at breakfast and lunch, explained Katz. A more comprehensive membership for the Havana Club requires an initiation fee of $5,000. Dues are $300 a month.

Among other amenities, the club features a large, $350,000 humidor -- some lockers already bear gold nameplates with Alec Baldwin and Kevin Costner on them -- and an unparalleled view of the sea- and cityscapes that have appeared on the openings of TV shows from "Miami Vice" to "CSI: Miami." Services will include streetside valet parking and complimentary limos to destinations like South Beach. Membership will come with privileges at the Downtown Athletic Club in the same building.

Katz says the club will take only 800 members and that he already has 375 applications. It'll take more than money to get in.

"We want to get a good mix of members," Katz said. "We want entertainers, people from the sports world, from business and finance."

Havana Clubs in Atlanta and Chicago are already in the works.

Alejandro Benes is a writer and businessman based in California.

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