One Hundred Years of Fuente
The warehouses were completely engulfed in flames, and the firefighters were losing the battle. The men and women attacked the fire, spurting water through the windows of the blazing buildings until the smoke and the heat overwhelmed them. Even when they could fight no longer they called for milk in hopes of fortifying themselves for another round. But it was too late. Two large warehouses with irreplaceable stocks of tobacco were lost.
Veritable bunkers, the two structures had seemed impregnable until Hurricane Irene raged to within 70 miles of Villa Gonzalez, Dominican Republic, stirring winds that fed the flames. Even as the blaze leapt toward the sky, rains lashed the scene, almost in irony. Inside was a treasure trove, tobacco that was years and even decades old, leaves from around the world that had been destined to be rolled into celebratory smokes for its owner, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.
There watching the disaster unfold this past August was Fuente president Carlos Fuente Jr. He stayed all day, leaving near midnight. When he returned home, reeking of smoke, his 11-year-old son hugged him and looked up into his father’s dark eyes. Young Carlos III had heard about the fire at school and joined his fellow students in a prayer. “Daddy,” he asked his father, “are we going to be OK?”
It’s a question that has been asked by the Fuentes, son to father, wife to husband and sister to brother time and time again over the past 100 years. Since the first Arturo Fuente cigar was rolled in 1912, eight fires have plagued the company. The first catastrophe, in 1924, put the young company out of business for 22 years. But time and time again, the Fuentes have come back from the flames, rebuilding, and starting anew.
“It’s a major setback,” says Fuente Jr., a passionate man with a slim mustache and an intense gaze. “We lost so much tobacco. All the money in the world could not replace it, and you can’t wait another 30, 40 years for that tobacco. The angels smoked it all. It happened at the dawn of our 100th anniversary. But, I said, this is not going to take me down. Things happen for a reason.”
And undeterred, the Fuente family is now planning its centennial despite the fire, making special cigars to commemorate the occasion. “If we can’t make it with salt,” says Fuente Jr., “we’ll use pepper.”
His family will mark the milestone on November 18, the birthday of patriarch and founder Arturo Fuente. To be sure, there will be commemoration in the Dominican Republic where the family plans to open a small cigar factory on the grounds of its Chateau de la Fuente. But the big celebration will take place in Ybor City, Florida, near the scene of another family milestone: the purchase in the 1960s of the landmark Charles the Great cigar factory, that is now being refurbished. Built in 1895, it was a tall and majestic brick building that Carlos Arturo Fuente Sr. had dreamt of owning when he made cigars in far smaller, more modest settings in the city early in his career. Now the family is renewing that realized dream.
“I used to tell my father, someday we’re going to own this building,” Fuente Sr., the chairman of Fuente, says over the clamor of workers who are hammering away on the floors above the conference room of the brick factory, now Fuente’s U.S. headquarters. A small man with a quiet but gravelly voice and a thick head of hair that belies his 76 years, he’s smoking an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Robusto, holding the cigar upside down, the burning foot near his thumb, so he can examine how it performs. “I always had the vision that we would be in a factory. The others were buckeyes, mom-and-pop shops. I knew that someday I was going to be a large manufacturer. I never cared about being the largest cigar manufacturer; I always cared to be the best. But I wanted to have a building like this.”
The four-story building is laid out east to west in the style of Ybor City’s great cigar factories, its huge windows welcoming the sunlight. The interior walls are yellow brick, but the building has a core—floors and beams—of sturdy heart pine, stained mahogany brown from decades of being bathed in tobacco dust and cigar smoke. The freshly oiled floor bears scars from the pitchforks that were used to move piles of short-filler tobacco off of it. The first workers here made cigars by hand, but it was mechanized in the middle of the last century, and holes made to route the steam pipes that powered the cigar-making machines still pock the floors. This building is a survivor. Where Ybor once had hundreds of factories like this one, today only a dozen or so remain, only a trio that have anything to do with the cigar business.
The Fuentes are survivors too, having endured not only fires, but political upheaval, lawsuits and hurricanes. One of the world’s largest cigar companies, Fuente makes more than 30 million cigars a year, all by hand, in three factories in the Dominican Republic. It owns the brands Arturo Fuente, Hemingway, Don Carlos and Fuente Fuente OpusX, all of them acclaimed by this magazine. It makes Ashton, Diamond Crown and more cigars for other companies and was the first to grow quality wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic.
