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Trial by Fire

Fires, hurricanes and legal battles haven't dampened the Fuente family's passion for making cigars
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

The car is two decades old, well past its prime and no longer fit for the road. This one is broken down, but scores of its identical twins--Datsun 120 Wides--still sputter along the crowded, cracked streets of Santiago, Dominican Republic. These modest cars are commonly used as taxis in this Checker-free cigar town. They're easy to spot--cramped, overly fragrant, looking more like clown cars than anything else, laboring up the hills surrounding the town of Santiago, a stream of dark smoke punctuating their labors as they ascend the steepest grades.

This 1980 Datsun's owner isn't a cab driver, but one of the world's most successful cigarmakers--Carlos Fuente Sr., the 65-year-old patriarch of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. He keeps the broken-down car as a reminder of 1980, the year he mortgaged his home, cashed in his retirement savings and headed to the Dominican Republic for one last shot at salvaging his father's cigar business.  

"I got a loan," says Fuente Sr. "I didn't even know when I'd be able to pay it."  

Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. had all of seven workers when it opened its doors in 1980 in a free trade zone in Santiago. Today, it employs more than 2,500 workers in four cigar factories in the Dominican Republic, making approximately 40 million cigars a year, all of them crafted by hand.  

Fuente Sr. bought that Datsun for one reason--it was the cheapest new car on the market. "I will never sell it," he says.   Fuente's son Carlos Jr. recalls washing the car, inside and out, with a garden hose as part of his chores working in the family business. "Everybody squeezed into that Datsun, and it was extremely tough," says Fuente Jr., who was 26 when he moved with his father to the Dominican. "We lived in a very, very small home--no air conditioning, no electricity, no telephone for a long time. For seven years no running water. I remember my mom had to go to a little local grocery store, and the eggs were dirty, covered with dirt. You never knew if the chicken was good. The bread was hard." He pauses as he speaks. "I guess we were a lot younger; both my father and I were passionate and we were just like raging bulls."  

The Fuentes went to the Dominican Republic to try to rebuild their family business after a series of devastating fires and economic realities forced them to pull up their stakes, a process that, for the family, was becoming an all-too-familiar endeavor. Fire is the albatross roped around the family throat.  

Fuente Sr.'s father, Arturo, had formed A. Fuente & Co. in 1912 with a group of partners. Ten years later, the Ybor City (now part of Tampa) factory burned to the ground while Arturo was on a tobacco-buying trip in Cuba. The fire sent him back to working for other cigarmakers, and it wasn't until the 1940s that he was able to start a cigar factory again, this time as a family business.  

Fuente Sr., one of only four living men who are members of the Cigar Aficionado Hall of Fame, remembers those days working for his father. When he came home from school, he was not allowed to play until he rolled 50 cigars. Later, he became a baker, but continued to work part-time in the family business.  

Fuente Sr. acquired A. Fuente from his father, and realized that the days of rolling cigars by hand in America were drawing to a close. He went overseas, first to Nicaragua, then to Honduras. Both ventures ended in flames. The Sandinistas burned the Fuentes out of Nicaragua, and an accidental fire ended their Honduran venture. Running out of options, Fuente Sr. found himself back in Ybor City.  

He tried to sustain a premium cigar-making business in a land where machines were pushing out the artisans that rolled tobacco into premium cigars. Fuente was also having difficulties with an aging workforce, which tended to move on to other jobs after learning English in his cigar factory. He was faced with a choice: stay in America and manufacture machine-made cigars, which he was loath to do, or move his operation to a place where he could afford to create handmade cigars.  

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