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December,
2008

Gars for the Next Generation

By Dale Scott

With blessings from his father, George A. Rico breaks out on his own to pursue a personal vision of blending and reignite his passion for brand development.

In an interview for a 1998 Smokeshop article, respected cigar-maker Carlos Toraño predicted, “The next few months will see restructuring, as prices fall due to surplus tobacco. From an estimated 200 - 250 premium cigar factories last year, I expect only 45 - 50 by the year 2000. Those survivors will have a tremendous decade, and the industry will be stronger. The sales growth should remain at a healthy 6 - 8 percent for the next 5 - 7 years. We could see sales of 500 million cigars by then. I see good growth for 20 years, depending on one big factor: government.”

Toraño was a visionary, as his numbers appear to be dead on. We’ve just passed the 5 - 7 years of good times, and it looks like change is, indeed, upon us. This time, it’s more dauntingly serious than a tobacco shortage, and sure enough, it’s due to the government.

What’s missing nowadays is the horde of entrepreneurs who rode the mid-90s crest of the cigar wave. What happened to all those young tigers and all their “Don Nobody” brands, of which the author has a Cigar Dossier full of their now-defunct bands? Remember their voices raised in a chorus, professing passion for their newfound love…premium cigars? It turns out not many of them had enough passion to stick it out when the market cooled.

A notable exception is G.A.R Cigars’ George A. Rico, age 29. Rico is a third-generation tobacco man whose father, Guillermo, as well as his grandfather, grew tobacco and made premium cigars in their native Colombia. At age nine, Rico emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1988, living first in New Jersey, then settling in Miami. Rico pursued his higher education there, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

In 1994, while still in high school, Rico’s life changed when his father returned to his tobacco roots and began to sell tobacco. Guillermo began to obtain his raw material in Central America, where he contracted with farmers and farm co-operatives to produce tobacco in Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica. In 1997, Guillermo opened his own factory in Danlí, Honduras. He introduced the STC brand nationwide in bundles, as well as manufacturing cigars for private label customers. George began helping his father in the business, and fell in love with tobacco and cigars. Before long, he was digging into every aspect of the company’s operations, learning and applying himself to his new-found love.

In 2003, says Rico, “My first efforts at developing a line of cigars bore fruit with my father’s new Gran Habano brand. I was heavily involved and instrumental in the successful acceptance of Gran Habano. Despite the fact I had no education or experience in marketing or graphic design, my business degree did prove of value in working up the branding, creating bands, box art, and promotional materials. We introduced Gran Habano at the 2003 Nashville RTDA, and I was excited and encouraged by the healthy acceptance of the line.” Young Rico was hooked on not only tobacco and cigars, but on all the aspects in the process of bringing a cigar to market, from blending to branding and distribution. As he says, “When you work for a small company, you have to wear many hats. Blending is my strength, and I developed the blend for Gran Habano, as well as my own G.A.R cigars.”

Rico worked with his father until 2007, attending events and working with STC’s nationwide sales force of 12 manufacturer representatives. “My long-term relationship with the reps convinced me they are the finest rep organization in the business. They have been instrumental in achieving sales success and a respected reputation for Gran Habano over the years, and I don’t doubt about capabilities on our behalf. All are respected colleagues, and some have become my personal friends.”

His work with the representatives proved valuable when he opened G.A.R Cigars. With the exuberance and creativity of youth, he found his interest and direction in the cigar business were divergent from his father’s. “With Gran Habano established as a viable premium cigar brand, my father has continued to focus all his attention and energies on that one brand. In 2007, after working with him for 12 years, I found the excitement wasn’t there at STC any longer. I wanted to work on projects that included all the challenges and adventure of bringing out new, cutting-edge products. I especially like the process of creating new blends. But all aspects of a cigar launch fascinate me.”

Rico announced to his father that he wanted to start his own G.A.R Cigars only about a year ago. Although understandably disappointed in Rico’s departure, his father has supported Rico’s decision, and lent valuable assistance. “He has allocated space and workers in his Danlí, Honduras, factory, to provide me with 15 - 17 rolling teams. He also was kind and generous in letting me share his rep force. I am most thankful for his fatherly understanding, helping me in getting started. We’re still in the early stages of product development and manufacturing, but soon, each rolling team should be producing 200 cigars daily. We now have 200,000 cigars aging in inventory, comprising four shapes in one blend.”

In addition to the obvious usage of his initials for the company and cigars, Rico likes the play on words of the colloquially-used “gar” as a nickname for “cigar.” He introduced his four-cigar line immediately following IPCPR 2008, only four months ago. To date, he reports good market acceptance, thanks to the efforts of his representatives, with about 250 retailers carrying G.A.R cigars. At present, he intends to hold the line at this level, which he says is manageable from his Miami warehouse and office location.

