a 34-year-old Cuban-American with a degree in international business and marketing from American University, opened his first “A Little Taste of Cuba” smoke shop in Princeton, N.J. in 1995. It specializes in boutique, super-premium, limited-production, and specialty cigars, plus pipes, pipe tobaccos, and cigarettes. The business is still headquartered in Princeton, with a second shop in New Hope, Pa. With typical Cuban love for his homeland, he created a totally Cuban environment in the stores. He is a devotee of Cuban art, which he also sells over the Internet. But tobacco stores were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
In the 12 years since, Armenteros has spent perhaps as much as $1 million worth of his time, money, and energy on his passion. Why? He did it for us all.
His masterstroke of a dream became reality in 2006. It is one of the most ambitious projects I know of in the tobacco world: he founded the Tobacconist University (“TU”), an open-source “virtual university” at www.tobacconistuniversity.org.
In 15 years of writing for Smokeshop, I cannot recall a person who burns as white-hot as Armenteros. His mission consumes him; true vision guides him. His creation has the potential to create a social movement within our industry that could change its course of history.
The academic curriculum is designed to elevate the professionalism of tobacconists, consequently enhancing their value to their clientele. Structured around the concept of a physical university, the virtual campus is divided into four colleges.
Tobacco College teaches the basics and advanced study of tobacco and cigars - botanical characteristics, cultivation, processing of leaf, and the production of cigars. Pipe tobacco and cigarettes are currently given cursory coverage, with much more to be added. The Tobacco Accoutrements College takes the student through all the accessories associated with cigars - cutters, lighters, cases, humidors, and more. The Taste College is intended to improve one’s in-depth ability to evaluate luxury tobacco performance: flavor, taste, and aroma. The newly created Service College is gathering information and resources, and promises to become of greatest benefit to tobacconists, designed to increase their awareness of the things that can make a shop more profitable. Its lesson on security even includes the video of an actual $400+ shoplifting in A Little Taste of Cuba!
The lack of a keyword/keyphrase search function slows navigation on the complex site, but soon, one browses more surely. Armenteros, a prolific writer, keeps busy endlessly adding material. He is also an accomplished writer, presenting interesting, understandable, logically ordered narratives, totally lacking in typos or other gaffes. More importantly, he is objective, unbiased, and open-minded - crucial attributes in academic textbooks. “We are currently adding paid researchers to our staff, so the material won’t all have my stamp on it,” Armenteros says. “TU researches, analyzes, and educates from many sources, not just from one pontificating source.” Contributions from these researchers, as well as alumni, students, and other interested parties, will surely swell the site’s material. For example, how long before the 400-word glossary morphs into a “Tobakopedia?”
The Service College may well emerge as the premier school. Armenteros has contributed the bulk of all the lessons in the University’s program so far. But, he predicts most of the material in the Service College will be contributed by successful industry professionals - credible retailers, manufacturers, and their sales personnel, tobacco producers, agronomists, and others. According to Armenteros, “Manufacturers’ sales forces, making sales rounds, see what successful retailers are doing, and can contribute it to the Service College’s curriculum, to educate retailers in general. We believe one of the strongest benefits to us all is that sharing knowledge will strengthen the entire industry, in a time when we need solidarity desperately. By raising the standards of our professionalism, we will not only be able to be of greater value to ever-more-knowledgeable customers, but we will also project a more respectable stature in the eyes of the community.”
On the quest to become a Certified Retail Tobacconist (CRT), the student begins with the completion of 500 hours of supervised apprenticeship for new employees and owners of smoke shops, to prepare them for the university study. The student studies at his own computer, utilizing lessons and teaching aids like videos, books, and other collateral resources. Upon completion of study, a Certified Salesforce Tobacconist (CST) hand-delivers a final examination and monitors the student’s taking of it. Certification of both CRT and CST candidates requires a score of at least 90% on the 100-question final exam. The exam is sealed and forwarded to TU, where it is graded. Integral to the process is the candidate’s formal acceptance of the TU Code of Ethics and Standards. One soon realizes this is a substantial academic and practical endeavor, and that Armenteros takes the code seriously.
