Q&A: Tony Gomez, La Flor Dominicana Cigars

Q&A: Tony Gomez, La Flor Dominicana Cigars
Photo/Camilla Sjodin
Gomez discusses his life before the cigar industry, what it's like working with family and the future of La Flor Dominicana

Born and raised in Miami, Florida, Antonio “Tony” Gomez now works with his father, Litto, helping to bring innovation to the La Flor Dominicana brand while maintaining his father’s meticulous standards of quality. At 31 years old, he spends most of his time in the Dominican Republic at the La Flor Dominicana factory or on the La Canela farm, where most of the tobacco for La Flor Dominicana cigars is grown.

Cigar Aficionado senior editor Greg Mottola spoke to the young Gomez to find out just how much he contributes to La Flor, and his thoughts on working in the family business.

CIGAR AFICIONADO: Were you always exposed to tobacco?
GOMEZ: My father smoked cigars as far back as I can remember, and he first got in the business when I was about seven years old, so most definitely. All these years later, I still get a quick flashback to my childhood when I light up a cigar and catch the first whiff of its smoke.

Q: As you got older, did you think that you’d ever be involved in the family business?
A: I didn’t. It wasn’t something I seriously considered until my last couple of years in college. I was actually an English major and my original plan was to apply for film school and study screenwriting, but the realization eventually hit me that opportunities such as the one Ines and my father created for me don’t just come along and that I’d be a fool to not at least give it a shot. 

Q: Did your father pressure you to work for him?
A: No, he never pressured me into joining the company, but he let me know that if I wanted to be a part of it, he would have a job waiting for me.

Q: Did you work in another industry, or were you always in the family business?
A: I remember asking my father for a job the summer before my senior year of high school, and he told me that I had to work for someone else before I could work for him, so I went for the next best option, which was working at Pizza Hut. I also worked as a delivery driver at a different restaurant and then at an Apple Store. After college, however, I have not worked anywhere else.

Q: When did you smoke your first cigar?
A: During one of my high school vacations I had come down to the Dominican Republic with my father to spend some time with him at the factory. He handed me a cigar in his office and told me that I was going to learn how to smoke that day. 

Q: What cigar was it?
A: It was a prototype for the LG [Litto Gomez Diez]—one of our most powerful blends. I lit it up and after taking a few puffs my father said to me “Tony, if you really want to taste the cigar you have to inhale it.” 

Q: I guess you didn’t know that you’re not supposed to inhale cigars.
A: It seemed strange but what did I know? He was the cigar guy, so I did what he told me. 

Q: What happened?
A: I spent the next five-to-ten minutes on my knees in front of the toilet while listening to him laugh at me from his office in the background. When I walked back in I had a few choice words for him, of course to which he responded: “Tony, now you know how not to smoke a cigar.”

Q: Rough lesson, no?
A: I definitely learned my lesson, and hope to have a son someday so I can do the same thing to him [laughs].

Q: When did you start working full time for La Flor and for your father?
A: Towards the latter end of my senior year of college. I would head out on weekends and visit retailers in central and northern Florida then head back to Tallahassee to attend classes during the week.

Q: What were your first responsibilities when working for the family company?
A: I began as a sales rep and covered all of Florida and Colorado, and I did it for close to four years.

Q: What’s it like working for your father? 
A: I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about family businesses and working for one’s parents but I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that. I’ve always been grateful for the opportunity that my father and my stepmother Ines created for me and I’ve always tried to do the best I can. I think my father and I have made a great team ever since I began working closer to him at the factory and I think we’ve been able to accomplish some pretty special things working together over the last six years.

Q: Do you spend a lot of time at the factory in the Dominican Republic?
A: I spend the majority of my time here, about three weeks out of every month.

Q: How close are you to the agricultural end of the business?
A: I am by no means an expert when it comes to the farm. There is a whole lot to take in and only part of the year to do so. My role is primarily at the factory, but I do, of course, visit the farm frequently where I listen and observe and just try to learn everything I can about growing tobacco.

Q: When did you blend your first cigar? How did it come out?
A: It didn’t take very long after I first moved to the Dominican Republic, perhaps a few months. I’ve always been drawn to creative pursuits and product development was something I always wanted to be a part of. I knew I might be on to something when I passed one of the cigars I blended to my father that I had already been smoking. After waiting for him to give it back he looked over and asked, “Well, what are you going to smoke?” That cigar ended up becoming the La Flor Dominicana Chapter One.

Q: Was that the first cigar that you blended to go on the market?
A: Yes.

