Padrón Looks Back at 50

When José Orlando Padrón sold his first cigar 50 years ago, the future was very much in doubt. Today, his family run company is the most critically acclaimed cigarmaker on the planet
Padrón Looks Back at 50
Photo/David Yellen
The Padrón founder, José Orlando Padrón, marks a half century in cigarmaking this year. The company is a family affair, manned by many of his relatives, including his son Jorge, (standing) the company president.

If not for fate, the world might know the name Padrón for rich, delicious hot chocolate rather than rich, delicious cigars.

It was December in Miami, 1963. José Orlando Padrón, born in Cuba, émigré from Spain, a recent arrival in the sunshine state, was looking for work. He made a five-gallon batch of tasty hot chocolate, put it in the back of his 1952 Plymouth, and drove around his neighborhood, hoping to sell the warm, sweet drinks and put some holiday cash in his pocket. But it was a doomed venture. All of his potential customers were in the same poor boat as he was, and southern Florida not being frosty New England, the hot beverage was a tough sell.

“Nobody would buy the hot chocolate,” says the 88-year-old chairman and founder of Padrón Cigars Inc., speaking from his modern-day, spacious conference room in Little Havana, a cigar wrapped in his right index finger. “Nobody had any money, nobody could afford it.”

When he arrived at his last stop, a garage, he threw in the Swiss Miss towel, and gave away the cocoa to the workers.
Cigar smokers everywhere should be thankful for that rare misstep, for one year later, Padrón found his calling, opening a factory with one roller in Miami and putting his name on cigars.

September marks Padrón’s 50th anniversary. The company makes its headquarters in Miami in an ornate building that takes up nearly half a city block. It’s but a tenth of a mile from its original six-foot-wide storefront, but the company has come an enormously long way in 50 years. Padrón’s cigars consistently receive some of the highest scores given by Cigar Aficionado magazine, and three Padróns have been named Cigar of the Year, an unprecedented feat.

The organization makes 6.5 million cigars a year in Nicaragua, all by hand. Whether it’s a $6 Padrón 3000, the company’s best-selling size, a $12 Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivo, the box-pressed beauty that sparked a trend for squared-off cigars, or a $30 smoke from the company’s premier Family Reserve line, made with tobaccos as old as 10 years, Padrón cigars are a mainstay in fine cigar shops throughout the United States and are beginning to gain toeholds in various markets around the world. The company is vertically integrated, growing much of its own tobacco, making all of its cigars, selling each one without the aid of a salesforce. While it employs as many as 1,000 people in total during harvest time in Nicaragua, the company is impossibly small, with only 25 people in its Miami headquarters. Nearly half of them are members of the family.

The business is thriving, but, as with many success stories, getting to this point was difficult, and few things went according to plan.

“I never imagined this,” says Padrón, speaking in words that are translated from the Spanish by his son, Jorge, who is the company president. “I was hoping this was a transitional phase, and I would go back to Cuba,” Padrón says with a hearty laugh.

The Cuba of Padrón’s youth was one of great memories. Born in 1926 in Consolación del Sur, a municipality in the southeastern portion of Pinar del Río, he was raised on his family’s tobacco farm in Piloto, in Cuba’s famed tobacco region. Unlike many émigrés who speak of hard times in their birthland, he loved his time on the family farm.

“It was perfect,” he says. The farm had curburro, or carbide, a powder that would make flammable gas when combined with water to power lights on the farm and light up the night, an impressive feat in the 1920s Cuban countryside. The family was far from poor, and young José Orlando rode horses around his family’s properties and made mischief with his siblings.

He was raised around cigars. His grandfather Damaso Padrón, who emigrated to Cuba from the Canary Islands in the 1800s, bought a small farm in a town called Las Obas, had some success and bought more farms, including the one in Piloto. The farms grew mostly filler, called tripa in Cuba, and the family sold tobacco to cigarmakers in Havana. Some of the leaves were reserved for personal consumption.

“My grandmother had a little table in her house where she would make cigars for my grandfather, and for the entire family. Two things they were never without—wine and cigars. As a young boy, I saw that in my house. My grandfather every day would wake up, and every time I saw him he was looking at a cigar. Rolling it in his hand. Always touching tobacco.”

