An Interview With Robert Levin
Robert Levin, 50, has been in the cigar business since he was a child. He swept floors, packed shipments and took inventory in his father's retail cigar store in downtown Philadelphia when he was still in grade school.
Levin's experience in the cigar industry includes some of the worst of times, and today, the best of times. He started working for his father full-time in 1973 and took over the business in the late 1970s. Levin consolidated and expanded the family's retail business, capitalizing on a demand for mail order cigars in his local market. In 1985, he launched Ashton cigars, which is one of the most highly respected brands in the marketplace today.
Today, Levin has seen his business grow eightfold since 1992. He not only has a thriving and elegant new retail store and a major cigar brand, but a solid catalogue business as well.
In a wide-ranging interview with Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken, Levin discusses the history of the family's business, as well as the future of the cigar industry.
Cigar Aficionado: How and when did your family first get into the tobacco business?
Levin: My father bought Holt's Cigar Company, which was a small retail store in Philadelphia in the mid- '50s. He was a clothing manufacturer before that. I was about 11 years old when he bought it. So I grew up in the cigar business.
CA: What made him go from clothing manufacturing to the cigar business? Was it just a hobby business?
Levin: No. He had smoked pipes and cigars his whole life. He had just shut down his clothing operation in Philadelphia. He was looking for another business and Holt's became available. He bought it.
CA: How long had Holt's been in business?
Levin: The original Holt's cigar company started in 1911. However, after we purchased Holt's, we also bought Harry Tint & Sons, in 1980, which was another old-time Philadelphia retail cigar store. They started their business in 1898, so today we say Holt's history traces back to 1898.
CA: When your dad, Albert Levin, bought the store in the 1950s, how big was the business?
Levin: It was a very small store.
CA: What kind of revenue was it doing?
Levin: It was well under a million dollars. It was in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. It was a good cigar business at the time, and we were cigar specialists. Philadelphia was known as a city for close-outs. Big market for seconds. We used to buy huge lots of Garcia y Vega seconds.
CA: When he bought the store, did he then go in and operate it himself?
Levin: He was there. He was the owner and the operator.
CA: What did he pay for the store in the mid-1950s?
Levin: He paid about $40,000 for it.
CA: He bought the store, he operated the store and then you said in 1980 he purchased another store.
Levin: No, my father was retired by that time. I bought Harry A. Tint & Sons, which was a more upscale business. Holt's cigar store was always the store you went to for deals. Harry A. Tint & Sons was for the uppercrust Main Line customer. That store was the Cuban cigar importer for that area before the embargo.
CA: When did you enter the business?
Levin: I came into the business in 1972.
CA: How big a store was Harry A. Tint in terms of revenue?
Levin: At one time they were the strongest cigar merchants in Philadelphia. They had all the name brands, especially the Cuban brands. They were directly importing them before the embargo. But when we bought the business, their business had really declined quite a bit. They were only doing about $250,000.
CA: What did you pay for that store?
Levin: Not much. We paid between $50,000 and $100,000.
CA: Did you merge the two operations?
Levin: Yes, we took their whole operation and moved it into our store. They had lost their lease anyway. And when we bought the business, the Tint brothers, they're twins, were already ready to retire.
CA: Let's go back. You entered the business in 1972. How old were you then?
Levin: I was in my mid-20s.
CA: Think back to 1971, before you came into the family business. What was your perception of the cigar business when you first started working there on a full-time basis?
Levin: When I first went into my father's business, I had no intention of staying in this business. My father needed help. I was wandering around the world at the time, and I didn't have a career. At the time, I was basically just getting into the business to help out the family. I was just going to do it for a few months and then go off and do something else.
CA: Did you have any particular passion or interest in cigars in those days?
Levin: No. I did it to help out my father, who had some health problems. But as I got into the business and took it over, my love of cigars started to come out.
CA: How big was the business in those days?
