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Straight Talking with Pete Johnson

The creative mind behind Tatuaje tells Cigar Aficionado what drives him forward
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

Pete Johnson has grown up in the cigar industry. The 41-year-old puffed his first premium cigar two decades ago while playing in a band, and soon his love of the leaf eclipsed his love for music. He quickly immersed himself in the cigar industry, forged friendships with major cigar makers and in 2003 created a cigar brand that he named Tatuaje, the Spanish word for tattoo. (Anyone who has seen his arms will instantly get the reference.)

Today, Tatuaje is one of the hottest cigar brands in America, with numerous scores of 90 points and higher. Johnson recently sat down over cigars and rum with senior editor David Savona for a long discussion about how he broke into the business and created such a memorable brand, as well as his plans for the future.

Cigar Aficionado: You’re from Maine.
Johnson: Born and raised in Maine. Moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 to do music.

Q: You were a bassist?
A: Yeah, bass guitar. I didn’t have a band. I just knew I needed to be in Los Angeles for the style of music I liked, which was Sunset Strip rock and roll. I was very green to L.A. Within a month I found a flyer for a band going on a small tour. We went on a short tour that got squashed after the first few shows. I think the tour manager ran out of money. We were getting kicked out of a lot of hotels. Later we played all the famous clubs, the Whisky, the Roxy. That was during the days when glam was really in. Grunge killed us all—that’s when the Sunset Strip died. I think half the city of L.A. tried to move up to Seattle.
Q: Is that when you took up cigars?
A: I was smoking and playing on stage. I started carrying around my kit—I had my empty cigar box, my lighter, my cutter, and at band practice I would smoke.

Q: Do you remember your first cigar?
A: Premium? It was a Pleiades petit corona. I remember calling my girlfriend at the time and apologizing because I spent $2.50 on a cigar. That was a good cigar, creamy, sweet, smooth.

Q: Can you tell me about your first job in the cigar business?
A: You want the real story?

Q: Yeah.
A: I was working as a bouncer in a strip club. I had no money. I was shopping at Gus’s Smoke Shop. I loved the whole feel of the industry and I really loved cigars. This guy named Dennis Spike recommended me [to owner Jimmy Hurwitz] in late 1993. They needed a part-time guy for Sundays to help in the humidor and mix pipe tobacco. Sundays turned into a full-time job within six months, and I became their chief cigar buyer. I would study the humidor. I managed to take that humidor and take it from very few facings into a lot of facings, because I figured out this tray system. I think I smoked everything. I would go through the humidor and smell every cigar so I could get the sense of what was Dominican, what was Nicaraguan, what was Honduran. I collected books, I had memorabilia up the wazoo. I have the two different versions of the original Cigar Aficionado, and I still have every issue. I found that I did cigars way better than music anyways. Everyone was really friendly to me, and people took to me. It was a very welcoming feeling. If you showed your enthusiasm toward this industry, people would say, “Hey c’mon kid, let’s go.”

Q: What came next?
A: I had left Gus’s and stayed out of the retail business for six months. I visited cigar shops, factories. I actually tried to make a cigar back then, but it was impossible to find somebody who could make the brand.

Q: This was 1996?
A: Yes. Finally I said “I need a job.” And The Big Easy picked me up. I was there about a year and a half. Then The Grand Havana Room was having an issue with their humidor. I got into a conversation with the owner, Stan Shuster. He told me he had this plan to open stores. He brought me in.

Q: How long were you with Grand Havana?
A: I started my brand in 2003, but I actually stayed on and worked both jobs until 2006.


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Comments   11 comment(s)

Dgrover1122@hotmail.com July 10, 2012 12:01pm ET

Pete makes some of the best and most sought after cigars out there. Always seems like a down to earth guy who just wants to put out a great product! Good luck, brother.


info@lacasadelhabano.lu July 11, 2012 5:46am ET

The Good Life world needs more people like Pete Johnson!!!I have never met him but I know that Tatuaje Pete is un hombre bueno!
Hasta luego compañero.
J-C
La Casa del Habano Luxemburgo.