The young man’s first job around tobacco was cleaning the seedbeds, which he did after school at the age of seven. Working with his father, Francisco, and grandfather, young José Orlando learned the art of fermenting Cuban-seed tobaccos, using the magic of water, pressure and time to banish the impurities in the leaf and unlock the rich flavor inside.

By the early 1950s, the family business was growing. From all over Pinar del Río it was buying tobacco, which it would then cure, sort and devein for Havana’s H. Upmann factory in Havana, the maker of Montecristo and H. Upmann cigars. But in 1952, Padrón set out on his own to try something new, managing a 300-employee copper mine in the western Cuban province.

The ascent of Fidel Castro and Cuban revolution complicated matters for both the copper and tobacco industries. Much of the Padrón farm was nationalized—one part was reallocated to raise geese—cutting the family holdings from some 250 acres to only five.

Padrón, who initially supported the revolution, had a change of heart. “I was a revolutionary. I was very involved in the Cuban revolution,” he told Cigar Aficionado in a 1998 interview. “But when I left Cuba because I didn’t like the way the revolution was going, I had left behind a few friends who told me not to forget about them, that they were going to see just how far they could go in Cuba. But many of them ended up in prison.”

After great difficulty, Padrón left Cuba in 1961, bound for Spain. “I got to Spain without a dime to my name,” he says. He lived meagerly in a hostel (at one point, he and a friend discovered that what they were being served as beef was actually horsemeat). Work was hard to come by, so Padrón left for the United States. He spent two weeks on a boat, arriving in New York in 1961.

Padrón found work, but life was still hard. His first job was working an industrial iron in a cleaners for $1 an hour. “I got to a point where I couldn’t even raise my arms,” he recalls. A new job working for a caterer of airline food paid better dividends, as he was able to eat the same fare provided for passengers, who, in the glory days of air travel, dined well. But he couldn’t take the cold, and wanted a better life, so in February 1962, he took a Greyhound bus to Miami, where he found his new home.

Work was still a difficult thing to come by, and for half a year Padrón collected a check the U.S. government paid to all Cuban exiles. He needed the money, but he hated the handout. “I felt bad taking that money, a man of my age, able to work,” he says. He had tried odd jobs, mowing lawns, even that failed hot chocolate venture. A friend gave him a small hammer, which he employed to do carpentry jobs, but his true calling was born of his distaste for the local cigars for sale in Miami.

“When I arrived here, the only cigars available were these Filipino cigars that cost 10 cents a piece, and they were unsmokeable,” says Padrón. “I felt that I had to produce a cigar for Cubans who missed their homeland, so they could at least not miss their cigars.”

In March 1964, he rented a tiny storefront on West Flagler Street and applied for the permits to start a factory. “He couldn’t get his license to produce cigars until he had a physical location,” says Jorge. “He ended up paying rent from March through September without producing a single dime.” The permit from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms finally came through in August, and on September 8, Padrón Cigars was open for business.

The first cigars were quite unlike the premium smokes the company rolls today. In the early 1960s, long before José Orlando Padrón first began using Nicaraguan leaves, his cigar roller was making cigars from Brazilian, Puerto Rican and Connecticut tobaccos, a mixture of short- and long-filler tobaccos known in the cigar industry as medium fill. His cigarmaker rolled and Padrón sold. He had but one roller when he began and he made one size, a shape known as a cazador. “It’s not round,” says José Orlando, describing a cigar that is packed wet and takes whatever shape the room in the box allows. The result is a cigar that looks somewhat like a rhombus when viewed from the foot. (The sizes still exist in Cuba as Romeo y Julieta Cazadores.)

The cigars had flat heads, and were packed with a silver wrap that read Padrón Cazadores. A bundle of 25 retailed for $6. Singles were a quarter.

Sales were anything but brisk for the startup company. “One day I get to a store that I had sold a bundle to a week prior, and I saw they hadn’t sold a single cigar out of the bundle.” He bought it back, brought it to his office and started test smoking to see what was wrong. “I realized there was nothing wrong with the cigar—it drew perfect, the construction was perfect, everything was fine.”