Levin: In the mid-'80s we went over $1 million in sales.
CA: So at that time, was it essentially a cigar shop?
Levin: Yes. Mainly cigars. But we had pipes, too. In the early '80s, we started to sell pens and that became a very profitable item for us. But, we were always mainly cigar merchants, or as we like to call it, cigar specialists.
CA: Did you have a significant catalog business at that point?
CA: Did that precede you or did you create that?
Levin: My father started the mail-order business. A lot of it was in the local Philadelphia market, in the suburbs, for instance. But he built it up over the years. He did everything himself. He sent out the mailing pieces and gathered the names. We never bought mailing lists. It was just friends telling friends and accumulating names over a long period of time. Now, we send out 70,000 catalogs.
CA: What percentage of your business does the store represent?
Levin: The store represents about one-third, the catalog accounts for one-third and the Ashton brand contributes about one-third.
CA: So, the store and the mail-order are about equal?
Levin: Yes, the mail-order revenues are a little higher than the store. Of course, we're talking about the new store, which opened in 1995. It's a totally different ballgame.
CA: Before the cigar boom began in 1992, what percentage of revenues did the store represent versus the catalog?
Levin: At the time, there were more revenues in the store. It was about 60 percent store, 40 percent in the catalog.
CA: In 1995, how did the business do?
Levin: Revenues went up about four times.
CA: And in 1996, what are you looking at with your new store having opened in 1995?
Levin: We'll be up about 60 percent over 1995. Since 1992, if you include the Ashton brand, it has increased eight times.
CA: What's been the most exciting thing?
Levin: First of all, the new store is beyond my wildest expectations and dreams.
CA: How much of your business there is new customers?
Levin: There's a constant flow of new and younger customers. I mean, a totally new market in the past two years.
CA: How do they find you?
Levin: We have been in Philadelphia for a long time, so we are a known quantity. We've always had a good location--even the former store was on a good street--and today's new store is in a great location. People just come in.
CA: Of the revenues in the new store, how much of that is cigars versus accessories? You have one of the best selections of cigar accessories in America. How significant is the accessory part of the business?
Levin: It's becoming more and more significant. In fact, anything to do with cigars is selling: humidors, cutters, anything. Our humidor sales have more than quadrupled. Elie Blue has been our top seller at the upper end.
CA: Excluding the Ashton brand, you must be experiencing the same problem as other retailers all over the world: getting enough of the brands and sizes you need for your customers. How are you dealing with this problem?
Levin: It's not getting any better. But every manufacturer is trying to increase production. Consumers for the past year or so have gotten used to the fact that they may not get their first or second choice. I always tell my people, we have to try to substitute whatever alternatives I have on the shelves. If someone comes in for something we don't have, you have to have the right product or substitute. It's a huge problem.
CA: Are the established brands that you've done business with for years, are they giving more product than last year?
Levin: Absolutely. Every manufacturer increased production. And because of our long relationship with a lot of the manufacturers, I think they are taking pretty good care of us. We're getting a lot of product in. It just goes out the door much quicker.
CA: If the demand for established brands is unsatisfied, are you buying a lot of new brands? What has been the consumer reaction to their willingness to experiment with new products?
Levin: I'm buying a lot of new brands. But I try to be selective in what I'm buying. I really don't feel good about selling brands that I don't feel have the right quality for the price. It's not even a question of price, it's a question of quality.
CA: What has been the reaction from your customers when they try these new brands?
Levin: I think you get a very mixed reaction. I think the major manufacturers for the most part make the best cigars. They've been at it the longest, they have tobacco, they have everything that's needed to make a quality product. A lot of the new players in the market, they don't have that. They don't have the tobacco reserves, they don't have the inventory and they don't have the experience. It shows in their product.
CA: One of the criticisms is that a lot of the tobacco in the new products is young tobacco. When the established manufacturers are able to increase shipments, which I understand should happen as early as 1997, do you think many of these new brands will stay on the market or will they not be able to survive?