Smoke shops with CRT employees can post the TU logo in the store, and CRTs wear lapel pins, to identify their status. CST graduates may mentor or counsel the CRTs, which builds relationships with them. These CSTs have a higher standard of education, including continued study, and since they are drawn from the supplier ranks, will assume leadership roles and responsibilities.
“Both CRT and CST Certification requires passing the final exam,” explains Armenteros. “It focuses on fundamentals, which include broad knowledge, e.g., pipe tobacco blending, hands-on experience, etc. A CMT program will give growth opportunities and create more value for our alumni. Like almost everything else we do, the future of CMT will be determined by other Certified Tobacconists.”
The Certified Consumer Tobacconist curriculum is an innovative idea for smokers and others who do not own or work at a smoke shop, but who want to bolster their love of the leaf with no-BS savvy, especially handy in the online mud-wrestling cigar forums. Its tailored curriculum includes enrollment in the Tobacco, Tobacco Accoutrements, and Taste Colleges, omitting the retailer-relevant Service College.
Another certification exists, called the Certified Master Tobacconist. Armenteros alone fills that slot. But this isn’t elitism. “Currently, we are developing standards for the first generation of new CMTs,” he says. “It will involve somewhere between 40 and 100 verifiable hours with a cigar/pipe maker, who signs off on them. The course itself will be free as well, and is offered to any CRT or CST. The course content will be contributed by CMTs, and possibly password protected for CMTs only. We want to create more value for tobacconists, so CMTs will have special privileges.”
TU’s quantum leap in stature and credibility occurred recently, when the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) logo appeared on the TU site. In explaining the new relationship, TU’s site states, “As our Exclusive Organizational Partner, TU acts as the IPCPR’s Official Curriculum Resource for Professional Tobacconists. Together, TU and the IPCPR bring free Education and Certification to the world’s greatest Tobacconists: IPCPR members. By supporting, educating, and promoting Retail Tobacconists, we are ‘Preserving Luxury Tobacco For Generations To Come.’ ”
IPCPR’s legislative director Chris McCalla adds, “I can’t say enough about TU. It’s a fantastic concept. We’re excited to be the Organizational Partner with Jorge, and we see nothing but tremendous benefits for IPCPR members.”
A visitor to TU will soon realize the sheer depth and breadth therein, following hours of navigation through only a portion of it. It is all accessible, right there in front of him: no advertising, no passwords, no registration, no e-mail promotions - just knowledge. After digging into seemingly endless lessons, resource references, videos, and more, the awakening comes: TU’s classroom doors are wide open, with no charge or obligation. Even testing and CRT certification are free to all IPCPR tobacconists. For others, the CST-delivered exam and certification cost $250. These CSTs, drawn from the industry side, are accountable to TU, and derive no competitive or financial gain. “The long-term intent,” Armenteros explains, “is to establish and maintain a bonding relationship between a CRT and his CST that is built on personal attention and perhaps mentoring - altruistic moments, if you will - as the CST continues to grow himself. We will encourage these CSTs to continue in their studies, especially in the Service College, one of the four curricula and certifications offered. Though still in development, it is already gathering and publishing useful business-success education for tobacconists.”
Princeton, N.J.-based tobacco retailer and Tobacconist University founder Jorge Armenteros has developed a comprehensive training and accreditation program for professional tobacconists.
Do you, the reader, foresee the tobacco brotherhood that this can engender? In an industry under siege - overtaxed, over-regulated, and socially condemned - here is a solid opportunity to “hang together,” as Benjamin Franklin said. As McCalla states, “Think how much more effective a Certified tobacconist (or consumer) could be as a courtroom witness, or face-to-face with his representative, or speaking before his state legislature or even Congress. They would have the substance as professionals to make our case. I’m looking forward to taking the course myself.”