Q: What do you do for the company now?
A: Like my father and Ines, I wear multiple hats rather than having any single, definitive role. I deal with a lot of the day-to-day things at the factory as well as handling our international sales, social media, marketing and product development. There’s also a large PR aspect to what we do, so I often host visitors and guests who come down to visit, give tours of the factory, and I get to travel around doing events quite a bit as well.

Q: Are there any specific tobaccos you like to work with?
A: As far as I’m concerned it’s tough to beat the fillers that we grow at our farm in La Canela in the Dominican Republic. Piloto Cubano would be my favorite if I had to choose one. I also have a particular affinity towards a specific seed of Brazilian wrapper that we use for Chapter One and La Nox.

Q: What did you think when the La Flor Dominicana Andalusian Bull won Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year award for 2016?
A: When it was finally revealed, I was on a boat in the middle of the Río de la Plata crossing over from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, so I had no reception and was blissfully unaware of the chaos that was ensuing. As soon as I was close enough to Buenos Aires for my phone to connect again, I saw an absurd amount of texts pour in all at once and before I could read them, I got a call from my stepmother Ines who began yelling “We won! Congratulations!” It was so surreal because anyone who knows Ines knows that she tends to be very reserved. When I got to Buenos Aires our distributor was waiting for me with a giant smile on his face because we had a couple events planned and he had just received a shipment of Andalusian Bulls.

Q: The award caused some back-orders. How did you handle the back-order situation? 
A: There really is no way to handle it. It was unlike anything we had seen before. We had the No. 2 Cigar of the Year in 2006 and not even that compared. Major props to our office staff in Miami who handled the onslaught of seemingly endless phone calls like champs.

Q: Was it difficult to supply the market with Andalusian Bulls and to make all retailers happy? 
A: It was and continues to be difficult to make them happy. We have managed, however, to make them all equally upset (laughs). It’s almost hard to believe but the demand for Bulls has not declined one bit since early 2017, and we try our absolute best to make as many as we can and spread them out as effectively as possible, but the reality is that we can only make so many. Being named Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year is a magnificent honor but it is an equally large responsibility and we refuse to compromise a sliver of quality in order to make more of them.

Q: Have FDA regulations made it more difficult to innovate? 
A: Because it’s all kind of on hold right now, we are carrying on as usual until a final ruling is made. It will of course make it difficult should the original decision be upheld but until then, we will continue to create because it is what we love to do. 

Q: What would you do in a worst-case scenario?
A: Worst-case scenario, we still sell cigars in over 30 countries around the world and would continue to make new cigars for them should we not be allowed to do so in the U.S. anymore.

Q: Do you think you’re becoming the face of the company?
A: I’m definitely not the face of the company, perhaps just one of the faces. The way I see it, I may have a hand in creating some successful cigars but that’s the easy part. The difficult part was building one of the most beautiful and well-equipped cigar factories in the world, not to mention a farm that provides us with some of the finest tobaccos one could ever wish for. I couldn’t have done that. And had my father not pulled it off then nothing I’ve accomplished in this industry would have been possible.

Q: Would you say any La Flor brands are solely yours, in terms of creating the concept and bringing them to market?
A: These days, most any of our new blends are created between my father and I as a team. As far as concept and design, I created Chapter One, Capitulo II, La Nox, Andalusian Bull, La Volcada and I had a hand in rebranding Reserva Especial and Coronado as well as creating the 1994 Beer Stein.

Q: The competition is much stronger now from Nicaragua. How do you think this has affected the Dominican Republic?
A: Dominican cigar exports continue to grow so the competition has had no negative effects. On the contrary, competition is always a good thing and the cigar industry is more competitive now than it has ever been. It is no coincidence that we in the capitalist cigar manufacturing countries have been able to innovate and raise the bar when it comes to quality as much as we have. Nicaragua grows fantastic tobacco and its factories produce great cigars, but as far as we are concerned, the Dominican Republic is and always will be cigar country.

Q: How would you say La Flor Dominicana cigars have changed in the last 20 years? 
A: In almost every way possible. When it comes to manufacturing, the standards of quality have remained the same but the tobaccos, blending style, branding, etc., have all evolved quite a bit. We did not own our farm 20 years ago, which in itself led to a major shift in what it means to smoke a La Flor Dominicana. 

Q: What does it mean to smoke a cigar from La Flor?
A: Those who have followed us over the last 25 years will remember that we began making very mild cigars in the traditional Dominican style. These days, we are known for making some of the world’s richest and fullest bodied cigars.