Levin: I think the cream will rise to the top. If the producer is making a good quality product, it will last. The ones that are poor quality will go by the wayside.
CA: What are some of the main problems you see in the new brands?
Levin: There are a lot of inconsistencies. With a lot of the new brands, I'll smoke a cigar and it'll be good. Other times, I won't like it at all. So, consistency is the biggest problem.
CA: Is it consistency in construction or with young tobacco?
Levin: Both. On the other hand, some of the new brands coming out of Miami are pretty good.
CA: One of the controversies that exists in your business is the love/hate relationship between a retailer and a cataloger. For the retailer who doesn't have a catalog business, it's the enemy. For the retailers that have catalogs, it's a way to enhance your business and give you greater market share and dominance. You have the best of both worlds. Do you think other retailers around the country should be getting into that business, or is it just such a sophisticated activity in terms of manpower, investment, inventory and software that it's hard to justify?
Levin: I think that the mail-order business will expand tremendously in the next few years. We've been successful at it because we've always been cigar specialists and we've always had a large inventory of cigars. That appeals to people. We can offer a tremendous number of different brands, different products, where other people in a lot of small stores can't offer that. It's a question of service. If there is a real strong retailer in a specific city, they'll keep their customers if they give good service. But there is a convenience in picking up a phone and dialing an 800 number and getting what you want and having it the next day.
CA: How many retailers to your knowledge are in the mail-order business?
Levin: I think that there's six or seven pretty strong people in that area.
CA: With new cigar clubs and Internet Web sites opening up all the time, where do you see the market going?
Levin: Cigar clubs are fantastic for the industry. The more places people can smoke cigars in a friendly environment, the more places that promote cigar smoking, the better for everybody. It's a win-win situation for everybody. And the Internet--we are working on our own home pages for Holt's and for Ashton, which should be up in January or February. We should have tremendous potential there.
CA: You also have a smoking lounge, right? How popular is it?
Levin: It's been mobbed ever since we opened the store up. From lunch time on until we close, there are people in there.
CA: When is it busiest? Lunchtime or after work?
Levin: It starts at lunchtime and it goes until around 5:30 or 6 p.m.
CA: What time does your store close?
Levin: We close at 6 p.m. And, Wednesday and Friday nights, we are open until 8 p.m.
CA: Is that because you are downtown and people leave downtown?
Levin: People do leave the downtown. But we like to be open those two nights because there are restaurants on the street where the store is located.
CA: Have you been doing a lot of cigar dinners?
Levin: We've been doing dinners for years. We were one of the first to have big events and dinners.
CA: Are they still popular?
Levin: Yes. As the Holt's cigar company, we do a lot of dinners in the Philadelphia area and in the suburbs. And around the country we do them with Ashton.
CA: Ashton is certainly something that puts you in a special category. It's an established and respected brand. If my memory serves me correctly, it's an old line of pipes. But how did a retailer in Philadelphia originate this brand? Tell us the story.
Levin: The Ashton story. Let's see. I had been a retailer since the early '70s and, in 1980 when we bought Tint's, they were direct importers of Consolidated Cigar products from the Canary Islands. When we bought them, we became the direct importers. Unfortunately, we became the direct importers at exactly the moment when Consolidated moved to the Dominican Republic. There were major problems with the quality of the product. The company was totally unprepared for the move, and ended up sub-jobbing out to all the different factories in the Dominican Republic to make all their products. After that, Consolidated decided they weren't going to distribute their own brand, so they named 15 or so people around the country to do that; we were one of those retailers. So we became an importer/distributor.
CA: For your local market.
Levin: No. For any account we could get in the country. So it was very competitive between the 15 people who were importing Don Diego and Primo del Rey, etc. I finally decided that I didn't want to do it anymore. I was racking up huge bills and trying to get a profit on the slimmest of margins because it had become so competitive with the other distributors.