Toar — Simi Valley, Ca,  —  July 11, 2012 10:14am ET

Great interview Pete, I remember Big Easy was the only place I could find your cigars back in 04 and gladly trecked across the Valley to get the 03 Cojonu! my all time favorite cigar!!


John Davidson — Lakeside, Ca, United States,  —  July 13, 2012 7:50am ET

Wow, what blind loyalty.

Twice now at two different IPCPR conventions, we visited his sales booth, with a third party salesman. We didn't just present ourselves and expect to be recognized. We were acknowledged with a dis-concerning smile and a wave. After we stood there for several minutes and were completely ignored, the four of us left without ordering. Mind you, at that time, we already stocked Tatuaje Cigars.

It's very busy at IPCPR and so with many other vendors to see and many other appointments to keep, we decided to go to another company and at least be appreciated.

Pete Johnson couldn't give us the time of day. I was very unimpressed. With three locations to stock, two of which are Cigar Lounges, everyone lost. He lost one very significant order, we lost profit and my customers have to search elsewhere. That was 2010 at N.O. We no longer stock those boutique cigars.

Sorry Pete, but first impressions are sometimes the the most important part of any type of sales. My impression is the Tatuaje cigars are huge but it would appear so is one persons ego. Oh well. Maybe next time.


iMrk71@gmail.com July 13, 2012 2:37pm ET

Do you feel better getting that off your chest?


Tim C. July 13, 2012 4:14pm ET

Great interview. It's nice to get to know the man behind the cigar. I have been to a few IPCPRs and never got to really talk with Pete but it's a busy time as many of us know. maybe one day :)


Jason Simpson — Rockwall, Texas, USA,  —  July 16, 2012 8:40pm ET

Just an observation but, I hardly believe this to be an area provided to air dirty laundry. John obviously had what he believed to be a bad experience with Pete at the IPCPR.

As a cigar enthusiast and fan of Tatuaje I have to say that I have had several opportunities to meet and talk with Pete. Every time I walked away with a huge appreciation of how he conducts himself and doesn't treat the end user of his product as a number and/or dollar sign. Pete clearly loves cigars and provides us with some of the best out there. My bet is that had this situation been addressed with Pete directly and not published for the world to see, it would have been handled with utmost professionalism by Pete himself.

Congrats to John for being the first person I have ever heard utter a negative word about Pete or Tatuaje.

Keep up the good work Pete! I'll take whatever John decided not to order.


PETE JOHNSON — LOS ANGELES, CA, UNITED STATES,  —  July 18, 2012 10:47am ET

John,

I'm a little confused. I'm not familiar with any stores in Lakeside California. Maybe because I have never visited that area. I don't recall your situation as that happens at every show where I never have enough time to visit with everyone. I'm not even sure what sales rep other than the broker I use would have brought you to my booth. I'm sorry if I didn't have time to talk with you but I was probably already in a conversation with another client.
If you are at the show in Orlando, I would like to talk with you as this all sounds a little strange.

Regards,
Pete Johnson


Alex Anderl — Crystal Lake, Illinois, United States of America,  —  July 29, 2012 6:20pm ET

John,

I think what you had was an odd-ball experience, maybe even a fluke. Meeting Pete myself, and having the experience to talk to him, having him share his story with myself, my brother, and my dad, really made me enjoy his presence. Everywhere I go ( cigar bars, shops, forums, etc. ) everyone has said how Pete is one of the most genuine guys in the industry. I understand you had an unpleasant first impression, but please give him another shot, and he'll prove you wrong.

Just my .02

Thanks,
Alex


Gary Bazdell — Ottawa, ON, Canada,  —  August 14, 2012 6:29pm ET

John Davidson. Please understand that this is an enthusiasts forum and should be respected as such.


Dwayne Campbell — Pickering, Ontario, Canada,  —  August 29, 2012 9:26am ET

Great article. I really like this magazine, very classy, great writing and great pictures. The magazines look good on my tables in my office and home.
I just ordered some leaves to roll my own cigars, thinking I could save some money and get the taste I want. Well, I got neither, but it is fun rolling cigars. I wished I knew where to get the really good tobacco from! I'm currently buying from the only place that sells online to the general public.


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