TORCHBEARERS

Jerome R. Stockfisch of The Tampa Tribune
Reprinted with permission of The Tampa Tribune.
May 7, 2000
 
An intense family bond and respect for their Tampa heritage help the Fuentes create what many call the world's best cigars

SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic - In a climate-controlled warehouse stacked floor to ceiling with burlap bundles of tobacco, Carlos Fuente Jr. ignores dials and meters and proceeds to a tied-off bunch of a dozen leaves hanging from a peg.

He rubs them between his thumb and forefinger, holds them to his dark mustache and inhales, shakes them at his ear and listens to their rustle. This is how he judges whether the bundles are ready for processing.

In a cedar aging vault on the other side of the building, Carlos Fuente Sr. plucks a finished cigar from a bundle and runs his fingers along its length, raises it to his nose, pinches it next to his ear. This is how he judges whether the cigar is ready to be shipped.

At Tabacalera A. Fuente y Compania, father and son see, feel, smell, hear, and taste much more than simply tobacco that is being processed to their zealous levels of perfection.

Every leaf, every cigar, carries the reminder of catastrophic fire. Third World revolution. An exodus from Tampa to Central America to the Caribbean. A devastating hurricane.

But above all, an intense family bond. One forged in the back of a turn-of-the-century West Tampa home, where sons, fathers, uncles, grandparents and friends gathered to make cigars. One strengthened by adversity, enough to bring tears to the eyes of a 45-year-old man.

A bond valued more than wealth and fame.

"It's difficult to speak about without getting emotional," says Carlos Fuente Jr. "If I think of the happiest moments of my life, I go back in time to my earliest memories. Being around my grandfather. Right now I can even smell the Old Spice that my grandfather used to wear ....

"I grew up in a cigar family. In Tampa, it seemed like the world was perfect. Maybe I was looking at it though innocent eyes, but the world was perfect.

"I cannot separate cigars and tobacco from myself," the younger Fuente says. "From the love of my family. From the love of my father, the love of my grandfather. When I enjoy a cigar, it's almost like that bridge."

The mountains of the central Dominican Republic ring Chateau de la Fuente, the family's 300-acre plantation on the Rio Yuna near the village of Caribe. The low valley offers perfect soil for tobacco. The river irrigates the fields. The mountains soften the late afternoon sunlight and create a bowl that amplifies the shouts of farmhands, the crowing of a rooster, a dog's bark.

Strolling from their tobacco fields toward rows of curing barns, Carlos Fuente Sr., his son, nicknamed "Carlito," and daughter Cynthia Fuente-Suarez explain how they came to be pacing this farm. The journey transcends agronomy and soil conditions.

Family patriarch Arturo Fuente left Cuba and set up a cigar factory bearing his name in Tampa in 1912. Thousands had come to Cigar City before him and thousands would follow; by 1920, there were an estimated 12,000 cigar rollers in 200 factories in West Tampa and Ybor City.

Most cigars were sold locally, and even in the crowded market, Fuente brands such as the Tampa Sweetheart were popular. Five hundred workers toiled in the wooden, three-story A. Fuente & Co. factory on Albany Street. Times were good.

Arturo Fuente traveled to Cuba in 1924 on a tobacco-buying mission. Disaster struck while he was gone: The factory burned to the ground. "He lost everything," Carlos Jr. says.

Too proud to pursue bankruptcy, Arturo Fuente sold off land he had acquired around Tampa, worked for other cigar factories - anything to repay bankers. He vowed he would re-establish his own business. It would take 15 years.

The new A. Fuente & Co. was a back room of the family home, where friends and relatives would roll cigars, sometimes after their day jobs, sometimes until 1 a.m. Again, the brand was a success.

In the 1950s, Arturo Fuente gradually handed the reins of the family business to his son, Carlos Sr. The son started distributing the brand outside Tampa and introduced such concepts as keeping books and offering credit.

(Arturo, smarting from the factory fire, wouldn't hand over a box of cigars until he had the cash in hand. He "basically had the accounts receivable in his pocket" - a wad of bills in a rubber band, says Carlos Jr.)

In the mid-1960s, the Fuentes moved into a four-story red brick factory in Ybor City, which is still in the family. Two shifts of rollers put out the Fuente brands. But the industry was changing.

In Tampa, a generation of trained rollers aged, and their children strayed from the trade. Machines could produce thousands of cigars a day, while hand rollers could do 150 to 200. The Cuban revolution and U.S. embargo had rattled the industry and driven up tobacco prices. Cigar makers fled the United States.

During their regular lunches at the Spanish Park restaurant in Ybor City, Carlos Sr. reluctantly discussed with his son what he considered their only option: Moving from Tampa.

