A Conversation with Litto and Ines of La Flor Dominicana
The progress of the husband-and-wife team of Litto Gomez and Ines Lorenzo-Gomez through the cigar business has been a fascinating journey. Starting out as virtual newcomers more than 18 years ago, at the dawn of the cigar boom, they have taken their La Flor Dominicana brand from an unknown entity to one embraced by connoisseurs and critics alike. La Flor Dominicanas have placed in Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 consistently over the years, with a Coronado by La Flor named No. 2 cigar of 2006 and a La Flor Dominicana Cameroon Cabinet ranked number No. 12 in this very issue.
Once strictly mild smokes, La Flor Dominicanas now encompass a wide portfolio, and—thanks to a library of gutsy tobacco grown on a company farm in La Canela, Dominican Republic—the brand is today best known for its powerhouse versions. In December, the couple sat down with senior editor David Savona in Cigar Aficionado’s New York City offices to reflect on their past and look to the future of the brand.
Savona: I was looking back at your previous interview, done in 1999 and published in 2000. Your company has changed quite a bit. Do you ever look back and see how far you’ve come?
Litto: I actually do look back, every now and then. It’s very interesting how the company has evolved all of these years. Looking back it always makes you put your feet on the ground.
Q: For starters, at that time, almost all of your cigars were mild, and wrapped in Connecticut shade.
Ines: That was the biggest seller.
Litto: Making cigars in the Dominican Republic, being a start-up company, before the cigar boom, you pretty much didn’t get access to any other tobacco than Connecticut shade, and Dominican filler and binder. That was the only tobacco available to a start-up company like ours, but it was also the Dominican blend. It was a very traditional blend.
Ines: And the No. 1 cigar back then was Macanudo.
Litto: It was what the cigar blenders at the time liked to blend. It was the old school of Dominican cigars. And obviously it was very well accepted by the consumers. That’s what they liked to smoke.
Ines: We used to make the Premium line and the Special Reserve—that was it.
Q: What was the difference with the Special Reserve line?
Litto: It had a little more ligero in it.
Q: But on paper, the same thing—Dominican and Connecticut?
Q: Litto, you make the cigars and Ines you run distribution for the company?
Ines: We’ve always kind of divided the company like that. I still take care of distribution, and Litto handles the manufacturing part of it.
Q: Early on, were sales difficult?
Ines: It wasn’t the easiest thing. But we went to the Cigar Aficionado breakfast in Orlando in 1995, back when the new magazine was unveiled at the breakfast before the show floor opened. We had received an 88 for one of our sizes. Eighty-eight was a huge rating back then.
Litto: For us.
Ines: And when we got back to the booth we had a line of retailers who wanted to order the size.
Litto: Before that, the first sales were made on the telephone. We would call a retailer, go through the list, introduce ourselves…
Ines: And we would send them samples.
Litto: And we would do a follow-up call 10 days later. And from that, we would get eight “nos,” and two “yeses.”
Ines: That’s how we would get the orders.
Q: So you had to wait. Patience and faith.
Ines: And we would take the opportunity, whenever we went to a city, and we would go store to store.
Q: Was it a warm reception back then? Did they want new cigars?
Litto: No. Not in ’94. It was hard, with a lot of hopes. Just a lot of wishes. And a lot of effort. And then came 1995, and things started to get a lot better, easier, and ’96 everybody wanted cigars. And a lot of the older guys in the industry are competitors, but they would bring us retailers during IPCPR, during RTDA.
Q: Why would a competitor want to help another?
Litto: It’s one of the shortcomings of our industry—we just like each other too much. And that is true. That is true. Nowadays, even in decisions that are made for the future of our industry, we make decisions thinking of people in the industry. And we do like each other a lot. I say it’s one of our shortcomings as a joke, but it is one of our strengths. When we had the fire in the aging room at the factory, back in ’97, we lost 400,000 cigars. I flew the same day back to the Dominican. The next day, in the afternoon, a tobacco dealer shows up at the factory, and the guy says, “Edgar Cullman Jr. [then the president of General Cigar Co.] sent me to see you and offer anything we can offer you from our company.” I had seen Edgar maybe three or four times, said hello to him at a Big Smoke or something.
Litto: I was kind of shy to call him, but I had to call him. And he said, “You know, we are first competitors in the market, but we can be friends and help each other.” How could you not fall in love with an industry like that?
Q: Going back to the old days, in ’99 you said you were making 2.5 million cigars a year. And you said this: “Today, we’re still not even close to where we want to take the brand.” My question to you now, is how far have you come in those 13 years?
