ow old are you?" Rolando Reyes, Sr., asks me in broken English. I have just arrived at his factory on the outskirts of Danli, in southern Honduras.
"Seisenta y cuatro (64)," I answer, in equally fractured Spanish.
His sharp eyes twinkle with mischief. "I've been making cigars that long."
The laugh is on me, who enjoys telling many smokers I've been smoking premium cigars longer than they've been on the planet - forty-two years.
"Don Rolando" Reyes is almost seventy-seven. Wiry, with a flat stomach, he exudes the typical Cuban air of barely-controlled raw energy. Warm, gracious, and unpretentious, he is instantly likable. One feels the fire, nonetheless, of a purposefulness that consumes him.
His passion for perfection eclipses many others who talk the game.
Born in central Cuba, he spent twenty-seven years in nine Cuban companies, including the legendary H. Upmann and Partagas factories. Like many lifetime tabaqueros, he mastered every phase of tobacco farming, leaf processing, and manufacturing of cigars. Then he formed his own successful cigar manufacturing company employing fifty rollers. Don Rolando stuck it out in Cuba longer than most; he didn't give up and leave until 1972. He emigrated to Union City, New Jersey, which has a large community of Cuban immigrants. He worked days at a clothing factory and rolled cigars at night. His wife, Do-a Seida, sold them from a tiny store, occasioned by Hispanic smokers in the neighborhood. The business grew. Don Rolando quit his job and employed up to fifteen rollers. Back in those days, most smokers wanted mild cigars with claro wrappers. To fit that profile, Don Rolando rolled Dominican-filled cigars with Ecuadorian-grown Sumatran wrappers. Even without promotion, his brand, Cuba Aliados ("Cuban Allies"), grew in popularity nationwide.
Into the 1980s the Reyes family sold their cigars to only a few tobacconists and other outlets in New York and New Jersey. Two days after making their first delivery to Lew Rothman's JR Cigar store nearby, Rothman was at their store, wanting to be their exclusive national distributor. The line took off, and became the largest-selling item in the JR catalog.
In the early 1990s, the Reyes family planned to introduce the Puros Indios line, which they would distribute directly themselves. Their agreement with Rothman, however, provided that the factory's entire output was within the sole province of JR Cigars to distribute. The ensuing legal controversy led to a court order in 1995, halting production of Cuba Aliados cigars. Don Rolando and Rothman finally resolved their differences in a face-to-face meeting, realizing the problem had been exacerbated by miscommunication. They shook hands, production of Cuba Aliados resumed in 1998, and JR Cigar (its wholesale division is Cigars by Santa Clara) is once again the exclusive national distributor for that line.
"Grandfather could have just walked away and never produced Cuba Aliados again," says Carlos Diez, Don Rolando's grandson, "but he brought the name with him from Cuba, and it has a special meaning for him." Don Rolando's attachment to the Cuba Aliados name sheds perspective on his character. In Cuba, he had worked for the owner of the Cuba Aliados factory in the 1960s. The man died, leaving a widow and three children. Because she knew nothing about the business, the company faltered. Her and her children's livelihood was in jeopardy, as well as the workers'. Don Rolando stayed on and ran the company for several months, refusing pay, telling her he would earn his living elsewhere. Eventually, the widow moved in with her family and became self-sufficient. She was so grateful to Don Rolando, she gave him the Cuba Aliados name.
Launching an Instant Hit
Don Rolando launched Puros Indios in 1995. It now consists of 15 frontmarks, and the blend has remained unchanged since its introduction.
The line's reputation grew to almost cult status in short order. "In 1994," estimates Diez, "Rothman was buying about 2.5 million Cuba Aliados, plus another 1.5 million proprietary JR Cigar brands. Within one year of introduction, factory output was an additional two million Puros Indios cigars, and sales peaked at six million in 1997." While the overall industry shriveled from that year until 1999, Puros Indios sales slipped minimally - a mere 15% per year. Sales for 2000 are projected at eight million cigars.
