The Cigar Crusader
Most Americans make their first visit to the marbled steps of Washington, D.C., as a child, perhaps as part of a school trip to visit the presidential monuments or on a family vacation to smell the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Jeff Borysiewicz, the founder and president of Corona Cigar Co., didn’t go to his nation’s capital until he was 37 years old, when he found himself in a dogfight to save his cigar company.
“I almost lost everything,” says Borysiewicz, a dark-haired, 42-year-old with a square build and the thick forearms of a working man. He built his business from scratch, maxing out a pair of credit cards and taking bank loans on a car and a boat to finance it. Today he’s one of the most prominent cigar retailers in the United States, with superstores that stock some 2 million cigars representing virtually every premium cigar brand on the market. That first trip to Washington came because he was at risk of losing the business.
“It was 2007. I was building the downtown store—the most expensive store I ever did,” he says. “The construction company started digging the footers, and here comes SCHIP.”
SCHIP is the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, a piece of legislation intended to help provide health care for uninsured children. It gets its funding through increased tobacco taxes. The first draft of the bill called for a tax of up to $10 per cigar, and a provision, known as a floor tax, that would have made retailers pay the tax on every cigar in their inventory. Borysiewicz, whose business model was built on large inventory, would have been ruined.
The bankers funding Borysiewicz’s new construction loan got an immediate case of cold feet. “The bank calls, wants to pull the loan,” says Borysiewicz. “I’m on the hook for more than $1 million.” It was fear, plain and simple, that put Borysiewicz on a plane to Washington to plead his case.
“I went up there in a panic. It was nothing more than adrenaline—fight or flight.” Cigarmaker Rocky Patel and retailer David Berkebile, the owner of Georgetown Tobacco, were there with him. They met a group of senators: Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Mel Martinez, then a Republican Senator from Florida, as well as staff members from the Senate Finance Committee.
“I had never been to Washington in my life, never got involved in politics,” he says. The trip was a revelation. Borysiewicz not only discovered that the politicians shaping our laws seemed to enjoy hearing directly from the business owners who would be impacted by the laws they made, he also discovered that many of them were completely ignorant of the world of premium cigars and thought that tobacco was simply cigarettes. “They didn’t know the difference between a Marlboro and a Macanudo,” he says in his Orlando headquarters, located on the second floor of his second-largest store. He goes to his cluttered desk—Borysiewicz has two oversized desks in his office, a clean one for meetings and a somewhat messy one with a computer for doing work—and grabs a massive briefcase, which travels with him to D.C. He takes out a few premium, hand-rolled smokes, then brings out packs of machine-made cigars flavored with grape and pipe tobacco. It’s his toolkit, a sample case to demonstrate the differences between the premium cigars—the ones that he sells—and the cheap items resembling cigarettes that are found in convenience stores.
The trip helped. The tax was lowered, the floor tax eliminated and Borysiewicz found new bankers to front his loan and build that grand store. Furthermore, Borysiewicz learned he and his cigar industry colleagues could help transform the SCHIP legislation from a beast that would hobble the premium cigar industry into a mere speed bump.
It lit a spark under Borysiewicz. “I realized the small individual could make a difference,” he says. “I think a lot of people fear politicians, but there’s nothing more powerful than the voice of a constituent. It’s amazing how effective grassroots lobbying can be.”
That first trip led Borysiewicz into a role as a champion of the cigar business. SCHIP pulled the cigar industry closer together, and led to Keith Park and Borysiewicz founding Cigar Rights of America, the consumer organization that stands up for cigar smokers. Today Borysiewicz serves as chairman of the organization. He has gone from D.C. novice to well-traveled Washington hand, with nearly 40 trips over the past six years.
“He’s been a great savior for the entire industry,” says Rocky Patel, who works with Borysiewicz on the CRA legislative committee on what Patel says is a daily basis. “Jeff is not only a great retailer but a heroic fighter for premium cigars,” says Michael Herklots, the manager of the Nat Sherman store in New York City.
Borysiewicz’s current point of focus? HR 1639, the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act of 2011, a resolution aimed at exempting the premium cigar industry from the control of the Food and Drug Administration, which has been given authority over all tobacco products sold in the United States. Thanks to the efforts of Borysiewicz and others, the resolution has 145 sponsors and cosponsors from 34 states in Congress, and on both sides of the aisle.