Levin: Very price-competitive. Everyone had an 800 number. Everyone was trying to get every account they could and it wasn't a good situation for me. So I decided, I know the market, I thought I knew what the consumer wanted. I had been in the business a while. I wanted my own brand. So I stopped being a jobber.
CA: Did you make that decision on your own?
Levin: It was pretty much on my own. My father at that time was out of the business. He was retired. I took the creation of the brand step by step and went very slowly. But because I had Holt's, I didn't have to make a living from Ashton. I knew I was going to come out with my own brand. At the time, I had a relationship with Bill Taylor, who made Ashton pipes. They were becoming successful.
CA: And where were Ashton pipes made?
Levin: In England.
CA: And Bill Taylor was...
Levin: A pipemaker in England.
CA: At this time, you had a pretty sizable retail pipe business, didn't you?
Levin: Yes. I was always a cigar man, but even though I was never that much interested in pipes, the business was okay. A friend of mine was the importer and distributor of Ashton Pipes, and he came to me and asked me to name my brand Ashton. He said that would build brand recognition for the pipe, for the cigar, and they would come out with some other products. He thought that would be the best way to do it. I didn't want to do it. He talked me into it. So we came out with Ashton cigars.
CA: How did that happen?
Levin: We designed the Ashton logo. I went to a lot of people in the industry who were cigar makers and I told them what I wanted. We got samples, and we started. Over the years the business evolved and now I own the Ashton brand. I bought the name from Bill Taylor in 1992.
CA: So what year was this that you first started to sell Ashton?
Levin: I started working on Ashton in 1983. We came out with it in 1985. We introduced it at the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America convention in Washington that year.
CA: Who made the cigar in the beginning?
Levin: In the beginning, it was made by Henke Kelner at Tabadom. I got samples from everybody I knew. I liked the cigar we got from Tabadom.
CA: At the time, what other brands was he making?
Levin: That was pre-Davidoff. He wasn't actually making a lot of brands. He was making some for Europe. He had a pretty small production and Ashton, after a couple of years, became the factory's biggest brand.
CA: When did you leave Tabadom?
Levin: About 1988.
CA: How big a brand was Ashton in 1988?
Levin: The year we left Tabadom, Ashton was a 300,000-unit brand. That was fairly considerable because I was not advertising. I knew a lot of retailers in the business who were my friends and they took the brand on. We just built it up very slowly and we had wide consumer acceptance. It was a quality product. We always stayed on top of the quality.
CA: Of the 300,000, how much did you sell yourself versus other stores?
Levin: Mostly other stores.
CA: Was it a national brand?
Levin: Yes. I didn't want to just have my own brand. I didn't want a private brand. I wanted a national brand that was everywhere.
CA: Were you in 50 accounts, 100 accounts?
Levin: We started out very slowly. I don't remember exactly. But Ashton was really the first superpremium cigar.
CA: What did you sell Ashton for in those days in terms of average price?
Levin: The regular line of Ashton in the Churchill size was about $2.50, and now it's $6. The smaller ones went from $1.70 to $2.25. It was really the first superpremium on the market.
CA: Were there any higher-priced cigars on the market?
Levin: We were one of the highest, and when the Ashton Cabinets were released, they were the highest-priced cigars.
CA: So in 1988 you left Tabadom for the Fuentes.
CA: What was the rationale behind the move?
Levin: My father had been doing business with the Fuentes for years. I knew them well, too, and they were very, very good friends of mine. I had my differences with Henke. I finally decided it was time to make a move for the brand, and for myself.
CA: Did you have a contract with Henke?
Levin: I didn't have any contract with Henke. When the time came, I just said it was time to move on.
CA: When you started with the Fuentes, was that on a handshake, too, or did you work out a contractual agreement?
Levin: The first few years was just a handshake. Carlos Fuente Jr. and I worked on the blend, worked on the product for six to eight months before we came out with the cigar again.