“I have a terrific amount of admiration for these guys,” says John Oliva Sr., the president of Oliva Tobacco Co., one of the world’s foremost cigar tobacco companies. Oliva has known the Fuentes for more than 40 years. “I have never, never seen anybody that’s a harder worker than Carlos Fuente Sr. His integrity is unbelievable. And Fuente Jr.: the apple don’t fall far from the tree.”
Chuck Levi, owner of Iwan Ries in Chicago, a 155-year-old cigar store, says Fuente is always among his 10 best-selling cigar brands. “They make a phenomenal product at a very reasonable price,” he says. The Fuente sales statistics are echoed in annual surveys of American cigar shops by Cigar Insider, the twice-monthly newsletter published by Cigar Aficionado, where Fuente has traditionally placed at or near the top of its ranking of best-selling premium cigar brands.
But the road to the top was long and hard, with the outcome often in doubt. The story began in 1912, the same year the Red Sox first took the field at Fenway Park and the North Atlantic swallowed the Titanic. A 24-year-old Cuban named Arturo Fuente opened a three-story wooden cigar factory called A. Fuente & Co. in West Tampa, Florida. Ten years prior, Fuente had come to Key West from the town of Güines, Cuba. Like hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to America that year, he sought refuge from his homeland, which was struggling in the wake of the Spanish-American War.
The midsize cigar factory was not unusual in any way. At the time, Tampa had some 200 of them, making hundreds of millions of cigars every year, all from Cuban tobacco leaves, all by hand. Fuente had a promising start. By 1924, he’d incorporated and had shareholders and 500 employees to look after. But during a tobacco-buying trip he made to Cuba late that year, his cigar factory burned to the ground. The young businessman was underinsured, and lacked the funds to rebuild. Production of the Arturo Fuente brand ceased. Arturo moved to Chicago, but soon returned to Florida, this time to Ybor City, a short drive east from West Tampa. Ybor, a community made up of Cubans, Italians and Spanish, had row after row of casitas, little houses with tin roofs, covered porches and screened windows. Avocado and mango trees grew in the backyards and everyone in the neighborhood was connected to the cigar business, for Ybor was the cigar capital of the United States.
In 1946, Arturo set out once again to make cigars under his name. Stung by the lean years of the Great Depression and cowed by his losses in his original venture, this time he was far more cautious. The new Arturo Fuente Cigar Factory began as nothing more than a few rolling stations on the 10-foot-by-16-foot back porch of his Ybor City home. Arturo and his young wife, Christina, rolled cigars during the day along with a few other workers, and at night Christina would move to the kitchen to make hearty Cuban meals and pot after pot of sweet, bracing Cuban coffee as payment for the family members and friends who would come by to dine, converse and make cigars after leaving their full-time jobs.
“My father rolled, my mother rolled, my sister rolled—it used to be just the family,” says Fuente Sr. “I never saw my father without a cigar. He used to smoke about 25 cigars a day. He would go to sleep, and the cigar would fall, and my mother would put it next to the night table. My father would get up in the morning, pick up the cigar, and put it in his mouth.”
Fuente Sr. was 11 when his father turned their back porch into a cigar factory, and he grew up as part of the business, first sweeping floors then learning how to roll. He and his brother, Arturo Jr., had to make 50 cigars each every day when they returned home from school.
“I’ve been working since I was eight years old. From selling fruits in the street, shining shoes, I’ve done about anything you can think of,” he says. “When I was 14, 15 years old I used to have two jobs. I used to go to school, I used to get up to deliver papers, and after school I used to be at work until 11 at night in the drugstore. I’ve always loved to work.” Arturo was nearing 60 when he embarked on his second venture making cigars, and Fuente Sr. would pitch in to help his father. “I never wanted to see my father, as old as he was, working the way he did,” he says.
A fighter from an early age, Fuente Sr. contracted polio before his 12th birthday, and the disease left him in quarantine and unable to walk. His father encouraged him to fight, to believe, and it took several years, but Fuente Sr. regained the ability to walk normally. By 18, he was married. The same legendary work ethic that drove him to walk again once fueled him to spend three weeks straight working in his factory. His bride simply moved in with him, their young son in tow.
“I never went to college, I never went to high school,” he says, yet he kept the books of his cigar company up until 2005, with the help of his daughter, Cynthia Fuente-Suarez. He built his own home, installed the plumbing in one of his original cigar factories and even completed the wiring when an electrician he had hired for the barter price of three bottles of whisky took early payment and was too drunk to complete the job.
