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The El Producto Story

Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

When George Burns, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs and other top comics of the day gathered at the Hillcrest Country Club, the room would fill with laughter and cigar smoke. Everyone would be smoking the top brands. Everyone, that is, but George Burns.

"Come on George, try one of these Havanas," urged Berle and Co. "Live a little. Get rid of those damn Queens, and try something sweet and delicious."

But the patron saint of cigardom quickly turned down the Montecristos and H. Upmanns thrust in front of him.

Waving aside these premium cigars, Burns again emphasized his loyalty to a lifelong sweetheart. Taking out an ivory holder, he'd light an El Producto Queen, a perfecto-shaped cigar that Burns liked to call "my little lady."

"I'll never smoke anything else," promised Burns, a 10-a-day El Producto man. "I just love the taste of Queens. They never go out on the stage while I'm doing my act, and besides, I get them for free."

Burns remained true to his word. Until his death last year, the Sunshine Boy rejoiced each month when his shipment of 300 Queens, each packaged in a glass tube, arrived at his Beverly Hills home. "He'd act like a child at Christmas time, smiling ear to ear," recalls Sam Tuchten, the now-retired El Producto district manager who brought Burns those cigars. "He was in seventh heaven. But god forbid if the shipment was late. George would frantically call the company [Consolidated Cigar Co.], and send his butler to Beverly Hills' drugstores to buy all the Queens he could find."

That's where El Producto is still found: in undistinguished drugstores like Walgreens and Thrifty. Once a handmade premium blend of Havana and Puerto Rican tobaccos, enjoying such national popularity from the 1910s to the 1960s that even Elvis Presley was wild about El P's Altas and Diamond Tips, Burns' "little lady" has since become a pale shadow of her former self.

Now, machine-made El Productos have a short natural filler, while the wrappers and binders are produced from either reconstituted or homogenized tobacco, commonly called "sheet"--scrap tobacco ground into powder and held together with vegetable adhesives (only the Queens and Escepcionales have an all-natural wrapper and filler). The once hot-selling line of 14 shapes has been scaled down to nine shapes, and it's no longer Consolidated's "flagship" brand. Although El Producto still registers about $15 million a year in sales, the company's all-natural wrapper cigars far exceed that figure. Today, Antonio y Cleopatras reign as the company's leading machine-made cigar, with more than $30 million in sales, while El Producto has become the target of in-house jokes.

"The brand is now a poor stepchild," says Jim Colucci, Consolidated's senior vice president for sales and marketing. "El Producto was once a good, inexpensive cigar, a real strong regional seller. It just got really hurt when we started to use homogenized wrappers and additives. We then tried to dress her up a bit in the mid-1970s with new packaging--a fluffy-haired blonde in a flaming-red dress and bouffant hairdo. But modernizing the packaging never helped sales, and that blonde is still referred to as the company bimbo."

Yet George Burns can rest easy. Hoping El Producto will benefit from the "halo effect" of spiraling sales throughout the cigar industry, Consolidated is debuting a commemorative "George Burns Collection" of four shapes this spring that restores some of the brand's former luster. The cigars will have natural wrappers, either Dominican or Honduran filler, and feature the original turn-of-the-century packaging that pictured a serene-looking "little lady" sitting by a lake.

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