It's eight o'clock on a pleasant fall evening in Scottsdale, Arizona. Rocky Patel is standing in a crisp suit and tie inside Ambassador Fine Cigars, which just moved into this new spot in a strip mall on the outskirts of the moneyed Paradise Valley. Patel is smoking one of his newest cigars, and he's here to sell his wares the way he has done for nearly a decade, cigar by cigar, putting them into the hands of consumers.
He'll be in Arizona for a week and this is his third show. It's a subdued affair: Game 4 of the World Series is on the television in the club in the back, and most of the people in the shop have gathered there to watch the Boston Red Sox exorcise their curse by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals. The early crowd has dissipated, and maybe a dozen customers are in the store. Owner Vartan Seferian spots a club member in need of a smoke and hands him Patel's latest. The man takes a puff, lifts his eyebrows in appreciation of the taste, and later seeks out Patel to shake his hand. "Great cigar," he says. "Thank you."
This is the patented Patel shoe-leather express, his arduous but successful way of getting out the word on his cigars. Patel has one more event the next day, followed by a dinner, then a pair of appearances the following day before he leaves. The week before he had been in Chicago, and next week it's Atlanta, doing the same thing. Then comes a trip to Honduras, where his cigars are made. He will look at tobacco, check production and do something new: lead a group of consumers on a personal tour of his operations. "It's a very thorough, fast-moving trip," he says. "They see our passion and how dedicated and thorough we are... they see the labor and hard work that goes into the tobacco, they see how labor-intensive it is, and they get to smoke the final product—and they're amazed. There are so many things that fall into place and anything can go wrong on the way."
Home and headquarters for the energetic 43-year-old is in Naples, Florida, but it's a base he rarely sees. His road shows began in 1998, and they never seem to end: in both 2001 and 2002 he logged more than 300 days on the road. "I've been to 600 cities once in 750 days," he says. "Sometimes you get tired of the packing and unpacking, the ironing, and constantly moving around. It's tough, but it's the best thing you can do to get your word out. It's almost like I create a friendship with a fellow smoker."
His travel schedule isn't going to get any lighter: in 2003 he put aside the Indian Tabac brand name he worked so hard to build to create another—Rocky Patel Vintage Series. It was risky, but a huge success.
The cigars are quite different from his Indian Tabacs. The box-pressed Vintage brand is made in Danlí, Honduras, at the former factory of U.S. Cigar Sales Inc., which was a subsidiary of UST that was transferred in 2004 to Swedish Match AB, the majority owner of General Cigar Holdings Inc. With the deal for U.S. Cigar Sales, the maker of Astral, Helix and other brands, came excess manufacturing capacity and large inventories of tobacco, some of it grown on its own farms in the Talanga Valley of Honduras.
When the cigar boom was in full steam in the mid-'90s, U.S. Cigar Sales had thought its Astral brand would become one of America's largest, so it grew and stockpiled tobacco toward that goal. When that failed to occur, its inventory sat. And aged. Patel found old bales of Honduran-grown broadleaf and Ecuadoran Sumatra and used the old tobacco to create the two versions of his vintage line. Patel found the old tobacco performed much better than the tobacco he was using before.
"We discovered that once you age and cure the tobacco long enough, it solves a lot of problems with the cigars," he says. "The cigar burned perfect. You had that nice white ash with the hot red center."
Patel also cut back on production. Cigar rollers in Central America are notoriously fast, some capable of making 400 or even 500 in a day. That seldom leaves room for superior craftsmanship.
"We slowed down the number of cigars they could make," he says, saying the new daily limit is 250. The tobaccos in the vintage cigars are laid out in accordion fashion, the filler leaves folded into a pattern vaguely resembling an "S" when looked at from the side. Before, they were booked, simply put on top of one another. Booking is faster but creates a cigar prone to draw problems if packed too tightly with tobacco. To combat draw problems resulting from booking, cigarmakers limit the tobacco in each cigar. But Patel wanted his new cigars packed fuller.