“He does the work of five people alone,” says Sathya Levin, vice president of Ashton Distributors Inc. Fuente, which owns a minority interest in Ashton, makes every Ashton cigar, and when Levin was 16, he spent a month with Fuente Sr. to learn the cigar business. “He’s hardworking, dedicated, loyal and passionate. When it comes to the cigar business, the guy’s a genius.”
Fuente Sr. married Ana Lopez (they recently celebrated their 58th anniversary) and because the family cigar business wasn’t lucrative enough to support him with a salary, he took a job as a baker. When he left the bakery to work full time at Fuente, he was paid only $40 a week. His wife made another $40 working at a different cigar factory. But their salaries combined still left them broke at the end of each week, and Ana would sometimes skip lunch so the family could go to a movie.
Fuente was but a local business in the 1950s. Every cigar that the tiny factory made was sold in the Tampa area, and strictly for cash. “My father just wanted enough business to be comfortable,” says Fuente Sr. “You want a box of cigars, you had to show him the green stuff.”
Arturo had intended for his oldest son, Arturo Jr., to take over, but it was Fuente Sr. who spent the most time around cigars. “My father came to me and said, ‘You want the business?’ I said, ‘Sure I want the business. If I take it, I’m going to make this thing grow.’ ” In 1958 Fuente Sr. bought the company for $1. It had assets of $1,161 with zero debt and was making only a few thousand cigars a year. Yet he made one pledge: “I said to my father, ‘As long as you live, as long as I make a dollar, you will make a dollar.’ ”
Fuente Sr. set his mind on expansion, which meant selling cigars on credit. He began by expanding to other parts of Florida, then New York City, focusing on markets with a strong Latin community. As sales grew, he added employees, but times were still lean. He was living in his parents’ house, which still served as the factory, and Arturo remained part of the business. As it grew, cigarmaking would expand into more rooms in the house, forcing the Fuentes to move their furniture to the street each day to create temporary workspace.
Growing was difficult, as cigar smokers of the era weren’t looking for the next new thing. “In the old days, people were very brand true. Brand loyal. People smoked Bering, Perfecto Garcia,” says Fuente Sr.
Help came in the form of political policy—the U.S. Embargo on Cuba of 1962, which forced every cigar producer in the United States to change its recipe for making cigars.
“I feel the embargo put everybody level. People had to shop around to find a different taste that they liked. We started growing more and more in those days,” says Fuente Sr. He sourced tobacco from such new regions as Puerto Rico and Colombia. Then he used his skills as a blender to try to emulate what he had done before, creating a taste that appealed to the smokers who could no longer find their Clear Havanas.
One of the things that helped Fuente was that it did not announce its transition to making cigars without Cuban leaf after the supply finally ran out. (The company had stockpiled enough tobacco to make cigars with Cuban leaf for three years after the embargo began, tobacco that it reserved for the Arturo Fuente brand.) “When the people asked me does it have any Cuban tobacco I would say no, but I never advertised it. I didn’t make a mistake like other manufacturers did.”
Arturo Fuente died in 1973 at the age of 85. It was a tough time for the cigar business. Rising costs of labor meant it was difficult to roll by hand in the United States, and the company’s biggest sales came from machine-made cigars, with brand names such as Moya and Trinidad, rather than the handmade Arturo Fuente. “Fuente was small production,” says Fuente Jr. “We sold some, but very little.”
Finding rollers in Ybor was difficult, so Fuente attempted to make cigars in Mexico and Puerto Rico, with lackluster results. Then Fuente Sr. met a cigarmaker in Nicaragua with a large inventory of superb smokes. Impressed, he bought all the cigars, then invested in the factory. The business was soaring until Nicaragua fell apart in revolution, and the factory was burned to the ground in 1979. “We lost everything in Estelí [Nicaragua],” says Fuente Jr.
Out of money, the Fuentes sat down with three options: sell the family business, leave handmades behind or move to a new country. Fuente Sr. couldn’t do it alone—he needed his son. “I told him I’m broke,” he says. Fuente Jr. put in what cash he had, and Fuente Sr. mortgaged his house, cashed in his insurance and convinced his wife to leave a life of comfort for a land of challenges. They were moving to the Dominican Republic.