CA: So in 1988, Ashton was about 300,000 cigars. What was it in 1995?
Levin: We delivered 2 millon cigars in 1995 and that includes Europe and the United States.
CA: How many went to Europe?
Levin: About 300,000 went to Europe.
CA: In 1992, you shipped about one-half millon cigars. How much went to Europe?
Levin: We started slowly. We began dealing with Europe in 1988. Initially, there were a lot of taxes and duties on Dominican cigars. They finally passed a law which lowered the duties off of Dominican cigars so they became very competitive, and the sales took off in Europe.
CA: In 1996, what will Ashton's sales be worldwide?
Levin: Worldwide, 2.5 million to 3 million cigars.
CA: And how much of that will be in Europe?
Levin: Unfortunately, because of the market in the U.S., Europe maybe will only get 200,000.
CA: So in 1996, you hope to sell about 2.8 million cigars in the United States versus 1.7 in 1995. That's up over 1 million cigars in one year.
CA: You're up over 1 million cigars. And what is your back-order situation right now?
Levin: About 3 million cigars.
CA: Your back orders equal about one year's sales.
CA: How many retailers across America sell Ashton?
Levin: We have about 800 accounts now.
CA: Of the 200,000 to 300,000 you sell in Europe, what is your largest market there?
Levin: The largest market for non-Cuban cigars is Germany. But demand in the other countries is starting to build. We just can't get them any product. I can't open up any new markets--we can't get cigars.
CA: Does Germany represent one-half or more of your European business?
Levin: More than three-quarters of it.
CA: Do you spend any time in Germany?
Levin: I used to go there a couple of times a year; I don't go anymore.
CA: What do you think has created the extraordinary demand for Ashton?
Levin: When I first started out with Ashton, I really wanted the best-quality cigar that anybody could manufacture. I knew I wanted Connecticut shade wrapper, but I also wanted it to be a little more full-bodied than other brands that were very popular. I wanted the brand to have some taste and body. From the beginning, I've pushed to maintain the quality. Ashton is a particularly consistent cigar and we've always tried to maintain a really high standard. As a result, over the years, people know what they are going to get when they buy an Ashton.
CA: What is the composition or the origin of each of the components of the blend?
Levin: A Connecticut shade wrapper. The binder and the four different tobaccos in the filler are from the Dominican Republic.
CA: They are all Dominican...
Levin: All Dominican Republic.
CA: Ashton is the main front mark, but you also have some additional labels? When did you start them?
Levin: There is the Ashton Cabinet, which we started in about 1988 at Fuente. The Fuentes were making their Hemingways and when I was in a factory one day, I just asked them, "Would you make Hemingways with the Connecticut shade wrapper for Ashton?" Carlos Jr. said he'd do it. We worked on the blend with the beautiful Connecticut shade wrapper. We came out with three sizes, three of the shaped sizes. We had three shapes for a long time and this year we introduced three other shapes, all larger ring gauge, regular-shaped cigars, not perfectos.
CA: What do you see as the future for Ashton? Is there any talk of a Dominican wrapper on Ashton, i.e, a Chateau Fuente wrapper?
Levin: Yes. We were supposed to come out with that two years ago, and it was going to be called Ashton Crown. As a matter of fact, the packaging and the bands have been sitting there aging along with the tobacco for about two years now. But the demand for Fuente Fuente Opus X and their limitations on the production have made it impossible to introduce Ashton Crown. Maybe next year.
CA: Is there a certain amount of cigars aging right now, held for you with your blend and an Opus X wrapper?
Levin: No. Not yet.
CA: Is it something you continue to talk about?
Levin: Yes and no. We talked about it two years ago. They have about four years' worth of crops that have been aging and fermenting. But the demand for Fuente Fuente Opus X and as you know, the limits on their production of Opus X, made it impossible to introduce Ashton Crown.
CA: So, in the next two or three years, there could be an Ashton Crown.