"He knew. He felt it in his heart," says daughter Cynthia.

Carlos Sr. visited the Dominican Republic, but found the bureaucracy stifling. Jamaica didn't feel right. There was a successful cigar operation available in Nicaragua, so in the mid-1970s, he left behind a skeleton operation in Tampa for a new home.

Arturo Fuente died in 1973. He did not live to see the business leave his home of 60 years.

What would the family patriarch have thought?

"I really think my grandfather guided us there," says Carlos Jr. "I believe my grandfather is watching over us."

The move to Nicaragua was a good one. Business was strong, and the country was stable - "for two years," says the younger Fuente. "After that, all hell broke loose."

In 1978, Sandinista rebels approached the Fuente factory and gave the foremen 15 minutes to clear the building. Carlos Sr.'s business partner, who two decades earlier had been burned out of a factory by Cuban revolutionaries, told his accosters he would have to be physically removed from this one.

The soldiers obliged, and burned the factory to the ground.

The younger Fuente repeats his refrain: "We lost everything."

Regrouping in Tampa, the family learned of an opportunity in Honduras. There was another move.

This time it was not arson, but an electrical fire that destroyed their fledgling operation.

Again, the Fuentes regrouped in Tampa. Carlos Jr. quickly rejects the notion that giving up was ever considered. But he softens.

"That feeling is there. But you walk away from it. I can't [quit]. I have to keep going."

The family stayed in Tampa for a while. From a staff of 40 rollers in 1970, just 10 remained. They tried to revive the local industry, even enlisting in a program to train Vietnamese refugees to make cigars. It didn't work.

"I came to the conclusion that we had to go back to another foreign country," Carlos Sr. says. "I was very scared at the time, because our experience wasn't that great. My son told me, definitely, he wanted to stay in the business. He thought that's what he wanted to do forever. I said, "OK, we'll go.' "

In 1980, Carlos Sr. mortgaged his Tampa house and moved to the Dominican Republic. He had seven employees and his father's name.

In his office off the factory floor in Santiago, Carlos Jr. tends to his rituals. First thing, he orders in strong Dominican coffee. He lights one of the cigars that bear the family name. And he gazes at the black-and-white portrait of his grandfather that holds the position of honor behind his desk. It is not a gesture he takes lightly.

"My grandfather's picture ...."

His voice breaks as he tries to explain, and tears come to his eyes, but he blinks them back.

"Obviously, I witnessed and I lived incredibly difficult times with my father when I was very young. Very difficult financial times after he lost the factory and so forth. Difficult times through the economy in the States, changes in the market, the Cuban embargo.

"But all during that time, I always saw my father looking at my grandfather. Turning around and looking at his portrait before he left the office. And I saw that he built strength from it. And I guess it does the same for me."

At the end of 1980, Carlos Jr. joined his father in Santiago. The Montesino brand they began making in the Dominican Republic was a quick success, and production of the flagship Arturo Fuente brand was soon shifted south.

The Arturo Fuente became one of the most sought-after premium brands in the United States; in 1984, the Hemingway line was named the world's best cigar by Connoisseur magazine.

In addition to its own products, the company, now named Tabacalera A. Fuente y Compania, began making higher-end brands for Tampa's J.C. Newman Cigar Co.

The Fuentes added a second factory in Moca to handle the Newman volume. A third and fourth followed in Santiago.

But something was missing.

At a meeting with European retailers, a client pointed out that the Fuentes, like most cigar manufacturers, obtained their raw materials from such far-flung sites as Central Africa. "You assemble cigars, you don't create them," the client said.

"It broke my heart," Carlos Jr. says. "I wanted to be known as the best in the world. I knew what we had accomplished here, but ...."

The son approached his father with an idea.

Making cigars and growing tobacco are completely different processes. The Fuentes were growing some filler tobacco near Santiago. But the conventional wisdom was that wrapper - the leaf that forms the outside of the cigar, said to be responsible for at least 60 percent of a cigar's character - could only be grown in Cuba, in Cameroon, in Connecticut.

The Fuentes were close to another Tampa cigar family in their new home. The Olivas, suppliers of tobacco to cigarmakers worldwide, had a farm south of Santiago. The two families agreed that conditions there were identical to those in the Vuelta Abajo, the prime growing region of Cuba. They saw no reason quality wrapper couldn't be grown there.

But it would take time, capital investment and an almost spiritual devotion to nurture such a temperamental crop. Others before had failed, growing Dominican wrapper that burned unevenly, was too brittle to wrap cleanly, or was too bitter to the taste.

The effort was considered so far-fetched that it was given the whimsical code name "Project X from Planet Nine." The name would stick.