Diez attributes the company's success to a large and committed base of tobacconists. "We have 742 smokeshops that reorder every couple of weeks." Another 1,200 tobacconists buy every three to four months. Diez says these include international customers as far away as Canada, Malaysia, Turkey, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hungary, and the Scandinavian countries.
"We sell to tobacconists exclusively from our Miami office," adds Diez, "not through distributors or reps. And, we don't sell to mail-order discounters or mass marketers. We have a web site, but do not use it to sell direct to consumers." Seven people work in two buildings that encompass the offices, warehouse, and small retail store. Diez heads up domestic and international sales development, as well as advertising. His brother, Alexis, is in charge of finance and administration. Aged 25 and 22, respectively, both are pursuing MBA degrees. Although they have been in the business for some time, this will add more management depth to the company. Their mother - Don Rolando's daughter Oneida - handles accounts payable. Rolando, Jr., is no longer with the company, but distributes his own brand, made by Don Rolando. Four other employees are responsible for warehouse operations. Don Rolando ships the cigars to Miami, with the exception of those bound for foreign markets, which are shipped directly from Danli. Who takes care of the almost 2,000 retailers they must keep in touch with? "When the phone rings, any one of the seven of us grabs it," Diez laughs.
The company's support for tobacconists is broad. "We used to advertise in general interest and lifestyle magazines, but the fad has died, so we concentrate on publications directed at cigar smokers," says Diez. "Our one exception is Golf magazine and the Pinehurst publications. Pinehurst owns the major and minor PGA golf tours and publishes programs and other promotional magazines for each tournament. We're trying that out now.
"We provide in-store and other direct assistance for retailers, like tee-shirts; cutters; danglers; and support at dinners, tastings, and other events. When a smoke shop calls and asks for promotional assistance, we're small enough to be able to commit on the spot."
The family still operates the retail shop at Union City's original site. They fly in from Miami to oversee operations occasionally, but it is largely autonomous, being managed by a 20-year employee.
The Danli factory occupies a former motel of 12-15 units. Don Rolando has added concrete-block outbuildings for storage of tobacco and finished cigars. Outside, workers on break, kids on bicycles, dogs, spouses, and hangers-on mill around. What was the restaurant is now the rolling gallery, with about 60 rolling and bunching teams.
As we enter, Don Rolando explains, "I maintain the Cuban tradition of old in as much of what we do here as possible." The first evidence I see that supports Don Rolando's prideful claim is a genuine lector. Seated at a raised podium at the side of the gallery, he reads from a daily newspaper over the sound system.
"We have the only true lector outside of Cuba," says Rolando, "and very few are left there, either."
A room at the juncture of the motel's two wings is the box factory. Leaf sorting, boxing, banding, and other departments are scattered here and there. There is not room to move around the rooms or through the passageways without bumping into everyone. If the typical Latin American factory is a beehive, this is an ant farm.
Don Rolando whisks me on a whirlwind tour of the place. Formerly motel units, room after room is stacked to the ceiling with tobacco in huge bales. Then comes room after room of large cartons full of cigars, silently slumbering. Dozens more are stacked along an outside wall, under the eaves. Several rooms have similar cartons of cigars in sealed plastic bags, undergoing their two-month fumigation cycle. We stop at huge, open bins of tobacco scraps and chunks. These become Roly seconds - a real bargain for budget smokers who know these Cuban sandwiches contain prime Puros Indios filler.
We drive a kilometer to Don Rolando's farm, where his comfortable home sits at the top of the long driveway. We pass stakes and string, marking an area in the front yard.
"In four to five months," he smiles, "my new factory will be here. Two buildings will hold five hundred workers, twice our work force now." Don Rolando will be able to look right out his window into his factory - and his morning commute won't be bad.
The Puros Products
|From left: Carlos Diez, Rolando Reyes, Sr., Agusto Monte.