“He is obsessed with this legislation,” says J. Glynn Loope, executive director of the Cigar Rights of America. “It’s a good thing that Corona Cigar Co. is a well-greased machine, because he’s made this mission his No. 1 job. Every retailer in America owes Jeff a word of thanks. He’s motivated the industry.”
Borysiewicz (the name is daunting on paper, but surprisingly easy to pronounce when you hear it spoken: BORE-suh-wits) has been working hard since he was a young man. He was born in Chicago, and moved to Orlando when he was six. “This is home,” he says. He joined his father in the family auto service center business in Orlando when he was in high school. “I was 15 when I started,” he says. “I worked my way through college. UCF [University of Central Florida] I got a degree in business. The auto business was successful, but we reached a limit to how big that business could get. I wanted to find something that had a long-term plan, a growth opportunity.”
He had a passion for two things: offshore fishing and smoking cigars. “I didn’t think I could take on Bass Pro Shops,” he says with a smirk, “so I decided upon cigars.”
He began smoking cigars in 1992—a friend introduced him to his first—and soon he was puffing on the boom-time brand Cacique. “I would smoke them in the garage while brewing beer, playing poker, fishing,” says Borysiewicz. “We’d split boxes—a box was $30.”
Borysiewicz started studying the cigar market. He went to a Big Smoke Las Vegas in 1995, and heard Carlos Fuente Jr. speak. “That was a real awakening,” he says. In 1996 he began selling cigars via a catalog while sticking with the auto business. The following year he opened an Internet site. His first cigar account was Pedro Martín’s Tropical Tobacco, the maker of the Cacique brand he loved to smoke, along with V Centennial and Don Juan. He then took on Miami Cigar & Co.’s Don Tomás and Astral lines.
When he formed Corona Cigar Co. in 1996, it was a one-man operation. He brought a business plan to the local bank, and it offered a $30,000 loan—if he put up his boat and car as collateral. The business began out of his house, with the auto center serving as headquarters number two, as he carried both jobs. “Cigar reps would show up to the repair shop,” he says. He was the only employee for two years, writing the catalog, ordering the cigars, packing the shipments.
Times were lean, but he made do. It was three years before he took a paycheck. The Corona Cigar logo was done as a barter deal. “I traded an oil change for the logo,” he says with a bit of pride, a thumb pointing at the company’s emblem, a red crown stitched on the breast of his guayabera, the pockets stuffed with cigars. The bank loan proved insufficient, and he had to max out his credit cards to keep things afloat.
It wasn’t the best time to open a cigar business. The late 1990s were the slump after the boom, but Borysiewicz proved adept at making changes. “I grew during the cigar bust,” he says. “Selling, closeouts, hustling.”
In 1998, Borysiewicz moved from his home into his first cigar shop, a modest 1,500-square-foot shop in Ocee, Florida, not far from where he lived. (That location is no longer open.) His big move came when he opened his grand Sand Lake Road Store in 2002. Not far from Universal Studios and Sea World theme parks and the Orlando Convention Center, it is modeled after big-box retailers. Instead of having a walk-in humidor and a separate humidified storage area, he opted to put all of his cigars on display. “I had a lot of inventory,” he says with a shrug. “There’s no sense hiding that shit. I humidified the whole store. It’s like a Disney World of cigars. That’s the way retail has gone—they’re superstores. That’s what consumers want.” Today, with some two million cigars in inventory spread across the three shops, most of them are out on the sales floor.
From the start he wanted his stores to be places to gather, but his blue-collar background didn’t mesh with the fancy image he saw with most upscale cigar bars. “A lot of the cigar clubs that were out there were leather chairs, very fancy. I wanted to cater to everybody where everybody felt welcome. I realized the culture of cigars is not like the culture being displayed in most cigar stores.”
Any cigar lover who walks into a Corona Cigar store—there are three, all in Orlando—is sure to be impressed. Corona Cigar seems to stock everything. Walking around, discussing his selection, Borysiewicz is obviously (and understandably) enamored with the higher-priced items. Borysiewicz sells via mail-order and retail, but does better in his brick-and-mortar shops. He finds the retail customers spend more per cigar.
“If a guy is only going to smoke one cigar a week, he better smoke the best he can afford,” he says. Each shop has a place to sit and smoke: Sand Lake, a 5,000-square-foot store that also doubles as Corona Cigar Co. headquarters, has seats inside and out, and a bar area serving beer, wine and Port. His Heathrow store is 3,500 square feet and has an Avo Lounge.