A look at the lessons will also confirm there is real substance to the curriculum and certificate of proficiency. It’s impossible to give even a cursory rundown of the courses, much less the lessons. Once one dives into TU, he will be amazed. Yes, amazed: one can get so intrigued that time flies, as he peers into something like Cigar Myths (yep, the virgins’ thighs heads the list, sadly, lacking a video). Next, he may skip to Benjamin Franklin’s “13 Virtues,” an inspirational and motivational nomograph that is posted in the Service College. It provides insight into Franklin, Armenteros’ personal code of living, and one’s own self. Many of the videos are provided by manufacturers, and give viewers the opportunity to witness processes he might never see in person, on plantations, Central American cigar factories, and elsewhere.
One who pursues certification can spend as much time studying as he wishes. Armenteros says the average is two months, but many take longer, slipping their studies into busy schedules. Over 100 tobacconists are now Certified Retail Tobacconists or taking the course, since its virtual doors swung open in 2006. McCalla and other interviewees see a torrent of enrollments on the horizon. He says, “Even veteran tobacconists can learn something from the curriculum. And, what about the new employee, who now can stand before customers and say, ‘I’m a Certified Retail Tobacconist...may I help you?’ Customers seeing the IPCPR and TU logos in a shop feel more comfortable, knowing they’re getting accurate info about the cigar he’s ready to purchase. And, for new shop owners, it can help bring them up to speed.”
Before the student for CRT certification can actually enroll at TU, he must complete 500 hours of apprenticeship at a retail shop. As Armenteros explains, “We want our students to succeed in becoming certified. A brand-new shop employee needs the practical experience in the back room, on the floor, and elsewhere, before starting in the books.
“CSTs earn their 500 hours of apprenticeship credit by serving their CRTs. We say CSTs are always apprenticing, and by servicing, they gain in knowledge and leadership capacity.”
Kathryn Bellando is the other member of TU’s full-time staff. As academic administrator, she handles seminar scheduling, content development, and everything else. “Ours is a huge endeavor,” Armenteros notes, “Right now she is working on video editing and production.”
Bellando also helps tobacconists become certified. “If a tobacconist fails the exam, Kate re-teaches everything he missed via e-mail,” Aermenteros explains. “She follows up by phone, testing them orally on questions they missed. We can ensure they know the material, so they receive certification without relaxing our standards. This is costly, but well worth the effort, long term. So, we actually stay with students until they get through.”
Embraced by Established Shops
Ezra Countiss III, a CRT at Titan Cigar Company (Gambrills, Md.), shared his views and experiences with TU. He laughed when asked what he got out of it, saying, “A whole pile of knowledge!” Countiss and John Vanore are both CRTs at the shop, owned by Dick Williams. “Back when Jorge began, no standard existed for ethics, uniformity in terminology, or benchmark for professionalism,” he says. “Now, with IPCPR recognition, TU should explode. Another of our tobacconists taking the CRT course now, and a new employee serving his apprenticeship. Our knowledgeable customers respect the fact we took the initiative to become certified, and that we speak fact, not myth and romance.”
Countiss sees another benefit for TU alumni. “In my area, we now have the beginnings of a local chapter among our national brotherhood of the leaf. Georgetown Tobacco recently earned CRT status, and we recommended TU to Broadleaf Tobacco in Serena Park, Md,. who also is enrolling,” says Countiss. “We can now counsel, help, and work with each other. It’s a whole new way of networking.”
Kevin Baxter, a CRT with Outlaw Cigar Company, Kansas City, Miss., added, “TU teaches everything from A to Z to anyone involved in tobacco, even veteran tobacconists. I highly recommend it. And, the certification standards are rigorous, so serious study is required to pass the exam. Jorge had far vision when he created TU, and continues to come up with new ideas for the university. It’s only going to get better.”
What else does TU offer? Plenty. Armenteros has opened the President’s Blog, the response is gaining steam, and it promises to be another epochal change for us all…an open forum for free interchange of ideas among tobacconists and others. Listening, as Armenteros talks rapid-fire about his plans and concepts for TU, one can see true genius. At present, TU is the largest single-source informational and educational tobacco site in existence. Just scan the companies who have tobacconists in the program (click on “Certified Tobacconists”) to see the number and caliber of those that think TU is what the industry needs. And, as Armenteros states the obvious: “TU is anything but completed…it’s just getting started.”