"Here," says the cigar company president, handing a box-pressed robusto to a cigar-smoking visitor. "When you get tired of that thing, smoke a real cigar."
Meet Nick Perdomo Jr., the 36-year-old owner of south Florida's Tabacalera Perdomo. Unlike most cigarmakers, who are soft-spoken men who use reserved, respectful tones when talking about the competition, Perdomo is…different. A selection of typical Perdomo quotes:
Competitor A "wouldn't know tobacco if it hit him in the side of the head." Competitor B "is cheap. He's a quantity guy, not a quality guy." Competitor C? "They just throw anything in there."
Perdomo is an opinionated man. One imagines that he has a tongue without any scars -- he hasn't bit it in years. But his remarks can't detract from his skills. He makes a great cigar.
On the Pan American highway in Estelí, Nicaragua, the winding artery that connects the Central American country to Honduras in the north and Costa Rica in the south, sits Tabacalera Perdomo's new cigar factory. It's hard to miss, bright and colorful in a town defined by drab, smaller buildings. The factory is the staging point for a host of cigars: Perdomo Reserve, La Tradicion Cabinet Series, Dos Rios, Inmenso, Cuban Bullet, the cleverly named Perdomo2 line of squared cigars, and the C.A.O. L'Anniversaire line, one of the hottest cigar brands in America.
Perdomo is hell-bent on pushing his high-end, premium brands, but as a good businessman he can't resist a profitable opportunity. He makes flavored cigars in a corner of his factory for cataloguer Thompson & Co., and recently began making "Genuine Counterfeit Cuban Cigars" for 800-JR Cigars Inc. The intentional fugazies, which retail for about $50 to $60 a box, are made from Ecuadoran, Honduran and Nicaraguan tobaccos and are banded with a copy of the Cuban seal of guarantee, with the word "Counterfeit!" stamped over it in bright red ink. Next up is something even more ridiculous, "Genuine Counterfeit Pre-Castro Cuban Cigars." There's nothing Cuban about those cigars, either.
The combination of low-end and high-end cigars, some retailing for $12 or more, has turned Tabacalera Perdomo into a growing powerhouse in the cigar industry, one that has thrived despite the end of the cigar boom. Sitting at his spacious desk in his Miami Lakes, Florida, headquarters, Perdomo takes out a calculator (which sports a "stolen from Nick Perdomo" label) and sorts through a stack of documents from Nicaragua. He says his 622 workers in Central America and another 24 in the United States should make more than 10 million cigars in 2001.
Perdomo is a big man, heavyset with a round, cherubic face. He recently shaved a neatly trimmed goatee, which was mostly gray. One of his office walls is covered by signed photographs of sports legends such as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. An electronic drum and a guitar sit in the office -- he used to play in a band. A plaque featuring a Ronald Reagan quote is placed at the desk's edge, turned outward so that visitors can't miss it. It reads: "There's no limit to what a man can do, or where he can go, if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."
"Nick is a genius," says an admiring Cano A. Ozgener, president of C.A.O. International Inc. of Nashville, Tennessee. "He has achieved so much in such a short time."
One of Perdomo's best deals came from taking a call from Ozgener at two o'clock one morning. It was April 1999. His cell phone rang, getting him out of bed. His brother-in-law, Perdomo vice president Michael Argenti, was on the line from Dallas. He wanted Perdomo to speak to Ozgener. Perdomo stood on his balcony, clad in his underwear, to get a stronger signal.
Ozgener was in a bit of a bind. He had a hot cigar brand on his hands called C.A.O. L'Anniversaire, a box-pressed maduro with a broadleaf wrapper and a red band that mimicked the distinctive Partagas Serie D No. 4 from Cuba. The cigars had been made by "Don" Douglas S. Pueringer at Tabacalera Tambor S.A. in Costa Rica, the factory best known for making Bahias. And that was the source of the problem.
Pueringer was kicking Ozgener out, ceasing production of the brand to concentrate solely on Bahia cigars. It was four months to the big industry trade show, and Ozgener had a cigar brand without a cigarmaker.
"Everyone wanted to make cigars for us," says Ozgener. "We had two finalists." Each company made a batch of cigars, which Ozgener and his family passed out to tobacconists to pick the winner. "Everybody picked manufacturer B," says Ozgener. Manufacturer B was Perdomo, and Ozgener recalls that 85 percent preferred the Perdomo blend. "So," says Ozgener, "the choice to us was very clear."