Today Santiago, Dominican Republic, is the gem of the cigar world, teeming with modern amenities. Thirty years ago it was quite different. “The bread was like rocks, toilet paper was like sandpaper. We used to travel there and bring Pampers for the baby, bring sugar. Bring all the things we missed from home,” remembers Fuente Jr. “We didn’t have a phone,” says Cynthia Fuente-Suarez. “One phone for the neighborhood.” There were times when the Dominican Republic looked as if it might go the route of Nicaragua, but stability returned, and the country proved the ideal base for the Fuentes to show the world what they could do with cigars.
“We started and struggled, and worked very hard,” says Fuente Jr.
“We worked and worked and struggled. We were working 18 hours a day, growing the company again.” Says his father, “When I first started in Dominican, all our profit, we stuck it back. All our profit was always invested in tobacco. And aged tobacco is the most important thing that you can have. We always had a lot of aged tobacco. And as we started aging more and more, we started doing better.”
“As far as I know, they have the biggest inventory of tobacco in the business,” says Robert Levin, owner of Ashton Distributors. “When they find good tobacco, they buy it—even if they don’t have a home for it. Because good tobacco is good tobacco.”
The first Dominican Fuente cigars to catch people’s attention were Hemingways, created in the mid 1980s. Aside from some pyramids, “there were no shaped cigars in the market” at the time, says Fuente Jr. He found old cigar molds and crafted a medium-bodied and flavorful blend. The diminutive Short Story, measuring all of four inches long, was an instant hit. “One of our biggest sellers,” says Fuente Sr.
Fuente Jr. has always respected history and learned by listening to his father, grandfather and many other cigarmakers who came before him. He scowled at the plain packaging and two-color cigar bands that were prevalent in the downtimes of the cigar industry, and sought to enliven his products. “I wanted to bring back the old things—not only the shapes and the romance, the things that were not popular anymore, but also the art and the history,” he says. The bands that adorn Fuente’s cigars, particularly that of its Fuente Fuente OpusX, are ornate, elaborate things, with several varieties of gold ink and rich textures.
The cigar was created after an offhand remark made by a visiting tobacconist in 1988. “You don’t produce a cigar,” he said to the Fuentes, “you assemble a cigar.” He was referring to the factory’s use of imported tobaccos rather than relying on all local leaf. The observation made Fuente Jr. want to grow wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic, something that had cost other cigar companies millions in failed attempts.
“I thought he was crazy at first,” says Fuente Sr. The project got off to a slow start, and the first harvest was unsuccessful.
“When it rained, we couldn’t get in or out,” says Fuente Jr. “My dad had a four-wheel drive—it got stuck. Before you know it the frame of the car was touching the ground. We had to get a John Deere to pull it out. My father had mud up to his knees, and I did too. My father said, ‘Unless you build a road here I’m not coming back again. I’m a cigarmaker, I’m not a farmer.’ ”
They built roads. And curing barns. And gazebos. And more. Today Chateau de la Fuente is as gorgeous a tobacco farm as you will ever see, with painted rocks, flowers and royal palm trees poking up through the cheesecloth shade that covers acre after acre. The dark, Cuban-seed tobacco grown on this land covers Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, the company’s most acclaimed brand. When launched in November 1995, the cigars sold out immediately and had to be limited to only a couple per customer even while it sold only in the eastern part of the United States. A January 1996 vertical brand tasting in Cigar Insider awarded the brand four scores in the 90s, including a 94-point score for the PerfecXion No. 2, a pyramid. The high scores continue to this day. In 2005 the Fuente Fuente OpusX Double Corona was named Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year, and in 2010 the XXX Belicoso was the No. 3 Cigar of the Year.
The Fuente Fuente OpusX reflected Fuente Jr.’s taste for powerhouse cigars and almost single-handedly ushered in a move to stronger smokes among cigar connoisseurs in the United States. Fuente continued that trend with the creation of the high-octane Ashton Virgin Sun Grown (or VSG) in 1999, which became the next big thing in powerful smokes.
Most people in the cigar industry believe that Fuente Sr. blended his company’s renowned Arturo Fuente Don Carlos line, but he gives all the credit for Fuente’s blends over the past 30 years to his son. “Carlito did all the blends,” he says. Fuente Jr. has uncanny skills as a blender. He is able to make a complex, balanced and subtle smoke (such as Don Carlos), vibrant, aggressive and spicy cigars (the Fuente Fuente OpusX) as well as many things in between (the new A. Fuente Rosado Sungrown line).
