Manuel “Manny” Quesada

From leaf broker roots in Cuba, Manuel Quesada has continued a family tradition in tobacco, patiently building a respected premium cigar operation from scratch in the Dominican Republic.

By Bob Ashley

Manuel Quesada, 59, known throughout the cigar industry for his skill growing and blending different tobaccos for hand-rolled premium cigars, could walk into a cigar factory blindfolded and know immediately where he was. “A cigar factory is a factory of smells and sounds,” Quesada says. “You want to smell the tobacco and you want to hear the chevetas (tobacco cutting tools) clicking on the tables.”

Quesada’s family-owned company, Manufactura de Tabaco S.A. (Matasa), in a duty-free zone in Santiago, D.R. makes Fonseca, Cubita, Joe Benito, Casa Blanca, Licenciados, La Primera, Royal Dominicana, Ricos Dominicano, and other regional brands for export primarily to the United States.

Quesada inspecting aging cigars at the Matasa factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic.
Having founded Matasa more than three decades ago, at a time when there wasn’t much cigar making going on in the D.R., Quesada has become a cheerleader for Dominican-produced cigars and is vice president of ProCigar, an organization of Dominican manufacturers formed to promote Dominican-made stogies.

Quesada brought Fonseca cigars, the company’s signature brand, to the D.R. in 1974, opening a small factory with three rollers to make the brand that had been established in Cuba in the 1800s and manufactured in Miami since 1962.

Over the years, the number of Matasa brands has increased and the company distributes its cigars in the United States through SAG Imports Inc., a family-owned company based in Miami.

In 2002, Quesada suffered a deep personal loss — and the company three-fifths of its management — when his brother Alvaro, his nephew Alvarito, and Julio Fajardo, a key company employee, died in a small airplane crash while returning from Haiti after inspecting a cigarette factory Matasa was considering buying.

Currently two of Manuel Quesada’s daughters — Raquel and Patricia — along with niece Esther and nephews Jose Manual Bermudez and Hostos Fernandez work with the company. “They are still learning, but they have been an enormous help, and they are the future of the company, really,” Quesada says.

Smokeshop writer Bob Ashley caught up in late November with Quesada in his SAG Imports Miami office.

SMOKESHOP: You are currently producing a 30th Anniversary edition of the Fonseca cigar. How did that brand develop in the Dominican Republic?

QUESADA: When we came from Cuba, we were not cigar makers. In Cuba we were leaf dealers since my great-grandfather’s time. He founded the Cuban leaf company in 1876.

When we left Cuba and went to the Dominican Republic, we continued the leaf business. In 1974 we bought Fonseca from Antillian Cigar Co. in Miami to start the cigar factory in the free zone that was just starting in the Dominican Republic.

SMOKESHOP: What was the cigar industry like in the Dominican Republic in those days.

QUESADA: In 1974, cigars that were made in the Dominican Republic were strictly for domestic consumption. The Dominican Republic was not known for exporting cigars at all. It started to be better recognized when Consolidated and General started to move operations to the Dominican Republic. They both were in free zones — General in La Roma and Consolidated in Santiago.

And of course, the D.R. went on to become the biggest exporter of cigars to the U.S. to this day.

SMOKESHOP: What is new on the horizon for Matasa?

QUESADA: We just came out with an extension of the Fonseca line. It’s called the Cubano Limitado. It’s a radical departure from the Fonseca’s we’ve made for the last 30-odd years. It’s a little stronger in the impressions of the flavor, taste and aroma. There is a little more strength involved. There are four sizes — a bellicoso, bellicos corto, robusto and toro. They will retail for $5.75 to $6.75, without taxes of course.

SMOKESHOP: Why did you feel a need to come out with a stronger cigar?

QUESADA: There is a segment of the market that is asking for stronger cigars and Fonseca is willing to cater to everyone in the market. We now have cigars that are in the middle-range of strength, and a little higher, then a little higher than that.

SMOKESHOP: Do you still grow you own tobacco in the Dominican Republic?

QUESADA: We are still involved in leaf as far as supplies to the factory. We do not sell any more leaf outside of our own consumption. We buy tobacco from Connecticut, Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador and Africa. We stopped selling tobacco to other manufacturers about four years ago.

SMOKESHOP: Why did you stop doing that?

QUESADA: The Dominican Republic lost some ground in the international market for leaf tobacco because of price. The markets were becoming very difficult and very small. The countries buying tobacco from the Dominican Republican were mostly Spain and France. The prices that these markets were willing to pay for Dominican tobacco did not really make for a viable venture.

SMOKESHOP: How many acres do you currently farm?

QUESADA: We are farming presently about 200 acres to grow filler and binder.

SMOKESHOP: And currently the wrappers for your cigars come from...?

QUESADA: The Dominican Republic, Connecticut, and Ecuador — and Africa for the Cameroon.

SMOKESHOP: Have you ever grown your own wrapper in the Dominican Republic?

QUESADA: We are involved with a Dominican company that is growing wrapper in the Santiago area, and we are obtaining some Dominican wrapper — the 30th Anniversary cigar, for example, has a Dominican wrapper. Growing wrapper is an expensive proposition, and you need to have markets for whatever doesn’t yield as wrapper. When you grow wrapper, not everything that comes out is wrapper. Some becomes binder and filler.

SMOKESHOP: What is your perspective on a recent national news story that talked about a mini-boom in the cigars currently underway?

