SMOKE: Take us back to the beginning of your cigar career when you were an attorney and took the plunge to manufacture cigars. Has life and business turned out the way you expected?
PATEL: It has finally turned out the way I dreamed of. Being a perfectionist with passion…I knew I would eventually get to this level. People laughed at me in the beginning. They thought I was a fly-by-night guy, but I had a vision to learn and do things better. I studied my competitors and got better and better. We’ll reach $25 million in sales this year and we’re among the top one or two sellers in more than 50% of the retail stores where we are sold. So yes, it’s turning out the way I dreamed of.
SMOKE: With so many more manufacturers in the business today, how have you prospered when so many others have failed?
PATEL: Well, about seven years ago when I moved to Florida I decided to seriously focus on quality because when I traveled to cigar shops I discovered that most of the hard core customers were true connoisseurs. I saw that the market was very similar to the wine market of twenty years ago when people were getting educated. I realized that people’s cigar palates were getting more sophisticated and we needed to meet that demand. Not for the guy buying one cigar at a time, but rather for the true connoisseur.
SMOKE: How, then, have you focused on quality?
PATEL: One of the steps, for example, is that every one of our cigars goes through a draw tester before we even place the wrapper on the cigar. We have very narrow quality standard and hence only those cigars that meet the standard are even allowed to be wrapped. I also like my cigars to have a lot of tobacco, so we limit our roller to a certain number of cigars per day to ensure that we have the rollers taking their time and using the accordion system to roll the most tobacco and produce a cigar with a consistent draw.
SMOKE: You’ve talked a lot about the importance of how tobacco is grown and fermented. How have you have pioneered some of the new techniques?
PATEL: The quality of the tobacco is so important that we check the fertility of the soil at the farms from season to season to guarantee consistency and quality. This way the only quality issue we don’t control is mother nature. We also use the “calfrista” system to regulate the humidity and temperature of the leaves to a very precise level. This allows us to control the curing of the leaves and get 30 to 40 percent more wrapper out of the crop. When we receive the tobacco from the farms we separate the leaves into primings - mild, medium and strong like most cigar makers, but we also separate by thickness: thin, medium and thick. This ensures consistency because we’re using the same tobacco and leaf sizes from the same farms. We’re trying to control absolutely everything we can within the confines of a hand made product.
SMOKE: Your aged Vintage cigars are terrific sellers. How does the aging process work?
PATEL: Once we’ve sorted into primings, we ferment for a period of time based on the thickness of the leaves, taking the taste to another level while getting rid of most of the ammonia, nicotine and fertilizer from the leaf. This process allows us to build a cigar that has immensely rich taste but without sour taste or a bad finish. Once the tobacco is fermented we put it away from anywhere two to four years…in the instance of the vintages the wrappers are 8 to 12 years old. Of course after we pull the tobacco to roll cigars then we have quality control issues for the construction of the cigars which are intense - cap, color, weight and aesthetics are all interpreted within narrow bands.
SMOKE: The most recent cigar waves have been in super premiums and stronger cigars. Where do you see the next wave?
PATEL: I think right now that people are settled into looking for novel tastes. It’s easy to make a strong cigar, but not one that is complex with richness and balance. I think the next wave will go back to a cleaner, richer cigar with greater tastes.
SMOKE: With Fidel’s recent health issues, the Cuban embargo is back on everyone’s mind. If the embargo were lifted how would it affect the industry? Would you go to Cuba and manufacture cigars?
PATEL: I think you’re going to see a mini boom if the embargo goes away because Cuban cigars will be readily available. But I also think that with the lack of quality standards in Cuban cigars people will go back to their favorites. So, while there may be short term sales hits for non-Cuban brands the markets will correct. We are already prepared for the end of the embargo and with the Placensia family we are in contact with people who have been gathering and storing tobacco for the past three to four years in Cuba. If we are able to make cigars with Cuban tobacco we won’t move away from our existing lines, but complement them with perhaps an all Cuban line, and maybe later blends. Keep in mind that if anyone were to move to Cuba and start production today it would to be a two to four year process before they could produce a quality product, even longer to produce any cigar worth calling a “great cigar.”. Everyone in Cuba in the business has to be retrained at every level. I think if you apply the knowledge we’ve gained in Honduras and Nicaragua, combining that with the processes, control and fermentation techniques we’ve developed then we can make a Cuban cigar that will be better than any Cuban cigar ever made before. Whether a puro or a blend, the different tasting Cuban tobacco will deliver some of the greatest cigars ever.
SMOKE: You have a long developed relationship with the Placensia family?
|Patel with factory owner and tobacco farmer Nestor Plasencia.
PATEL: We work together in an almost joint venture type of way and we have a right of first refusal for all of their tobacco grown in many countries. It’s great because they actually own and control the factory we use but we have cart blanche in the manufacturing process. We can do things the way we want to with our controls and processes and that has resulted in me being able to take my passion and run with it.
SMOKE: What are your concerns with the anti-smoking efforts in the U.S.? Do you see these same anti-smoking efforts expanding around the world?
PATEL: People fail to realize that cigarettes are far different than cigars. Cigars are really an art form that employ a lot of people in third world….80% of the population in the town of Danli, Honduras are employed in the cigar business and many of the people in Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic would be in great poverty without the cigars. There has not been one study that says that cigars are bad for you. Politicians jump on the bandwagon to bash cigarettes but unfortunately they drag cigars along in their wake. But the consumer’s passion for cigars will remain even if it’s more irritating and difficult to satisfy.
SMOKE: You’ve redone the entire product line significantly from the Indian Tabac beginnings…how are your new lines suited to the marketplace today?
PATEL: We still manufacture the Indian Tabac line and they go through the same scrutiny as the Rocky Patel lines, which they didn’t before. The Indian Tabac lines are sold mostly through the Internet and catalog suppliers. We will be refacing the Indian Tabac line next year with some very unique and interesting cigars.
SMOKE: What were the risks involved in reducing the visibility of the Indian Tabac brand and increasing the visibility of then unknown brands?
PATEL: Again, everyone thought I was nuts, but I spent thousands of hours meeting customers and retailers to learn what they wanted in a cigar. When I knew I finally had the capacity to make my own cigars with total control of the process I felt completely comfortable putting my name on the cigar and dealing with the branding issues. So, when I was confident and comfortable with every facet of the business, we launched the ‘90 and ‘91 Vintage cigars. Before that we had factories make cigars with our blends but quality control was out of our hands. The ’90 and ’91 cigars changed all of that.
SMOKE: We’ve heard rumors of Rocky Patel appearing in reality television. Any truth?
PATEL: We were approached last summer by someone who is an avid cigar smoker and they have several successful reality television shows. They thought my lifestyle was cool and would make good television so they started shooting the pilot for “Cigar Czar,” covering everything we do. They plan on approaching the networks in the Fall of ’06 and placing the program in the Fall of ‘07.
SMOKE: What are your new products on the horizon with the success of The Edge?
PATEL: We launched several new products at RTDA, but what is interesting is that everyone is trying to copy The Edge. What they don’t realize is that the key is in the tobacco and blending, not in the packaging. Hence the success of the Edge. You can’t simply replicate a cigar based on image and look.
We launched Vintage 1999, which has a seven-year-old Connecticut shade wrapper and the same filler and binder of the vintage 1990…its an elegant mild to medium bodied cigar with tons of flavor and a nice creamy finish with a hint of spice. We’re also releasing a 6 x 60 in the Sungrown line and have released a perfecto size in the Vintage ‘90, ‘92 and ’99.
SMOKE: Any final thoughts?
PATEL: We just keep trying to get better!