They started growing wrapper in 1991. Processed the first harvest, aged it. Reconditioned the soil. Grew some more. Improved the skills of their pickers. Learned the Dominican weather patterns.

Farmhands turned the soil using hand plows dragged behind horses. They fertilized the fields with everything from coconut meal to bat guano from nearby caves delivered by villagers on donkeys.

By 1993, Cigar Aficionado magazine, the bible of the high-end cigar market, got wind of the project and sent a reporter to Caribe. The ensuing story lauded the Fuentes' effort, but also gave ink to industry naysayers.

As word spread, a buzz built among serious smokers. The Fuentes began advertising - not their phantom cigar, but their farm, which they christened Chateau de la Fuente. "Birthplace of a Dream," read the text above a dramatic photo of their land, flush with tobacco. "The Dream is Real," later ads hinted as the Fuentes gained confidence.

The Fuentes were creating a cigar from their own Dominican tobacco, with their own Dominican wrapper. They called it the Fuente Fuente OpusX, to represent the efforts of father and son, the word they defined as a lifetime achievement, and the code name that grew on them.

In 1995, it was ready. The first shipment went out on Nov. 18 - Arturo Fuente's birthday.

Smokers in New York lined up for the first cigars.

Publications raved.

Tobacco International magazine renamed its Tobacco Person of the Year award to "people" of the year and gave the honor to the Fuentes.

"As soon as the cigars are stocked on the shelf, they're gone," says "Cigar Dave" Zeplowitz, who broadcasts the national "Smoke This" radio show from WFLA, 950 AM in Tampa. "That would be the biggest testament to the family and how their products are regarded."

Indeed, the 700,000 or so Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars produced annually are rationed to the family's longtime network of retailers, who are urged to offer customers no more than two at a time. The suggested retail price is $7.50 to $14.50 apiece. They routinely go for $20 to $40.

How did the Fuentes succeed where others had failed?

"You could say we almost lived here," Carlos Sr. says. "We were here day and night. We don't hurry things, we just do things the way they are supposed to be done. I guess maybe other people didn't do it because they were thinking how much it would cost .... And we don't work that way."  It's tough to get a straight answer out of the Fuentes when it comes to growing tobacco and making cigars. Not because they're evasive, or unknowing. The answers are often in their hearts, in their heads, in their hands, not easily verbalized.

As they wander through the rows of tobacco plants, they are asked when the leaves before them will be picked. "It could be five to seven days," says Carlos Jr. "Or five to eight days."  He and his father feel the green leaves, examine their tips and flick the points with their thumbs. They pinch and feel for gumminess. How many leaves will be plucked from the mature 7-foot stalks in the next pass through the field? "Sometimes it's three leaves, sometimes we pick four leaves, sometimes we pick two," says the son. "It just depends."

That's not to say the Fuente operation is a loose ship.

At Factory No. 1, Cuban folk music from Trio Matamoros and boleros from Trio Los Panchos blares from loudspeakers as tobacco is bunched, rolled, pressed and wrapped by 800 of their 2,800 employees.

Cigar presses are opened after 45 minutes and their contents rotated a quarter-turn to equalize pressure. Wrappers use old-style, crescent-shaped cutting blades to surgically trim just a sliver from the jagged edge of their leaves, and a larger strip from the more bitter side. They puff at lit cigars, which leave telltale scorch marks at their work stations. They dab at tins of organic gum from the Middle East that is four to five times more expensive than synthetic paste. Inspectors check the work of rollers on the factory floor, and another level of inspector checks the work of the first inspectors. Bunches of 50 cigars must meet a target weight within one ounce.

The steps may be "seemingly insignificant," Carlos Jr. says, "but when you accumulate all these insignificant steps, you create something extremely significant."

From seed to cigar in the Fuente production process, some 200 pairs of hands will touch a tobacco leaf, and at any step in the process, it can be rejected.

Employees can earn up to 4,000 pesos a week, or about $250 - a lot of money in a country with a minimum wage of about $40 a week. The company provides medical coverage, has on-site doctors, provides transportation and sponsors intramural sports in this baseball-crazed nation.

"It's been important to us, our family's contribution, bringing the Cuban-Tampa heritage and culture and technique to the Dominican Republic," Carlos Jr. says. "Today, I think that has been instilled in them. And I believe that whether the Fuente family is here forever, or for whatever reason is not around, I think that the Dominican Republic will be forever a great cigar manufacturing country."

That commitment to their adopted home was tested in 1998.

The Fuentes had settled in the relatively stable nation expressly to avoid the political discord that cost them their Nicaraguan operation. They learned to minimize fire danger by spreading out tobacco in several warehouses, and storing valuable wrapper in sealed vaults.

But there was little they could do against a hurricane.