Fuente makes many, many blends and brands, including some for J. C. Newman Cigar Co., based in Tampa. In 1986 Fuente joined with the Newman family: Fuente Sr. asked J. C. Newman’s Stanford Newman to take over production of the company’s machine-made cigars. Newman asked Fuente to make him handmades in return. Newman died in 2006, but the relationship is strong to this day as the Newmans and Fuentes share distribution and still make cigars for one another, including the highly rated Diamond Crown series of cigars.
“We make so many different blends. Different brands. Different styles. Different tastes. But over decades, they’re consistent,” says Fuente Jr. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.” Robert Levin concurs: “The Fuentes can come up with 50 different blends and they’re all going to be good, and they’re all going to be different.”
All this innovation and success came with a price. The Fuentes became a target. The mid-1990s were crazy days in the cigar industry. Cigar companies that had struggled for decades to sell cigars suddenly found themselves with more orders than they could fill. The cigar business is quite unlike most others in that the process of expanding production is limited by tobacco inventories and how many trained hands can be marshaled to shape those leaves into cigars.
In the heady days of the cigar boom, opportunists flocked to the Dominican Republic seeking tobacco and cigars. They bought raw leaf from fields and hired away cigar rollers, making established companies suffer. Those rollers at Fuente who were able to craft Hemingways were recruited particularly hard. Fuente lost roller after roller. “We lost 500 cigarmakers one year,” says Fuente Jr. Training workers only to have them stolen away is an expensive proposition, so Fuente Jr. created a unique program, dubbed Operation Blank Slate, that offered a measure of protection.
The Fuentes sought out workers who hadn’t made cigars before. They were trained to make cigars slowly, carefully, in a style known as entubado, in which the roller creates a tube with each leaf. It’s slower than the standard Dominican methods of cigar production, where tobacco leaves are made into S-shapes giving the bunch a look similar to an accordion. Fuente wanted the rollers to make beautiful cigars but to make them slowly—if someone was to steal them away, they wouldn’t be able to work in typical piecemeal style.
The Fuentes most popular cigar also went into the crosshairs. In 1996, the Opus One winery (which was a venture between Robert Mondavi Corp. and Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A.) sued the Fuentes over the name OpusX. It was a two-year legal battle that cost each side millions in lawyers’ fees. The Fuentes won the suit in July 1998.
An even greater challenge to Fuente Fuente OpusX came in 1998 when Hurricane Georges raced across Hispañiola, killing nearly 400 people in the Dominican Republic and tearing down 17 massive curing barns on Chateau de la Fuente. Only two were left unscathed. The Fuentes rebuilt, holding on to Fuente Fuente OpusX shipments for a time and creating the Arturo Fuente Añejo, which has a similar blend but a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper.
Despite all the crises that could have derailed the company at many steps along the way, Fuente has emerged ever stronger.
It sits in a most unusual position in the cigar industry, having a combination of considerable size and critical acclaim, the production of a huge company but the soul of a boutique producer. It has a store in Las Vegas—Casa Fuente, owned by Fuente, Levin and Michael Frey—dedicated solely to cigars made by the company. There, devotees can find special Fuentes not sold elsewhere.
And all this success has inspired the family to give back. The community around Chateau de la Fuente is very poor, and for many years locals had to walk far to get drinking water, which was often contaminated. In 2001, Fuente joined with the Newmans to create the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation to help the poor of the Dominican Republic, particularly those who live around their farm. Putting in stations for clean water was an early project. Then came a school, first at the elementary level, then at the high school level. Watching the children whose lives have been improved by the school is inspiring for any visitor.
“My cigars, my life, my family, my love,” said Fuente Jr., lighting his OpusX on stage before a sold-out crowd at the Big Smoke Las Vegas, calling his sister Cynthia, daughter Liana and Fuente executive Wayne Suarez to sit by his side. “My family has gone through a lot, and that’s what I think is the strength that holds our family together.”
Every night, when his work is finally done, Fuente Sr. sits down with a glass of Chivas and smokes three cigars before he goes to bed. He once slept only a few hours a night—there was so much to do in the day—but today he sleeps a bit better.
“After all these years I never dreamed I would be living when the company was 100 years old,” he says with a nod of his head. “If you want to be successful, you can’t look back. You have to do something you love. And the cigar business is something I love.”