At just 28 years old, Kyle Gellis, owner of Florida-based Warped Cigars, is one of the youngest brand owners in the cigar industry. He works with El Titan de Bronze cigar factory in Miami as well as Tabacos Valle de Jalapa S.A. (TABSA) in Nicaragua to produce brands like Maestro del Tiempo, La Colmena, Flor del Valle and Futuro. Gellis started Warped in 2009 while he was still a college student, studying marketing. His company has slowly grown since then and now makes an estimated 115,000 to 200,000 a year, despite the fact that he eschews the hiring of sales reps.
He sat down with associate editor Andrew Nagy to talk about his company and his plans to navigate the regulations imposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Andrew Nagy: Cubanesque is a word that gets used a lot in the industry. How does Cuba influence what you do?
Kyle Gellis: Size, body, flavor profiles, the lack of spice in them. My first cigar was given to me by my father and it was a Montecristo No. 2. I'm looking for that smoothness, that toned down spice. In today's market, there's a lot of power. A lot of black pepper. You have all these components that are just smacking your palate, but you're not picking up on the nuances. I never want to make anything that I can't go 10 years in the future and it would be out of trend.
Q: What is your approach with ligero? Do your cigars even contain ligero?
A: Very little, maybe a leaf. Very small amounts to give it what it needs, but not overpowering.
Q: So when you first came into the industry, was there anybody you looked up to?
A: I learned from my father that if a cigar doesn't "wow" you in the first eighth-of-an-inch, you're going to lose the person usually. When I first started, more or less I was learning on my own. But when I went to El Titan de Bronze, Willy [Herrera] was there, so I learned from him. I also learned from the rollers and the factory manager. And then a lot of my recent years have come from my Aganorsa and TABSA family.
Q: How often will you go down to Nicaragua?
A: Every eight to 10 weeks. I won't go three months without going.
Q: How long will you be down there for usually?
A: Sometimes it will be hyper trips: I'll land on a Monday and leave on Wednesday. Sometimes I'm there for a week. It just really depends on what needs to get done. Sometimes it's checking up on a blend or going to the fields and looking at the tobacco. I'm doing all these different things to make sure the quality and consistency that people have become accustomed to with Warped remain.
Q: Were you planning on ever going into marketing?
A: No. In all honesty I was not a very good college student. I was not book smart because I was always traveling back and forth to El Titan de Bronze.
Q: When you went to your first [IPCPR] show, what brands did you exhibit?
A: Flor de Valle, El Oso and La Colmena. And that was it. All made at El Titan and then the one [Flor de Valle] out of TABSA. I was actually introduced to TABSA through El Titan, because I couldn't keep making Miami product at $14, $15 price points. I needed a cigar that was more affordable.
Q: You were so new in 2009. Was it a challenge?
A: I came in with three brands, and I came in with the right people. Everyone was trying to work with El Titan de Bronze at that time. I'm really proud that we make our product there because it's pretty much the last factory in Little Havana.
Q: Currently, the demographics of cigar consumers skews older. With you being a younger guy, do you feel a responsibility to turn younger people onto cigars?
A: Yes, absolutely. I need to make sure that my generation carries on with this industry. The older consumer is very difficult to switch to your product. So for my brand, although we cater to a very large demographic, we do notice that a lot of our enthusiasts are between 21 and 38. I feel like they can really grab on to the brand and relate to it. Especially with the craft movement that we have now with beer and spirits and American-made. I'm pretty sure that most young men who are coming of age are going to have a cigar at some point, but they don't really know what it means, and so we want to show them the lifestyle that goes along with it. Taking the moment out of the day to relax and enjoy what you're doing.
Q: Remind them that you can sit down for an hour...
A: ... and not look at your phone. Sure you can have a TV on in the backdrop or whatever, but for the most part, you know, one of the great things I like about doing the events is you get to talk to people from all walks of life. And learn about their lives and what cigars mean to them.
Q: From your website to packaging, there seems to be a lot of transparency in how you present your products.
A: There's nothing to hide. You know, one thing I love about El Titan de Bronze is you can walk in the front door and see everything. For us, there's no point in hiding anything. I want you to see the rollers, the molds and show you the process of blending. To me that's part of the experience. Especially if you go back to the craft aspect of it.
Q: Your blends are distinct from one another in terms of flavor profile. Is this by design?
A: It's organic. It goes by available material. When I'm sifting through tobacco and I see something from say, "Lot 3." I'll pull that, and then I'll pull something else and I'll play that way.
Q: Did you think that the premium industry was missing something?
A: Yes. I did. I wanted a true Cubanesque aspect, and I didn't taste it. Not by my palate. And I wanted to keep the romantic aspect of the cigar industry alive, but warp it into the new world. If I don't find what I want, I'll make it.
Q: With your marketing background, you obviously use social media. What's your strategy?
A: We grew a lot from Instagram. It's a visualization. People on Instagram don't want to read the content on it. They want to look at a visual and go from there. You show your seeds, the factories, what you're smoking. We do blog posts about how we validate cigars when shipments come in. We show all that, and that's the kind of content that we create. Visualization is the way to do it.
Q: With the FDA, what is your gameplan?
A: So we have no pre-2007 brands. We don't really have the paperwork for registering yet, nor the cost associations or a lab to do it with. No one really knows the cost for the labs yet. We are trying to find labs that will give you a straight answer, because I think the labs are quickly realizing that they have a very good opportunity to make a little bit of money. We're still trying to find it.
Q: So you're shopping around for labs?
A: You have to find out where you lie. We are waiting. We've registered the brand itself with the FDA. We've submitted sizes and imagery, all that stuff. We had to do a health document submission. The next thing is the warning plan submissions, advertising plans. Photography alone, we had to take photos of every brand the way a consumer sees it. The FDA is constantly changing what they are asking for. Our strategy is to wait until we have all the information. We still don't know the cost associations. The cost to submit for Substantial Equivalence is not much. It's the testing that we don't know. We are in the air right now.
This article first appeared in the March 21 edition of Cigar Insider.