The site of Chateau de la Fuente - surrounded by mountains - made a perfect rest stop for Hurricane Georges as it marched through the Caribbean on Sept. 23, 1998. Georges paused over the area of the farm, pulverizing barns, scattering seed beds and tossing around trees. Teodoro Cardena, one of the farmhands, recalls the aftermath.

"Everything was destroyed. The only thing left was two barns," says Cardena. A dozen structures were lost.

The senior and junior Fuentes drove to the farm from Santiago. They were forced to abandon their sport utility vehicle on the main highway and hike the last several miles to their farm. They scaled tree trunks across their path. Saw the tin from the curing barn roofs scattered like shrapnel. They gazed on what was left of their showpiece from the scoured gravel road.

"If there was ever a time to justifiably walk away from this, this is the time," Carlos Sr. said to his son. "This is God saying it is beyond our control."

The Fuentes did not walk away when fire destroyed their livelihood more than seven decades before. Their resolve strengthened when guerrillas and electrical accidents wiped them out.

They would not walk away from Georges.

OpusX production dipped with the loss of a growing cycle, but since the Dominican wrapper is held for years, the storm did not cripple the operation. And the factories and warehouses in and near Santiago, farther north, were spared.

Today, it is business as usual in the Dominican Republic and at the Fuentes' affiliated operations in Tampa. The hurricane damage is nearly invisible; the last of 18 curing barns is having its thatched roof applied.

In an era of worldwide consolidation in the cigar industry, a well-known, well-run independent family operation draws a lot of interest.

General Cigar Holdings Inc. bought Villazon & Co., one of the last of the old Tampa cigar makers, for $91 million in 1997. Tabacalera S.A., the Spanish giant, is believed to have paid $275 million for Havatampa Inc. later that year. Neither is near the size of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Compania, which produced 38 million premium cigars in 1999.

"I can't tell my kids what to do," says Carlos Sr. "They are all part of the business, and whatever their decision will be, I'll respect it.

"But as far as I'm concerned, this is my life. I'll have to do this as long as I live. There's no talk of us selling."

Cynthia Fuente-Suarez, who is married to Wayne Suarez of the Newman cigar operation and has three children, calls the business "unapproachable."

Carlos Jr. is more emotional.

"We get phone calls I refuse to even pick up," the younger Fuente says. "All the time. I don't give someone the opportunity to start getting close; that's the message that we've intentionally sent out to everybody. I don't want to be tempted."

The 45-year-old heir to the company has three daughters and a son on the way. He has considered their future.

"People say, "They [tobacco conglomerates] are so powerful. What happens if they come up with three or four semitrucks full of money? You're still risking everything in the Third World. How about your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren? You could set them up for life. How could you say no to that?'

"I think to myself, it's a great responsibility to say no, but I have to live with myself. If I ever did that [sold out], I would have to go to Spain or somewhere. And anyone I've ever met before, I would never be able to face them again."

Carlos Jr. is building a hilltop home that will include a smoking room and vast entertainment areas for his constant parade of visitors. The Fuente men drive Lincoln Navigators with leather interiors.

But they stroll around the factory and farm in traditional guayabera shirts, cigars poking out of their pockets. They greet employees by name. Five of Carlos Sr.'s original seven employees are still there.

They are not interested in yachts, private jets or the trappings of wealth.  "I'd rather waste that expense on the farm," says Carlos Jr. "There's thousands of yachts, thousands of Lear jets around the world, but there's only one Chateau de la Fuente. That belongs to our family. That's something that's a treasure to us."

And when his home is finished, there will be another treasure.

"That's what I remember when I was growing up - my grandfather's house being full of a lot of people," he says. "That's what I look forward to: to have my home full of happy people."  A picture worth a thousand words To the uninitiated, it's just a label on the inside cover of their cigar box. But to the Fuente family, art, history and emotion merge every time one of their boxes is opened. "It's not something I gave an artist and said, "I want a label,' " says Carlos Fuente Jr. "It came from emotional history, part of our family, the commemoration of everything that we lived and the pains we suffered."

Pictured is the label for the Arturo Fuente Flor Fina 8-5-8. Even the cigar's name is significant. "That was my grandfather's personal blend," says the junior Fuente. "That cigar was never commercially sold; my grandfather used to enjoy it himself, share it with his friends. It was like a private stock. It was something very special to him. After my grandfather passed away, my father thought about bringing the cigar out in my grandfather's honor, with his formula, his blend. "My grandfather was 85 years old when he passed away and 8-5-8 represents, any way you read it, the beginning of his life, the end of his life. It represents 85 years of the tradition, the heritage, the knowledge, the culture, the love that my grandfather passed on to the family."

 

  

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