Ozgener loved the blend, which has done well in cigar shops and in blind tastings. Perdomo's version of the C.A.O. L'Anniversaire has received several high scores in Cigar Aficionado, and a recent retailer poll by Cigar Insider, the magazine's sister publication, ranked the cigar as the fifth hottest brand in America. Ozgener was less enamored of the price.
"He didn't like my price," says Perdomo, who has a reputation for charging dearly for his work. "In Costa Rica, the prices are higher," says Ozgener. "In Nicaragua, we expected the prices to be lower. They were equivalent."
Perdomo makes no apologies for charging what he does, and he owns one of the few cigar companies in America that seems to have no problem selling cigars at high prices. Many of his popular cigars sell north of $7 each, while big competitors as well as boutique cigarmakers flock to release new cigars with suggested retail prices of less than $5. Perdomo claims he has the most trouble selling his least expensive cigars. And he says his production costs aren't cheap.
"I pay triple what other people pay in Nicaragua," he says, a claim hotly contested by other Nicaraguan cigarmakers. His tobacco certainly costs more than two of his big neighbors, the Plasencias and the Padróns, as both of the competing companies own some of their own tobacco fields, while Perdomo buys tobacco from outside vendors, most notably the Perez family of ASP Enterprises Inc., who grows tobacco in Estelí. But no matter what price he is paying or not paying, consumers have certainly developed a taste for his cigars.
Long before he began turning tobacco leaves into profits, Nick Perdomo made his living sitting in an air traffic controller seat near Miami International Airport, ensuring that interweaving 747s maneuvered safely through the crowded south Florida airspace. The high-pressure seat had been his home since age 18, first in the Navy, then in Miami.
When he was 26, Perdomo decided that he wanted to own a cigar factory. His father and grandfather had worked in the Cuban cigar industry, after Perdomo's great-grandfather emigrated from Italy to Cuba, settling in San Jose, about 32 miles west of Havana. All Nick Perdomo knew about cigars was that he enjoyed smoking them. In August 1992 Perdomo opened his own cigar company in Miami, naming it Nick's Cigar Co.
It looked like a horrible time to start a cigar factory. Cigar sales were slow. "My whole family said I was crazy," he says. But he wasn't stupid. Hedging his bet, he kept his $75,000-a-year job as an air traffic controller, and moonlighted at his own company. (Perdomo is the second air traffic controller to make a big name in the cigar business. The first, Kevin Doyle of Caribbean Cigar Co., is out of the industry.)
It was the most modest of beginnings. Nick's Cigar had three cigar rollers and two cigar packers -- Perdomo and his wife, Janine. They packed the cigars in plywood boxes, lacking money for proper boxes or bands. Armed with a copy of the Yellow Pages, Perdomo dialed cigar stores during his breaks, targeting big-ticket retailers.
"When we first started, we wanted to sell to all the Davidoff white-label merchants," he said, referring to the small number of U.S. retailers allowed to sell Davidoff cigars. "I knew those guys paid their bills."
The schedule was brutal. "I would work from 6:30 to 3:25 at the factory, then I would run to the airport and work from 3:30 to 11:30. I was home just to sleep," Perdomo said in a 1998 Cigar Insider interview. "I did that for about 19 months. I thought I was going to die. I was killing myself."
At the time, most popular cigars were made with Connecticut-shade wrappers and had a mild taste profile. Perdomo couldn't get (and didn't like) Connecticut-shade and wasn't fond of Dominican filler, so he made cigars with Ecuadoran Sumatra wrappers and Central American fillers. "People said, 'You're going the wrong way. You should make a mild cigar,'" he says. "I said, 'Everybody starts with a Budweiser, but eventually they go to a Heineken.'" The blends gave his cigars a distinctive look and flavor. He was building a following among aficionados of fuller-flavored cigars.
"I go against the grain," he says. Robustos have long been the best-selling cigar size in America, but Perdomo sells more figurados than anything else. (His rollers are particularly skilled at making the Montecristo No. 2 size.) Now that dark, box-pressed cigars are the rage, he's releasing a rounded Connecticut-shade cigar called Cuban Parejo, a real departure. (The cigar is also available with other wrappers.)
One of his earliest successes was his La Tradición Cabinet Series Perdomo Reserve, a strong cigar brand that averaged 90.4 points in a 1998 Cigar Insider vertical brand tasting, one of the year's best brand averages. The cigars featured dark, oily wrappers. Critics said they were too dark and oily, and were painted, a charge that rankles Perdomo.