His pinnacle store is the one in downtown Orlando, on the corner of Orange and Pine, steps from the University of Central Florida and the landmark old Rosie O’Grady’s building.
“This is my favorite store,” he says, walking into the 8,500-square-foot shop, with its Diamond Crown Lounge. Aisles of cigars in open boxes beckon to the visitor. A terra-cotta roof dominates one wall, a fountain sits in the middle of the seating area and the store has a full bar with a particularly strong selection of single-malt whiskies, a newer obsession for Corona Cigar Co. (Borysiewicz’s wife, Tanya, is Scottish, and the two travel frequently to the land of fine whisky.) He also buys Four Roses and Jack Daniel’s by the barrel, picking the yeast strain and proof on the former.
The cocktail bar is delightfully old school: there are no mixers, no simple syrup, only fresh juices and real sugar. “We want to go back to the ‘Mad Men’ era with cocktails and fine cigars,” says Borysiewicz. He orders an Old Fashioned; his visitor opts for a Mojito made with Ron Zacapa. Cigar ashtrays are everywhere—the entire store, naturally, is smoker friendly. Customers sit throughout the store, a group of men watching a baseball game in one area, an executive on his lunch break with a pizza he’s brought in from outside. All have lit cigars. “The idea was to build a place, a mecca, where if you don’t like cigar smoke, you’re in the wrong place.”
The store also stocks rarities in both liquor and cigars. There are pre-embargo Cuban cigars that he sells for a dear price, like old Ramón Allones for $175 each, and old bottles of whiskey from the Prohibition era, some with the doctor’s prescription still attached as well as the admonition “for medicinal purposes only.” Not long ago a customer came into the downtown store, looked at a bottle of vintage Bacardi rum in a gallon jug that was made in Cuba many years ago and bought it, for $15,000.
“If you want to spend $7, we’re glad to do it. You want to spend $7,000, you can do it too,” he says. “If it’s worth having, we’ll have it.”
It’s a big business to run, with 85 employees. All of Borysiewicz’s lobbying work for the CRA has had an effect on Corona. “In the past, all this time I spent on regulations, I spent on my business. It’s expensive to do this.”
He acknowledges he has sacrificed growth for the lobbying, but it’s a fight he knows he has to continue.
Borysiewicz frequently mentions that his fight is a team effort, bringing up the IPCPR, his colleagues at the CRA and such motivated cigarmakers as Rocky Patel, Jorge Padrón, Robert Levin, Litto Gomez, Carlos Fuente Jr., Eric Newman and others who have joined him in the halls of government.
“The industry has gotten a lot better, with more support,” he says. He terms the anti-smoking organizations “the enemy,” and calls them “effective,” and “motivated.” But he also knows they would happily put him out of business for good. “They have a radical agenda—it’s not about trying to tax it, the endgame is to eliminate it.”
Borysiewicz, whom Loope dubs the “quarterback” of the CRA, has a knack for making his speeches persuasive without sounding like a sales pitch. And he’s effective. On April 11, he started an online petition to show the White House how many people were opposed to having the FDA meddle in the premium cigar business. (The original goal was to get 25,000 signatures in a month, a goal that was reached in a mere 15 days.)
One thing that confounded him about smoking rights was the reason that cigarette smokers—who outnumber cigar smokers in America—aren’t fighting with the same passion. He went on a sea cruise, and watched the differing reactions among the smokers in the small smoking area. The cigarette smokers seemed complacent, while the cigar smokers were insulted to have such a lowly space. “Cigarette smokers are always trying to quit—they’re not happy and proud to be cigarette smokers. I realized there’s no passion about cigarettes.”
Borysiewicz feels it’s the passion of cigar smokers like himself that can be the greatest asset in the fight to keep cigars lit in America. “They underestimated the passion people have for cigars,” he says. And his newfound knowledge of American politics has shown him that if you don’t get noticed in Washington, you can get run over.
“Regulating cigars is not a slam dunk,” he says. Like a bulldog that’s clamped onto an opponent, Borysiewicz doesn’t believe in letting go. “You have to make them think—is this worth it?”
Borysiewicz is still optimistic about the long-term future of cigars—and thinks a middle ground can be struck. He’s bet it all on Corona. “Everything is in this business—this is my retirement plan, this is my succession plan,” he says.
“I learned—once I got involved in politics—you can change policy,” says Borysiewicz. “But it’s a lot of work, and it’s never going to happen if you sit back.”