The success of the Vintage line has been good for the Indian Tabac brand, which Patel had planned on phasing out of retail shops and selling only through catalogs. (After starting the change, he said retailers began to ask for the cigars again, so Indian Tabacs are still in stores.) And the quality of his Vintage cigars has enabled him to improve production of Indian Tabac, which is made in Honduras in a joint venture with Nestor Plasencia. Plasencia recently pleased the ever-angling Patel by shifting Indian Tabacs from an older factory to a far nicer one once owned by Swisher International Inc.
Patel's original Indian Tabac brand has nothing to do with his heritage (he was born in India, and his real first name is Rakesh) but everything to do with the on-again-off-again Indian Motorcycle brand. Patel, who owns the Indian Tabac Cigar Co. with a silent partner, has to pay Indian Motorcycle a licensing fee on the brand.
Indian Tabac is a survivor of the cigar boom, a brand that debuted in the heady days when cigar stores were desperate for product and cigarmakers were chronically short. Patel, an entertainment and product liability lawyer turned cigar salesman, had a cigar-smoking girlfriend who "made me join the Grand Havana Room," in Beverly Hills, says Patel. He went to his first cigar trade show in 1996 and was mobbed for business.
"We made our booth in a garage, a big hand with a cigar," he remembers. People came up to the booth with valises stuffed with cash, ordering by the hundreds of boxes.
Any brand would sell in those days, but Patel steeped himself in the business. "At that time I really didn't know that much about tobacco," he says. "I went to Honduras, smoked blends. Pretty soon I realized it was a pretty elite group that held the top materials. You have to have a lot of tobacco to get that top tobacco."
In the years after the cigar boom, Patel honed his chops, making sure his company lasted while others around it died by the scores.
Patel is a born salesman. He sold china and cutlery door-to-door in high school, participated in Junior Achievement, sold grapefruit by the case and raised money in college for muscular dystrophy research. He moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, as a teenager, where he developed a lifelong love of the Packers to rival that of born Cheeseheads. (In one proud moment he presented members of the team with his cigars.)
Putting his name on a cigar was hard. "I didn't want to be egotistical," he says. "I was very insecure about releasing my name in the marketplace." Perhaps by way of modesty, Patel refers to the brand as the "RP."
Patel's current obsession is with the tobaccos going into those cigars, which have quickly become a bigger hit in one year than his Indian Tabacs did in nearly 10, taking top scores in several issues of Cigar Aficionado.
Back in Arizona, he calls his right-hand man in Honduras, Jesus Fuego, saying that he wants him to reject any cigar that blisters as it burns. He's obsessed with longer fermentation and aging, trying to eliminate burn problems and the off flavors that come from under-worked tobacco.
Patel is just as demanding away from the job. Earlier that day, a mishit drive on the golf course eats at him, and he stands on the tee box long after his shot repeating his swing, looking to fix the error. Later, over lunch at an eclectic Chinese joint in Scottsdale, he calls for trays of condiments from the kitchen and instructs a fellow diner in how to improve the taste of a rice dish by adding copious amounts of vinegar, soy and hot sauce. "I'm a perfectionist," he says with a smile. "This is why I'm still single. I go to win, not just play. The cigar business is the same thing: acquiring the best leaf, creating the best packaging—it's constantly on my mind."
Patel loves the business and can opine at great length about the differences between tobaccos in, say, Nicaragua. "Jalapa ligero has better fragrance than Estelí ligero," he says. His greatest joy is test-smoking blends—he says he went through more than 100 before settling on the final taste of the Vintage.
It's near midnight now in Scottsdale, three hours since Patel's event has concluded. He reflects while smoking a Vintage, overlooking Camelback Mountain. The evening meal is done; half a glass of an Australian Barossa sits beside him.
"The problem with practicing law was it was like taking a final exam all day long. You're always stressed. In this business I'm always thinking about cigars and how to make them better—but I'm excited about it."
Two men from the next table come over to bum a light for their cigars. When they learn that they are talking to the man who makes the very cigar that he is smoking, they smile excitedly and shake his hand. Patel is back into work mode, offering each a smoke and a quick rundown of the blend and the taste they should expect. Patel has reached two more smokers on his never-ending road trip to put one of his cigars into everyone's hand.