Levin: There's going to be an Ashton Crown.
CA: With a Dominican wrapper.
Levin: Yes, with a Chateau Fuente wrapper.
CA: What kind of growth do you expect for Ashton?
Levin: It's difficult now because the demand is so great and there's a limit on the production. That's going to continue because you can't use young tobacco. You have to use tobacco that's been properly aged. Therefore, there can only be so much increased production every year because you still have to use tobacco from the 1991 and 1992 crops, which was before the boom started. So, maybe next year we'll go up to 4 1/2 million. That's all we can do.
CA: Four and a half million is 50 percent over this year. How are you going to achieve that?
Levin: The Fuentes are opening up their new factory. Factory number four.
CA: The new factory is going to produce Ashton and be able to meet your projected sales growth?
Levin: Yes. We have contracts with the Fuentes now. They are not for specific quantities, but as Ashton has become more and more popular and it got to be more than just a little brand, the Fuentes have made assurances to me. They are going to purchase tobacco in advance for me. And, of course, I gave them assurances that I would be there for them and support them.
CA: How did it come to be that a factory is more or less dedicated to your brand, and what is the plan for factory number four?
Levin: First of all, the demand for Ashton has grown. And, the Fuente brand is one of the most in-demand cigars in the world right now. When they opened factory four they wanted to put in everything that they had learned in building the other three factories. The idea is to just make superpremium cigars there.
CA: What is the capacity of factory number four?
Levin: I think they have 60 or 70 rollers there now. We won't get any Ashtons from there probably until the middle of next year.
CA: Will the factory produce other brands? Or is it strictly for Ashton?
Levin: No it's not strictly for Ashton. Sosa will be made there. Juan Sosa, who owns the Sosa brand, is working with the Fuentes at factory number four.
CA: That really is a culmination for you; starting out a jobber and ending with a national and international consumer franchise. What happens after '97? Do you have plans for new brands?
Levin: After '97. We will be working on a few other brands, which we will promote in both the national and international markets.
CA: Will you own those other brands, and will the Fuentes produce them for you?
Levin: Hopefully. If they can expand their production in the way they always do, which is to focus on quality first. Also, we are going to have a brand from Honduras, called Castano, which we are working on now. We hope to get our first shipments in February.
CA: And who will produce that?
Levin: Villazon [makers of Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch].
CA: Will the acquisition of Villazon by General Cigar, if it happens, change your deal for the new cigar?
Levin: I hope not. Frank Llaneza is one of the most knowledgeable tobacco people around. I'm an old customer, we know each other very well, and I think that they'll honor the commitment that Frank makes.
CA: What about a ceiling for Ashton sales; do you see it leveling off at 4 1/2 million?
Levin: No, no, no, I think if I had 10 million cigars now, I could sell 10 million cigars. I'm looking for major increases every year in Ashton.
CA: Do people knock on your door to buy your brand?
Levin: Lots of phone calls. No knocks, phone calls. Not for the brand: the whole business, everything.
CA: So what goes through your mind?
Levin: I'm having too much fun right now. I mean everything is working. The new retail store is fantastic.
CA: So you're having a lot of fun.
Levin: A lot of fun. It's exciting. Every day is packed, busy.
CA: A question that I am always asked is, is the cigar boom a fad? You're here very excited with grand plans, and you're turning people away who want to buy your company. Do you think all this cigar-related frenzy will disappear?
Levin: There are no guarantees. But I don't see the boom ending soon. I personally think that we have a very strong future. The average age of cigar smokers, when I first came into the business, was the 50s, even the late 50s and 60s. Now you have people in their 30s, professionals, college students coming in. There are just more and more young people smoking cigars. If they enjoy cigars and they stick with cigars, we are going to have a very strong business for a long time.
CA: What part of your cigar business is sales by the box as opposed to sales by the individual cigar?