Every frontmark in all three lines - Puros Indios, Roly, and Cuba Aliados - is available in three wrappers: colorado claro (mild and light-colored), colorado (medium-bodied and darker, with a reddish cast), and maduro (medium-full to full-bodied). All wrapper is Ecuadorian-grown from Sumatran seed, and the binder is Ecuadoran. The filler blend in all Puros Indios cigars is identical: Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Brazilian. An unadvertised double-maduro (oscuro) line is available on special request.
"Grandfather owes much of the success of his cigars to his choice of tobacco," Diez says. "He has bought from leading tobacco merchants like the Oliva family in Tampa, for decades - back into their days in Cuba. Oliva's late padron, Angel Oliva, would set aside the best tobacco for him. Don Rolando buys only the very best leaf, regardless of cost. When the market exploded in 1995 through 1997, Puros Indios paid three to four times what it had been paying for the best quality leaf. Still, we didn't raise our prices a penny. He could have settled for filler with some holes or other flaws in it - no one sees it anyway - but he refuses to compromise."
The medium-priced Puros Indios line retails for $2.20 (Petit Perla, 38 x 5") to $8.00 (Churchill, 53 x 7 1/4"). There are two specialty cigars: the Gran Victoria, a graceful 60 x 10" perfecto; and the 60 x 18" Chief. Both are packaged in individual cedar boxes. The latter, a twenty-five leaf, four-to-five hour smoke, retails for a buck an inch. Laughs Diez, "We're backordered in two wrappers on the Chief." Puros Indios is introducing a new, box-pressed cigar soon, in the same blend and wrappers. Boxed or bundled, all cigars are cellophaned - even the Roly seconds. All their cigars are sold at keystone, a bonus for retailers with a line this sought-after.
Back at the factory after dark, the workers are gone, except for one assistant. Don Rolando started work around 11a.m., lining things up and making sure everything is running smoothly. Now begins his long night. The workers roll 15,000-18,000 cigars daily, and Don Rolando works every night until daybreak, personally checking every one of them.
He picks up a ribbon-wrapped bundle of 25 cigars, taps their feet on the Formica tabletop of his inspection bench, and examines the heads. Turning them end-for-end, he inspects their feet. Untying the ribbon, he drops the loosened bundle six inches to the table, and they splay out across it.
"The sound they make when they hit the table tells me whether they're over- or under-filled," he advises. His sharp eyes quickly scan the cigars, looking for irregularities, before pushing them aside, where his assistant re-ties them.
"I start with the smaller cigars," he says, "because my eyes tire, and it's easier to see the larger cigars later on tonight," Don Rolando says. Bundle after bundle, carton after carton, he stands there and checks. The man is iron, in his endurance and his commitment. His level of personal involvement is rare, if not unique, in our industry.
Don Rolando hands me a Puros Indios, and I smile at a little touch that exemplifies his drive for perfection: the band. Not its appearance, but the way it pops loose with just a snag of the fingernail. I learn the key to enjoying a Puros Indios, from Don Rolando's unspoken lesson. In typical Cuban tabaquero fashion, he has a cigar in his face almost every waking moment. But, I never see him puff on it. Puros Indios cigars are too gentile for deep or vigorous smoking. Instead, he constantly, almost imperceptibly, takes tiny sips. Emulating him, I am rewarded by the sweetest flavor and an aroma that is delicately fragrant.
Don Rolando must be demanding to work for. After two "gimmees," a buncher or roller who doesn't follow his corrective instructions is discharged. But, he sets the example for excellence, and certainly, the workers who measure up are proud of their craft and likely idolize El Maestro.
A Chinese proverb says, "When a tiger dies, he leaves his pelt - a man, his reputation." When Don Rolando says, "I don't care about the money, only that I am remembered for crafting the finest of cigars," I not only hear his words, I see it in his actions.
Puros Indios Cigars, Inc., 114 NW 22 Avenue, Miami, FL 33125, Tel: (305) 644-1116, Toll-free: (800) 992-4427, Fax: (305) 649-5154, Web: www.purosindioscigars.com. Cigars by Santa Clara, Burlington, N.C., Tel: (800) 547-6060, Fax: (800) 457-3299.
SMOKESHOP - December 2000