"That bugs the shit out of me," he says. The look, he says, comes from leaves grown at the top of a plant, which have the most oils and resins. He says he sprays his wrappers with a mixture of water steeped in tobacco resins, then applies heat to bring the most out of tobacco. Why does Perdomo think he draws the charges of paint? "Your competition always wants to kill you," he says. "I'm the young guy on the block; I've been pretty successful in a short amount of time, and they don't like it."
By 1995, Perdomo's three-year-old Miami factory was strained to capacity, and he was back-ordered on some of his brands. Unable to expand in his hometown due to a lack of cigar rollers, he opened a cigar factory in 1997 in Ybor City, the historic part of Tampa, Florida, that was once the cigar-making capital of the United States. The factory didn't work.
Sales were climbing, but profits remained slim. Perdomo was so poor that in 1994 his company had only $13 in the bank. "I was so broke it was unbelievable," he says. Making cigars in the United States was the problem. "I never made money during the cigar boom. I made cigars in Miami, and we were making $2.50 on a box of cigars," he says. "Sometimes I was paying $1 per cigar for labor. It was crazy."
In 1995 Perdomo opened his first cigar factory in Nicaragua, on a small street in Estelí. He outgrew the cramped site almost immediately, and abandoned it for a larger factory, which he built to his specifications, in 1999. Now, he says, the new factory needs expanding -- or a second, sister factory to accommodate his rising orders. Perdomo goes through cigar factories like three-year-olds go through long pants.
"My father, five years ago, went to Nicaragua, and that was our saving grace," says Perdomo. Nick Perdomo Sr., a heavier, tougher looking version of his son, lives in Nicaragua year-round, watching over the factory along with Nick's uncle, Antonio Perdomo. A bullet-scarred man with a penchant for firearms, Nick Sr. occasionally straps on a pair of holsters in his office and walks around with loaded .45s. The 64-year-old has been in his share of scrapes, including a car accident in Nicaragua in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch that nearly cost him the use of his legs. His right arm is still impaired from the accident.
At Tabacalera Perdomo, errant cigar rollers aren't shot, but are sentenced to 10 days on the street without pay. Perdomo Sr. has quality-control people prowling the floor, who ensure that the rollers use the intended ingredients, among other things.
"Ligero is thick," Perdomo Jr. says, referring to the heaviest variety of filler tobacco. "It slows a roller down. It's like shoe leather. They like to throw it in the scrap tobacco heap."
Opening a factory in Nicaragua has been a huge success. The country has everything the Perdomos wanted: a large, inexpensive, capable workforce, a supply of flavorful, high-quality filler tobacco and room to grow.
It's been a busy couple of years for Perdomo. In addition to opening the new Nicaraguan factory, he recently moved into a new headquarters and home, all while releasing a slew of new cigar brands. "He knows how to handle five things in the air at the same time," says Ozgener. "He bought a house, he bought a new office, a warehouse, he built a new factory, and he made new blends for us. A normal person would have been happy to do one of those things. It makes me tired watching him."
Perdomo is sitting in the dining room of Shula's Steak House, a Miami Lakes restaurant festooned with the likeness of the legendary Dolphins coach. The menu comes painted on a football; finish the monstrous 48-ounce porterhouse and you earn a spot on the wall. Perdomo hasn't made the list. Today's lunch was a comparatively modest sirloin and salad, which he's following with a Perdomo Estate Selecci;oacute;n, corona gorda size. "This is like our baby, this cigar," he says. "I'm proud of what we've done." He puffs on the dark, strong cigar. The rich aroma of Nicaraguan tobacco slips into the air, at home in the dark, clubby dining room. "Now we've broken into the club," he says. "I've always thought I had something to prove, because I'm extremely competitive by nature."
The days of pinching every penny are clearly behind him. A thick ring on his right hand spells out his name in gold, and he wears a Rolex Steel Daytona on his left wrist. It's one of 60 watches he owns.
"I lead by being paranoid, not by sitting back. I'm never comfortable," Perdomo says. He is still searching for that breakout, company-owned brand that will match the success of the cigar he makes for C.A.O. He's tireless when it comes to promoting his brands, grassroots style. He's a big believer in rolling events, where he or his brother-in-law, Argenti, will bring a cigarmaker into a smoke shop and talk up the values of Perdomo products. They'll be there, selling cigars one by one. And they'll never miss an opportunity to talk people into dropping what they're smoking in order to try a Perdomo.