There are key moments in a company’s history that stand out, events that can ultimately mean the difference between staying in business and fading into obscurity. For Padrón cigars, the tipping point can be traced to a bundle of cheap cigars and a black magic marker. With sales stagnant on his cazadores, Padrón remembered the words of his first customer, a man named Bernardo Coniff. “Every time he would come and see me, he would always ask me, when are you going to make a fuma?”

For Cubans of a certain age, fumas were the cigars smoked by cigarmakers. The cigars have pigtails, and have been sold by a wide variety of names: curly head, rabito, fuma. “The fuma was a cigar that a cigar roller could take home,” says José Orlando. No one was making one in Miami at the time,” he says.

His heart broken by the unsold cigars, he returned to his factory the next morning on a mission to change his cigar. He went to his roller, Jimenes. “I said ‘I want you to make me this cigar, but give it a little more length and give it this curly head.’ ”
Jimenes proceeded to make the cigar that his employer requested, adding the pigtail found on cigars smoked by Cuban rollers. “Bernardo walks in,” remembers Padrón. “I take out the little bundle and I say ‘This is what I have for you.’ And Bernardo says, ‘This is exactly what I want.’ ”

Part one of his market research complete, Padrón now realized his packing materials would obscure the pigtail that he needed his customers to see. “I wanted to show off the head,” he says. “So all night I bust my brains figuring out how I am going to package this thing. So I get the cazador paper, and I make a bundle where the head of the cigar is exposed, and then I scratch off the word ‘cazador’ with a black marker, and write the word ‘fuma.’ ”

It was a groundbreaker. Within a month, sales spiked. Cigar smokers in Miami—most of them Cuban—were drawn to the shape that reminded them of their youth. Padrón stopped making cazadores and established the fuma market in Miami.
“It got to a point where I didn’t have enough, and I had to add new rollers,” Padrón says of the sudden turnaround of his business. “Then all the sales of the cazadores from these other companies started to go down.”

Padrón was competing against a bigger factory called El Morro, which responded with an even bigger fuma, one inch longer. But El Morro charged an extra penny for the bigger cigar. This was 1964, when all transactions were conducted with cash, a penny had actual value, and it was a hassle to reach for another coin. “When I saw the penny difference, I saw I was set. No one was going to pay that penny difference,” says Padrón.

Impossible as it sounds today, Padrón made money selling handmade cigars for quarters. The raw materials were inexpensive. His wrappers, Connecticut broadleaf, were a mere 70 cents a pound. Padrón kept overhead at a minimum. “I never had salesmen, I always dealt directly with the public, and maintained a very tight operation,” he says.

Padrón cigars became a mainstay in Cuban cafeterias as his countrymen reached for fumas bearing his name during their lunch break and puffed the dark smokes to go with their sweet, bracing café Cubano. But some in the Miami community turned on him in the 1970s. When José Orlando Padrón visited Cuba in 1978 on a mission to help free political prisoners, he had a personal meeting with Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader brought Cohibas, Padrón brought his own cigars, and the two began smoking. Castro spoke to the Miami-based cigarmaker, and asked him for one of his cigars. Padrón handed one to Castro and a photographer pressed the shutter key, immortalizing the interaction. Padrón left Cuba that afternoon with 42 freed prisoners, but when the photo hit local newspapers, some were incensed.

“ ‘Padrón Communist’ was the headline, and yet they didn’t know the sacrifice we went through to get people out of prison,” he told Cigar Aficionado in 1998. A second dialogue in 1978 resulted in the release of another 300 prisoners, but the bad press continued. “The people were saying that we were communists because we were going over to where Fidel was. And they kept bringing up the cigar thing,” Padrón remembered in the interview. “In Cuba, they treated me with respect, as I treated them as well,” he says today. Many of those prisoners were his friends, and he continued to work for their release. After one of the trips, the bombs started.

On March 24, 1979, Rodolfo Padrón (José Orlando’s nephew) found a bomb on the side of their Miami factory. (He disabled it before the bomb squad arrived, earning him the knickname “Crazy Rudy.”) Three more bombs followed, each of which detonated, killing no one but damaging the headquarters and injuring the family psyche. Still, sales increased—his loyal customers kept supporting him—and the 3,600 prisoners released by the organization he had helped were the reward for the stress the family endured.