Litto: We have come a long way. Maybe not in the numbers as much as the reputation and the prestige that the name brand La Flor Dominicana has gained over the last 13 years. I think the respect for our brand and for our company is way bigger than our production. We feel every year the recognition is bigger.
Ines: It’s more of a sense that we belong in the industry. For many years, there was kind of an insecurity.
Q: Did you ever feel like it was a club that you were trying to get into?
Ines: I think so. Like you have to earn your place. It is a friendly industry, but it’s an industry with a lot of tradition.
Q: How many cigars are you making now?
Litto: We are getting closer to 4 million La Flor Dominicana premium cigars.
Q: Is La Flor Dominicana still a boutique brand?
Litto: I love it. We see ourselves as a small house, and I want to keep it that way. We like the concept of a small, family company. The goal has always been the same: to build a great cigar brand. It was never about numbers. It’s about building a company for future generations of our family. This is what we do, we’re building a great name. Every effort, every minute of work is directed to that goal. If we can’t sell more cigars this year, we don’t care. If we don’t have enough materials to make blends the right way, we won’t make them. I remember two years ago, the first four months of the year we had no maduros.
Q: Because of a lack of broadleaf?
Litto: It didn’t have the right color. It had the same taste, but it was a couple of notches down in the shade of color.
Q: Are maduros a big part of your business?
Litto: It’s a huge part. But if the product is not right, we won’t ship it.
Q: Back in 2000, you said most of your cigars—more than half—had Connecticut shade wrappers. And maybe 30 percent was Cameroon.
Ines: Many years ago.
Q: How has it changed? What’s your biggest seller now?
Litto: Double Ligero, which has Ecuador Sumatra wrapper. Our top-selling cigar is the Double Ligero 700.
Ines: Then the Chisel. The DL 500.
Litto: The Digger is No. 5.
Q: Digger is No. 5?
Litto: When we first called retailers and said, “We have a new size called the Digger—it’s 60 ring gauge by 8 1/2 inches.” They would go, “What? Can you come again?” They said, “You guys are crazy.” But it has taken on a life of its own.
Q: What’s the story of the Digger?
Litto: It was this guy named Digger, from Old Town Fredricksburg [Virginia], he’s a customer. A really Bohemian guy, he smoked nothing else but 700s. That’s all he smoked. I got into a conversation with him. And we drank a lot of Scotch. A 15-minute visit turned into three hours, and I really hit it off with Digger. He asked me if I could do a bigger version of the DL 700. I told him I’d think about it. A few months later I told my factory supervisor to make a bigger 700. I put the cigars in a box and I sent it to him. It just so happened that the box came at a very special moment in his life, and it made him extremely happy. I smoked it, I loved it, and I knew I would put it in production—and I also knew that the moment I released that cigar it would be called Digger.
Q: Great name. But an 8 1/2 by 60—that wasn’t really what the market was clamoring for. Ines, did you think this was a bad idea?
Ines: I said, “Who is the guy? What do you mean?”
Q: Does this happen a lot? Does Litto do things without telling you?
Ines: All the time.
Litto: How about when we bought the farm? I said “Ines, what do you think, should we buy a farm?” She said, “That’s a really bad idea.” I said, “Ummm….we just bought one.” (Laughs)
Q: Wait a minute—is that how it really happened? (Laughs)
Ines: One of our customers would call up and say did you get A, B and C yet? And I would say, “What? Let me check.” And I would say, “Litto, do you find it fair I find this out through a retailer?” (Laughs) And then I say, “How much is that going to cost?” (Laughs)
Q: That’s why your brand is Flower of the Dominican—you have to come back with flowers every time. Did you really buy the farm that way?
Ines: Yes. Now we have a farm. (Laughs)
Q: So you were a little doubtful?
Ines: It was a big investment for us, being the small company that we are, and we were even more so back then. We put a lot of our income into the farm and making it what it is today. It’s a peace of mind, not to have the dependency on the tobacco suppliers. We still buy from other places, but we have a large inventory of our own tobacco. And we’re involved in the whole process.
Litto: You’ve seen our infrastructure. For a small company, our infrastructure is huge. And that’s part of the focus, just to have a very solid infrastructure. That guarantees our consistency. Consistency is key. And having that farm is the personality of the flavor of La Flor Dominicana. It’s the profile. It comes from there.
Q: Best move you ever made?
Litto: It was the best move for our company.