QUESADA: Well, the boom is misrepresented. It’s not really a boom, but a boon for cigar smokers. Never in the history of cigar making has their been a time like this. The best blends ever are being produced today by all manufacturers of premium cigars. For cigar smokers, they find themselves with a vast array of excellent cigars at prices that are not unreasonable.

The boom is not so, but a boon.

SMOKESHOP: Did the mid-1990s cigar boom have a lasting effect on the industry?

QUESADA: Premium cigar production went from 80 to 90 million cigars a year to almost 500 million in 1997. Today, it is down to approximately 300 million premium cigars. That’s still a lot of cigars. A lot of the people that came at the time of the boom remained as smokers.

According to what I have gathered extra-curricularly — these are numbers that we think reflect what is happening — the industry is probably growing at a 4% rate, give or take.

SMOKESHOP: The cigar boom aside, what do you see as the difference in the cigar market today than what it was before the boom?

QUESADA: Before the cigar smokers were more or less committed to a size and a brand. They’d smoke a particular shape and brand and they would continue smoking that particular cigar.

Today you find that smokers will go into a cigar shop and buy a number of brands simultaneously and a number of shapes simultaneously.

Smokers have become more informed and they will have cigars for particular moments or particular events. It’s not unusual to see someone walk in and buy two cigars from five different brands and maybe five different shapes.

SMOKESHOP: You are saying they enjoy more of a variety than there once was.

QUESADA: Indeed. They also enjoy a variety of different levels of strength. They will buy stronger cigars and they will buy middle-of-the-road. They mix and match according to the moments of the day or the events they are going to — a barbecue, hunting, a football game.

SMOKESHOP: What effect does the demand for variety among cigars smoker have on the manufacturer?

QUESADA: It puts pressure on everyone. It’s evident to everyone in the industry that there are a lot of new products and new brands coming out.

We don’t know whether we are dividing the pie in different segments rather than having new smokers come in and take new products in to their preferences. A 4 percent increase every year doesn’t justify all the new products that come out.

We may just be reshuffling cigar smokers among the brands that are available.

SMOKESHOP: SAG Imports, your distributor in Miami, has been distributing cigars from Nicaragua for a few years.

QUESADA: We became associated with Nicaragua in 2001 when we started representing Joya de Nicaragua.

We do not have any ownership in that factory at all. We do business with them three or four times a year testing smokes and trying of blends and we help each other in whatever we need from Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic.

They buy their own tobacco and we buy our own.

SMOKESHOP: What has changed since you came into the business?

QUESADA: When we opened the factory in 1974 few knew even where the Dominican Republic was, geographically speaking.

They knew of Haiti, but they didn’t know of the Dominican Republic. Selling cigars from the D.R. in the 1970s was not an easy proposition.

There was a time when the Dominican Republican was known for baseball players only. Now it’s know for cigars first and baseball players second.

That has taken a long time and a lot of effort by manufacturers.

SMOKESHOP: Is there more competition today than there was 10 years ago?

QUESADA: Yes. There is more competition today because there are more cigar makers than there were 10 or 15 years ago.

Let me give you an example. Santiago in 1992 had eight or 10 factories dedicated to exporting cigars. During the boom years — ‘92 to ‘98 — there were 120 cigar factories in Santiago. Now there are perhaps 14 or 15 companies geared for exporting cigars. And Nicaragua and Honduras experienced the same.

There are more companies now than there were before the boom. The numbers have almost doubled. There are more people offering product and there are more people fighting for retail space.

SMOKESHOP: What have you done to face that challenge?

QUESADA: Maintaining the quality of our product becomes key. That is being done by inventorying tobacco so that we can maintain the integrity of the blends and by just working hard every day to maintain that integrity.

And of course our marketing has become a little more aggressive. We advertise a little more and we do more events in stores than we did. We’ve also increased our presence in the market with more sales people.

SMOKESHOP: Beyond providing quality and consistency, what characterizes the cigars that you make?

QUESADA: I am of the philosophy that cigars should have nuances, cigars should have a roundness that allows a smoker’s palate to play in all its areas. Instead of being one-dimension cigars my cigars offer a wider range of taste in the palate.

This is accomplished by the blending of the cigars and maintaining that blend so the smoker can be fairly confident that he will get in taste that he expects.

And of course listening to the customer. If the need is for a little stronger cigar because a certain segment of the market is asking for that, we cater to that as well. Listening to the smoker always has been part of our thrust making product and our selling efforts.

SMOKESHOP: You make cigars for JR, Mike’s Cigar, Thompson and Cigar Club International. Can you characterize your private label business from your main business?

QUESADA: We’ve been making private label for more than 20 years. As far as the quality of the cigars, they are top quality as well. The blends are made specifically for these customers. They are not strong cigars, but they are not considered extremely mild either.

SMOKESHOP: Do you think Cuban cigars will ever become legal in the United States? Or that some of the families that fled Cuba will return to make cigars there?

QUESADA: I’m sure they will, but the question, first and foremost should anything change, is “what will that change be?” Until we have a level playing field and a guarantee that whatever we invest will be respected, I don’t foresee that we will go back.

Most of us were burned once. We aren’t willing to have that happen again.

SMOKESHOP: What would be the effect of the emergence of Cuban cigars on the U.S. market?

QUESADA: I would say at the beginning it will be a mad rush to try to forbidden fruit, and there will be — if you want to call it that — a small boom, and a lot of people will try the Cuban cigars. But in the end, and this will take anywhere from three months to a year, Cuban cigars will become just another cigar on the market.

SMOKESHOP - December, 2006