José Orlando Padrón is a Cuban at heart, but Nicaraguan tobacco changed his career. His first puff of Nicaraguan tobacco was a revelation. “I had the good luck to taste Nicaraguan tobacco that changed the history of this company,” he says. Today, his wizened hands spring to life when he handles a cluster of light-brown tobacco leaves, tied at the stems. The tobacco is from a farm called Cuatro Hermanos, Spanish for four brothers. The land is in Estelí, Nicaragua, not very far from where Padrón rolls all of its cigars. It has been only two weeks since the leaves were harvested and years will pass before they are made into cigars that bear the Padrón name, but already there is promise from the crop, and Padrón hopes that much of it can be used to wrap his cigars; rich, Nicaraguan smokes that have enthralled consumer and critic alike.

It was tobacco just like this that led him to change his blend. In 1967, he imported his first crop of Nicaraguan leaf, introducing a cigar made entirely of long-filler, which he dubbed the Padrón No. 4. In 1970, he opened a cigar factory in Nicaragua. The Central American country would give him incredible benefits, as well as exceptional heartbreak.

What he has called his “biggest obstacle” occurred in May 1978, when vandals burned his cigar factory and tobacco warehouse in Estelí to the ground. He had made preparations as war came ever closer to his door, moving tobacco here, looking to open a new factory there, but the setback was extraordinary and painful. Under great duress he began making cigars once again in a new factory, but he maintained an exit strategy, opening a small factory in Danlí, Honduras, a cigarmaking town located an 83-mile-drive via a winding, cliff-studded Pan American highway from Estelí. He was able to function until 1985, when the U.S. government declared an embargo on Nicaragua.

The Padróns shifted their operations to Honduras, working day and night to move as many cigars and as much tobacco across the border while it was still allowed by law. Not wanting to change his blend (he says he has never used Honduran tobacco) he made fewer cigars with his diminishing supply of Nicaraguan leaf. Production plummeted to one third of its previous levels.
For five years, the Nicaraguan factory lay across the border, out of reach of the company. Jorge and his father would sleep in a small room inside the spartan Honduran factory. One day, a person discovered a plot to kidnap the elder Padrón. Two men had left a bag on a bus. Inside were passports, details of the cigarmakers comings and goings, sketches of the factory, and even information on where he and his son slept at night. Padrón went to the Honduran authorities; the men never showed, and one was later found dead. Padrón still keeps the passports in his safe as a reminder. “Thank God I’m still alive right now,” he said in 1998, speaking about the event. “The most important lesson in all this is to have as few enemies and as many friends as possible.”

In 1990, the embargo was finally lifted. The Padróns returned to Nicaragua, but it would be some time before it was business as usual.

“I had just graduated from college,” remembers Jorge Padrón. “I didn’t have the kind of experience I have now. There were power outages every day, there was a lot of instability. It presented a lot of challenges.”

While José Orlando was the Padrón who started Padrón Cigars, it was his youngest son Jorge who expanded the company’s sales out of Miami, and took the company to new heights. Jorge, who began working part-time in the family business as a boy, remembers being woken by his dad at 6:30 in the morning. “Early in the morning he would come into my room, turn on the lights and start shaking my feet so I would get out of the bed,” he says. He spent summers working in the factory, getting what he dubbed his “tobacco tan,” which kept him paler than his friends who were at the beach. He made his first trip to Nicaragua as an eight-year-old boy.

When Jorge, who is 46 today, began working full-time at his family cigar business after getting his MBA from the University of Miami in 1992, he saw that the business was strong but he feared for the long-term health of the operation.

“When I started working here, we were selling 90 percent of our cigars in Miami,” says Jorge Padrón. “It was a different business.” He feared that with the company’s older customer base, his father’s business would be done in 20 years. “We made the decision to expand our distribution and to go into the national market. Luckily, my father had enough confidence in me to allow me to try to get that done.”

The younger Padrón had confidence in his product. “We were selling cigars to some of the most experienced customers in the world.”

