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The El Producto Story

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

(continued from page 1)

"We want to give El Producto a premium look with pretty cigar bands and return it to the time when George Burns was singing its praises on TV," says Colucci. "All our machine-made, natural-wrapped cigars grew over 20 percent last year, and in view of El Producto's proud history, we feel it can also be a big winner."

Hand-rolled and made with the finest Havana tobaccos during the first half of the century, El Producto has more than an illustrious past. Originally produced and marketed on Philadelphia streets by an enterprising Russian immigrant named Sam Grabosky, a grain broker turned savvy tobacco buyer, El Producto's hard-won success encapsulates the American Dream.

But first came "Mr. Sam's" rough introduction to the hotly contested Philadelphia cigar market. Landing in America in 1890, he struggled as a bunchmaker in a local cigar factory. "All thumbs" and unable to make bunches uniformly, Grabosky brought the bunches home, and his brother Ben worked through the night, making the cigars presentable enough to be sold. After a few years at the factory, Sam Grabosky became a tobacco broker. There was lots of money to be made in those days selling scrap tobacco, and Sam quickly acquired a reputation as a shrewd, yet honest, wheeler and dealer.

"My father sold so much tobacco to this company called 44 Cigar, his attorney advised him, 'Sam, you have such a big stake in 44, you better manage it to protect your interests,' " recalls 81-year-old Marvin Grabosky, Sam's last surviving son. "Along with Ben, he eventually did manage that company, and they built it up real fast. They soon had enough money to consider other ventures, to start their own cigar making company."

While ambitious, and devoted to supporting his relatives, Grabosky had little interest in starting a cigar company. Philadelphia was then a hotbed of competing cigar manufacturers, and many had gone belly-up. But one afternoon in 1905 in a store that bought labels from defunct cigar companies, Grabosky discovered the El Producto label. The tobacco dealer offered him the rights to the brand, as well as labels, boxes and bands, for $11.

Grabosky was apprehensive at first. But when he was shown a few boxes of cigars marked with an El Producto logo, he quickly became excited by the prospect of reviving a failed line. The sale was consummated, and with brother Ben's help, along with two other investors, Sam formed the GHP Cigar Co. to give El Producto new life.

That iffy venture began with a joint investment of $50. The partners purchased a few cigar tables and other production equipment. But after enlisting family members as rollers, they still faced one key problem. There was little money left to buy raw material.

The short and stocky Mr. Sam, though, was respected by other members of Philadelphia's cigar making community. A quiet but compelling figure, known for his tailored three-piece suits, avid card playing and fairness in all his business transactions, Grabosky didn't have to fast-talk possible lenders. With only a handshake, he got leaf dealers to extend him credit. Years later, when discussing his rise to prominence in the industry, Grabosky said, "I was amazed that, even with my having so little money, the dealers came to my support immediately."

But Grabosky needed more than money to survive in the early 1900s. To distinguish El Producto from the scores of other 5-cent smokes made in Philadelphia storefronts and small factories, this keen-eyed judge of tobacco leaf had to offer cigars that truly lived up to such names as Bouquets and Escepcionales.

The filler for both cigars was a mixture of Cuban and Puerto Rican tobaccos, wrapped in Connecticut broadleaf binders and shade wrappers. Besides the fat and pointed Escepcionales (Grabosky's personal favorite, which sold for a then-pricey three for 50 cents during the 1920s), GHP also offered thin panatelas and blunts at 10 cents apiece and coronas at 15 cents each. What made these cigars unique was their consistent, nutty taste.

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