G.A.R Cigars’ first line to debut was what Rico calls “G.A.R White Box.” It is available in four shapes: Gran Consul (4 1/2 x 60 semi-box-press), Rico Grande (6 x 54 Torpedo), Corona Gorda (6 x 46), and Robusto Grande (5 1/2 x 52). They all share a sun-grown natural wrapper, and he rates their strength as medium to full in body with a flavor profile Rico describes as “spicy but smooth, with a deep, rich, nutty flavor.” The blend contains Nicaraguan filler and binder, with an Ecuadorian-grown Connecticut Shade wrapper. Rico is especially proud of the lush appearance and silky feel that are typical of top-quality Connecticut Shade varieties. Suggested retail prices for the G.A.R White Box line are $7.50 to $9.50 per cigar.

At press time, Rico should have introduced his next wave of cigars - two waves, actually. He intends to create a family of cigars, making them in factories not only in Honduras, but also the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, spotlighting tobacco from each country. “I have found a factory in the Dominican Republic that does incredible work,” says Rico. “I will use Dominican and Nicaraguan leaf in the filler, and an Ecuadorian-grown Connecticut Shade wrapper. The medium-bodied cigar will be rich, complex, flavorful, and smooth.”

At the same time, smokers will see the appearance of the third line in this family, a full-bodied Nicaraguan cigar, with wrapper, binder, and filler all originating in that country. The factory producing these cigars is, fittingly, also located in Nicaragua. Both the Dominican and Nicaraguan selections retail in the $4.50 to $5.50 price bracket.

Rico looks to 2009 to bring out his G.A.R Vangard - could this be the first of other cigar brands that play on “gar” in their names? Vangard is, according to Rico, “cutting edge.”

Rico’s Web site (www.garcigars.com), boasts a lively blog and forum, as well as his “Live” section, which is dedicated to active, adventuresome lifestyle pursuits. The cigars occupy center stage, of course, with product descriptions, photos, blend varieties, and shapes.

The last line of G.A.R cigars is an unusual departure for a cigar company. “I wanted to provide something for all the active, involved members of the G.A.R Cigar Web site’s forum,” Rico states. “So, I developed a cigar specifically for them. But, knowing how many cigar lovers are fascinated with the process of creating and making a cigar, I developed a running video ‘documentary’ of sorts on it. It followed the process of blending, evaluating, and making of the cigar, posting each step on the site as we moved from its inception to the final product. The response was more than enthusiastic and appreciative, and I am pleased to have our loyal customers and interested parties expressing their encouragement.”

Rico is content, for the time being at least, to continue to have his cigars made at this father’s Danlí factory. “I am very pleased that his factory workers are maintaining the same level of quality for G.A.R as they are for his own Gran Habano brand,” says Rico. “From our present inventory of cigars, we are ramping up production to meet the increasing market demands for G.A.R cigars. The day will come, however, when I will outgrow my section in his facility. At that time, I will move into my own factory in Danlí. That factory is now in the planning stage.” Considering the market acceptance for his product in the short time G.A.R Cigars has been in business - thanks to the relatively strong number of retailers - this could easily come in 2009, which Rico has set as a goal. Until that factory is up to speed, he says, “I will hold my number of retailers at the existing level of approximately 250, in order to maintain stock in inventory. When customers are asking for G.A.R cigars, retailers don’t like to have to wait for back-ordered product. I can see, by the number of reorders coming in from retailers, the line is already becoming successful beyond my hopes. The factory is meeting the increasing demand by likewise increasing production of G.A.R cigars.”

In addition to his central role in blending and product development, Rico is also personally supporting his retailers. “I accompany my reps two to four times a year in their territories, nationwide. We put on events and just drop in to see how we can support them better,” Rico explains. “I believe strongly in events, getting out there and letting smokers and retailers learn first-hand what we’re all about.” Among the many that Rico has done, two recent events stand out - the Little Puff at W.C. Draper in Washington, D.C. and the Titan Cigar Fest in Gambrills, Md. “I especially enjoy events like Draper’s, as proceeds went to a charity,” Rico notes. “I also run quarterly retailer incentives, and supply G.A.R member shops with free cigars. They can put them in the hands of smokers to showcase the quality and performance of G.A.R cigars.” Retailers will begin seeing advertising in early 2009, followed by consumer ads later next year.

It’s a long journey from the blending rooms in Danlí to the smoke shop’s humidor in the states, but the moment of ultimate satisfaction is often found there. “Visiting retailers’ shops gives me the enjoyment of watching an unsuspecting customer in the walk-in as he looks over and then buys my cigars,” says Rico. “It’s my best reward. I know that for an hour or so, I will become part of that person’s life, pleasure, and luxury.”

G.A.R Cigars LLC, 590 SW 9th Terrace Bay #3, Pompani Beach, FL 33069, Toll-free: (888) 316-4427, Fax: (888) 382-6466, Email: sales@garcigars.com, Web: www.garcigars.com.


SMOKESHOP - December, 2008