Big Changes at El Credito Cigars

El Credito Cigars, the Miami cigar factory where the non-Cuban La Gloria Cubana was born, is being converted into a cigar lounge. Yesterday, eight of the 10 cigarmakers on staff were released, leaving only two cigar rollers employed. The announcement was made internally to General Cigar Co. and El Credito Cigar employees at five p.m. yesterday.

It's a dramatic change for one of the cigar boom's greatest success stories, which has occupied the site for 42 years.

General Cigar Co. said the change is intended to make El Credito more of a cigar lounge and brand showcase. "We're putting less emphasis on production and more on the overall brand experience," said a spokesperson for General Cigar this morning. The new site will have far more seating than before, televisions and coffee. Cigars will be for sale, as they are now.

Opened in 1968 on Miami's historic Calle Ocho, near the corner of SW 11th Avenue, El Credito sold inexpensive cigars to locals and was virtually unknown before an article in the third issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine (complete with high ratings for the exceptionally value-priced cigars) sent demand for the bold smokes into the stratosphere. Smoking a La Gloria Cubana became the mission of many cigar smokers, causing production to boom. At its peak production, in 1996, the El Credito Factory had 30 rollers, and produced about 1.2 million cigars, 80 percent of them La Gloria Cubanas. Cigar smokers would wait in line before the factory opened hoping for a chance to buy cigars, and the phone rang incessantly.

Then owner Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr. expanded to the Dominican Republic, making the La Gloria almost six times as large, before he sold his company to Swedish Match AB in 1999 for an estimated $40 million. (General Cigar is also a subsidiary of Swedish Match.) He kept making cigars in Miami, and in 2008 he created a special, premium-priced La Gloria rolled only in Miami and called it La Gloria Cubana Artesanos de Miami. Perez-Carrillo left General in March 2009.

"It's definitely a sad day, not only for myself but for everyone that worked here," said Perez-Carrillo, who has moved on to make his own cigars and has no current connection with El Credito. "But they're the owners and they know what's best for the company as a whole. In reality, it's sad, because this is something that is very close to my heart."

This move means a change to the Artesanos de Miami brand. Now most of those cigars will be rolled at General Cigar's facility in Santiago, Dominican Republic. The two remaining workers at El Credito will roll the rest.

The name of the site will remain El Credito Cigars. The two remaining rollers are working in the present space, and General hopes to have the new lounge ready "in the coming weeks."