Ines: (Laughs) We just bought more land. He says, “By the way, we just bought this.” But I totally agree.
Q: Does every one of your cigars have at least some farm tobacco?
Litto: Yes. Totally.
Q: And are some of your cigars made entirely from farm tobacco?
Litto: The LG Diez and the Small Batch too.
Q: And that’s a big change from the last interview—back then you hadn’t used a single leaf. That was a long-term investment. How many years did it take?
Litto: Two years for the secos, the lighter leaves.
Q: What’s your house style? If I said to you what makes a La Flor Dominicana La Flor Dominicana.
Litto: Tons of taste and consistency. And quality manufacturing.
Q: What got you into making the stronger cigars?
Litto: My own palate was changing. We don’t make cigars for market trends. The cigars that come out of the factory reflect my personal taste.
Q: Have you taken stuff out of your portfolio?
Litto: The 2000 Series [which is wrapped in Cameroon].
Ines: We still make it, we don’t advertise it.
Litto: Those retailers who want it, we still support it.
Q: So Cameroon went from being a third of your portfolio to being a small amount. Why is that?
Litto: I think Cameroon kind of faded a little bit, but the Sumatras and the Habanos are taking off. Nonetheless, trends change over the years: sizes, wrapper preferences. And it will continue to evolve.
Q: We’ve seen the size evolution with the rise of 60-ring gauges.
Litto: Four out of our five top sellers are 60-ring gauges.
Q: Let’s talk about your partnership with José Seijas in La Romana, the La Flor Dominicana Experience. That small factory is rolling your La Flor Dominicana Air Benders for tourists.
Litto: Two sizes.
Q: It’s a big trust issue, trusting someone to make your blend?
Litto: Absolutely. Our supervisor is going to the factory almost every week.
Q: Can you tell the difference between one rolled in La Romana and one rolled in Tamboril?
Litto: No. They taste the same, they look the same. But they’re not on the market yet. We haven’t shipped them yet. We’ve been graduating these rollers two by two. A month ago the first couple started rolling cigars for the first time with tobacco from La Flor Dominicana.
Q: But people can buy an Air Bender there?
Litto: Produced in Tamboril. All our lines are in the shop.
Q: Let’s talk about the expansion of your factory in Tamboril. You showed me the photos of how you’re building more space—did you know about that Ines?
Ines: I had to sign the documents. (Laughs)
Litto: We had to build a warehouse to do fermentation, but then we had no parking lot, and no more space. But as we bought more land at the farm it became very small, as every other department in the factory all works to supply the rollers. As the rolling room gets fuller, all these departments have become very small, and now we have to relocate the fermentation room and rearrange all the departments.
Q: Are you going to add rollers?
Litto: Every year we add rollers, and it’s going to be no different in 2013. We continue to add rollers, and we need more space to supply the rolling room.
Q: So if you’re close to 4 million cigars now, looking down the road, how big can this thing get while you still can maintain the control over what you have?
Litto: If we are in control, it’s OK. The minute we are not in control, we will stop the growth. Eventually on the production side, I’m going to be getting more help. Now my son Tony is moving in January down to the factory to help me on the production side, and later on little Litto will come on and in a few years be involved, hopefully in the production side too. Looking down the road, it all depends on the quality of La Flor Dominicana not being compromised. The more help we have with the family, it will be better for the growth of the company.
Q: Tony is how old?
Litto: He’s 25.
Q: And Litto?
Ines: Twelve. And Valentina [their daughter] is five.
Q: New blood coming in, new ideas.
Ines: You should see little Litto’s ideas. His ideas are brilliant. How expensive? And can we do them?
Litto: That’s the younger generation. As we get older, every year there is an older person not smoking or passing away. At the same time, there’s a whole bunch of young guys who turn 18. There’s a new generation. They’re old enough to smoke cigars, but they view life in a new way. As we grow older, we may not appeal to this younger generation anymore. The younger blood will be communicating with this younger generation of smokers. I remember going to an event, and a guy comes with his son. And he introduced himself and said, “I drove an hour and a half to meet you. I just want you to know, for the last 15 years of my life, I’ve smoked one of your cigars every day.” Just think about that.
Q: That must have made you feel like a million bucks.
Litto: This is the guy we work for. He knows that cigar better than I do. That thought stuck with me. It’s a huge responsibility that we have with our consumers. We’re part of very happy moments of people.
Litto: Celebrations. And I’ll be proud for the rest of my life. That’s what we do. That’s the most rewarding part of our work.