Levin: We always, even in the old store, had a large room where we sold cigars from open boxes on display. More than most stores. So we always sold a large amount of loose cigars. In the new store, we don't have showcases with cigars. We have a large 1,200-square-foot walk-in humidor. So everything we sell is open on display, and a lot of people come in every day to buy their cigars.
CA: Do you happen to know what percentage of your sales are single cigars?
Levin: No, because it's changed a lot since we opened the new store.
CA: To a higher percentage of loose cigars?
Levin: Yes. We have more loose cigars. As cigars have become more expensive, people, especially the younger smokers, will come in and buy two or three of one cigar brand, and they'll taste four or five brands.
CA: They want to experiment.
Levin: Exactly. They want to experiment.
CA: Do you have a lot of standing orders with your customers, where they say, "When you get in the order, please hold a box or two of this for me, a box of that"?
Levin: Yes. We have thousands. It's become a monster and we are always talking about what do we do with this because, when we get a shipment of Fuentes in, all you do is fill back orders. It's a big problem.
CA: What new brands do you think will do well three or four years down the road?
Levin: Padron, Saint Luis Rey, Montecristo, El Rey del Mundo and La Flor Dominicana are all very good quality cigars that will stick.
CA: Other than Ashton, what are some of the brands that are in greatest demand?
Levin: All the major brands. All the cigars the Fuentes make. Macanudo and Partagas. Hoyo de Monterrey, Punch, Excalibur and H. Upmann, La Gloria Cubana, Licenciados, Romeo y Julieta Vintage and Savinelli.
CA: What about shaped cigars?
Levin: I have a story to tell you on that. When I first came out with Ashton, I had two shaped cigars. I had a torpedo, called Ashton Sovereign, and I had a belicoso, called the Prince of Wales. I couldn't give them away. The two deadest sizes on the line. After three years, when we moved factories, and they didn't have the molds or the experienced rollers to make those particular shapes, I said let's just start with the basic shapes. Since then, the whole market for shaped cigars has exploded.
CA: Are you able to get those shapes? And how many do you make for Ashton?
Levin: The shipments for the shaped cigars total maybe 70,000 or 80,000 so far in 1996. Tops. And in the maduros, we have well over a million cigars on back order.
CA: Do you have any plans to add stores?
Levin: There's always talk of that, but we have to see how the new store plays out. I think opening new retail stores today is a problem with setting up and getting product.
CA: Tell me a little more about the conflict between being a brand owner and a retailer. Clearly, you compete with other manufacturers, but you are their resource, too. How do you balance the competing claims on your time?
Levin: I tread a very fine line in that area and I try to be very careful about how I conduct my business.
CA: You do business with everybody?
Levin: I do business with everybody. I'm very careful with that. I try to keep the standards of Ashton high, but I never compete with our customers with Ashton. As a retailer I have some insights into the business and I've tried to help other retailers in every way possible, because I knew exactly where they were coming from. I was in the same boat. And while one of the reasons Ashton became successful is obviously the quality of the cigar, I was also already friendly with every major retailer in the country. When I came out with the brand, they put it in the store right away. They didn't think of me as competition, they thought of me as a friend. Today, of course, the market is much different, and people are happy to get cigars.
CA: Is the marketplace more sophisticated today?
Levin: There are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable consumers today. And they are constantly trying different brands, new brands. In fact, people don't stick to one brand today.
CA: Is it becoming like the wine business, where people will drink a Mondavi or a Château Latour but it doesn't stop them from drinking new wines?
Levin: Yes, and it's especially true when the chances are that you are not going to be able to get the cigar you want. So you have to try another cigar. There is simply constant experimentation.
CA: I can envision your customers coming into the store and they have a smile on their face. It's like they've entered heaven.
Levin: I know. A friend of a friend came in yesterday, and he's from Atlanta. He came in our store for the first time and he just couldn't believe it. He said, "This is like a dream! I'm moving to Philadelphia."