For premium cigar companies operating in the United States there is one trade show that allows them to show their wares to a vast audience of cigar-shop owners—the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers trade show. In 1993 (when the organization was still going by its former name, the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America), Jorge Padrón went to his company’s first trade show with his brother Orlando, vice president for the cigarmaker. The reaction wasn’t as strong as he intended.

“We sold to 12 retailers,” he says. Many complained that his Cuban-seed cigars were too strong. In mid-1993, Cigar Aficionado was in its infancy, and the premium cigar market was dominated by light, mild smokes made with Connecticut-seed wrappers, most of them grown in the Connecticut River Valley. The second issue of Cigar Aficionado,
published in the Winter of 1992/93, rated 23 non-Cuban cigars, 14 of which were wrapped in lightly hued wrappers.

Padrón cigars are made from Cuban-seed tobaccos, grown in the open sunlight. All of the cigars are rather dark and have a medium to medium-full body, depending on the variety. The family excels at fermentation, the process of building up leaf after leaf in piles. Called pilónes, they are wetted with water and allowed to sit. Pressure from the weight builds heat and causes a reaction that changes the leaf’s flavor. Jorge and his father move pilón to pilón, pulling samples from different parts of each pile and wrapping a test leaf around a burning cigar, to check its progress. Fermentation can last a year or more, and is essential to developing the flavor Padrón cigars are known for.

If fumas put Padrón on the map in Miami, the cigars that gave the company fame on a nationwide level were in the Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series. The smoke was the company’s first premium brand. Made with older tobaccos than those in the core Padrón line, it was presented with a distinctive, squared-off shape, which was unusual at the time. “We didn’t invent the box press,” Jorge Padrón says, “but we certainly brought it back.”

That box-pressed brand has brought great critical acclaim to the family, and 20 years after its launch it remains one of the hottest cigar brands in the United States, as confirmed by annual Cigar Insider surveys of high-end brick-and-mortar cigar shops. In 2001, on José Orlando’s 75th birthday, the company followed up with an even pricier brand, Padrón Serie 1926. A 40th anniversary Padrón Serie 1926 (released in 2004) became Cigar Aficionado’s first cigar of the year. The cigarmaker has since followed that up with a line called Padrón Family Reserve.

Anniversaries are dear to the Padróns, and there was no way they would let year 50 pass without a celebratory smoke. This fall, the company is releasing the Padrón Family Reserve No. 50, a chunky robusto, as well as a limited-edition smoke packed in an ornate humidor called the Hammer. The cigars and humidors will be individually numbered.

Today, Jorge is the Padrón most active in the company, traveling frequently to the factory in Nicaragua, joining his fellow premium cigarmakers in the fight for cigar rights and spreading the word about Padrón in cigar-shop events. And he and his father oversee the ever-widening Padrón operation, which grows slowly, but steadily. They have expanded in Nicaragua, opening building after building, most of which are used to store tobacco from their farms, three of which they own and many more that they contract. They have a bigger, more modern cigar factory in Estelí (and have closed the one in Honduras). The inexpensive fumas that put the company on the map are gone. They might not add cigars to their portfolio each year, but they always seem to have a new warehouse under construction and more tobacco to store, as they consider their vast inventory precious.

“Everything that we do here revolves around the philosophy my dad started so many years ago. You have to have a good foundation,” says Jorge Padrón. “These booms, these peaks and valleys, they come and go. We’ve been steady.”
“There’s a lot of consumers out there with a lot of options. We are cigar smokers. This brand is our baby. I want to sell cigars to the most knowledgeable cigar smokers I can find.”

Back in the conference room, José Orlando Padrón is still puffing his cigar, reciting the details of his youth with uncanny precision for a man of his age. Dates come easy, numbers are on the tip of his tongue. The word Cuba comes up again, and the question: what about a return? He hasn’t been in years. What if tomorrow, Fidel dies, Raúl leaves and all of a
sudden there is no more embargo? What then? Would he go back?

The answer comes quickly, simply. “I’m too old already,” he says, no sound of regret in his gruff baritione. “I’m not up for that type of a task.”

Jorge steps in, as always, the son at his father’s side. “That’s for us,” says Jorge. “For the family to continue. For the next generation.”