Nicaragua: Where there's Smoke, there's Fire - page 2

A few blocks of potholes from World Cigars, but probably still within the olfactory reach of Dixi, sits the undeniably successful Tabacos Cubanica factory, home of Padron cigars. Padron is the proverbial tortoise, running the cigar race in a steady and consistent manner, and it has paid off in a clear victory which finds them at the top of the Nicaraguan market, and many of their competitors in the quickly forgotten category of "Did Not Finish." In a town which currently holds more factories either completely closed or on "vacation," the Padron operation continues to produce, and sell, 12,000 cigars a day. This particular number is insightful; it is not far from the number I learned when I first visited Padron nearly three years ago.

In 1886, Tolstoy wrote a story titled, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?," wherein a man, Pakhom, made a deal with the Devil for all the land that his feet could carry him around in a day. As with most deals with the Devil, it ended poorly for the man, who did manage to traverse a vast track of land in the day, but died in the effort. He ended up with a simple hole in the ground, six feet long. I often wonder if Orlando Padron knows the story, as in the face of the tempting bounty of the cigar boom, Padron did not succumbed - as Pakhom and many others did to the temptation. Padron, of all the Esteli manufacturers, could have reasonably expected to quintuple his output and still maintain sales. The company may have survived nearly any slowdown as well, considering the popularity of its cigars.

But Padron does things his own way. He lived for a decade in a minuscule room attached to his factory, much to the amusement of his peers. He continues to personally oversee all of the tobacco growing which supplies his operation, most of which comes from Padron owned farms. And his factory is full of the same skilled workers that have been crafting Padron cigars for many years. He does not rush product to market, he has not grown recklessly. And the simple reason he can do this is the fact that his cigar is now recognized as one of the finest in the world. Backing that reputation with his actions is his guarantee for continued success.

"By not spreading ourselves too thin," explains Padron's son, Jorge, "we give ourselves the opportunity to stay on top of all the little things that make the brand what it is." Radical changes for the Padrons are things like the recent introduction of two new sizes to the widely popular 1964 Anniversario Series. In the end, the Padrons are as loyal to their customers as their customers are to them, and they continue to produce the high quality and reasonably priced Padron line to satisfy the markets, like the Cubans in Miami, that made it possible for them to reach the level they have.

Though they have witnessed what is happening in the market, the Padrons seem assured in the direction of their factory. Orlando continues to wander the muddy farms, picking at leaves with the earnestness of a father caring for a child. Jorge continues to soak up the knowledge of his father, while still helping to drive the business from the Miami headquarters. Dining in the comfortable new apartment the Padrons have built across the street from their factory, they talk easily about their business. They do not boast on the wisdom of their approach, but do beam a bit at the success of their product. Caution being the better part of valor, every time I light a Padron cigar, I contentedly salute Orlando Padron as the bravest man I know.

Esteli is an odd place. There are always people about, but it never seems like many. Where the cobblestone streets end, dirt ones continue, leading off to more unseen towns. At first look, it seems very small, with very little going on, and yet if you move among the identical blocks, a new square or another valley will come into view. Is more than meets the eye actually less than it is?

Touring cigar factories in the town leaves you with much the same questions. There are quite a number of them, and new ones can be found by accident. At some, the doors open to silence; at others, the work is visible and vocal, but may have a somewhat staged feeling. Roaming from factory to factory, across quiet streets and busy streets, things don't feel unhealthy so much as they do transitional.

The two cigar behemoths of the town are a fine example. At Nicaraguan American Tobacco, S.A. (NATSA), Juan Bermejo presides over the largest output factory in the country. This place buzzes with activity, every table filled, fast hands piling cigars to the ceiling. Bermejo runs a pipeline of product directly to Lew Rothman's J.R. Cigar, which dominates the reasonably priced premium market and mail order. As Lew goes, so does NATSA, and it sure looks like Lew goes just fine, thank you.

Not far away, the hulking facade of Nestor Plasencia's Nicaraguan factory dominates an otherwise empty block, and gives the appearance of anything but a cigar factor. Supposedly built with all the fittings for conversion into a hotel at some point in the future, with open courtyards and tasteful brick and wood, the factory is, beyond a few maintenance personnel, empty. Long, windowed rooms sport darkened interiors and rows of chairs stacked legs-up. Resemblance to Plasencia's other factories, which defined the steamy, writhing operations of the boom in Honduras, are not in evidence.

Another prominent edifice notable for its dark interior is the massive factory of Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua, home of the popular Joya de Nicaragua brand. The factory, we were told, was in the process of fumigation, the duration of which was not as concrete as the building. Nasty bugs in Esteli, it seems.

Over at Tabacalera Panamericana del Caribe, S.A. (TAPACASA), Pedro Ramos, an amiable ex-major league pitcher, gave us a proud tour of his facility, which was quiet, and the stockpile of cigars in his humidor, which was large. Of Course, Ramos spent a good portion of our visit waving around the pistol he wears on his hip and telling stories about the people he has shot on a dare. I mostly kept quiet.

There are surprises, however - the various factories which have found a particular formula for success at an important time. At Eagle Cigars, the relatively new brand Tabu has received good mention and is spreading, especially in Europe, while manufacturing director Frank Labib is increasing the company's involvement in the Community by coaching and sponsoring Esteli's best soccer team. Finding lights on in the evening at Nick's Cigar Company, we met Nick Perdomo, Jr., who runs the factory with his father, working well into the evening. Perdomo was laboring overtime, as was most of his staff, to fill orders for Thompson Cigar. He seemed, given the prevailing conditions, genuinely pleased to be working through his evening, and was, without a doubt, the only producer to be doing so.

Most Surprising of all was the factory that almost went unnoticed. We accidentally stumbled upon Latin Cigars, unsigned and unadvertised, where 12,000 cigars are rolling Out the doors daily, to the well-known brands MiCubano, CAO, and Carlos Torano, among others. Here was a place which mirrored the deceptive nature of Esteli, offering only a blank wall to the casual observer, and a fully operational factory to those who know.

Nicaragua is a land where the literal smokescreen may be taken figuratively as well. There are few absolutes, and fewer still that will remain so, once labeled. About the Nicaraguan cigar industry, some statements can be made: the finest tobacco in all of Central America, an maybe even the world, is grown there; the end of the boom came fast and it came hard; there are still outstanding cigars being made. Will Esteli ever return to the feverish pitch of the boom days? Probably not. Does it need to regain all that lost ground to remain a viable and prolific center for cigar production? No. The factories surviving are those that truly care about the product and have recognized that today's market demands standards of quality that yesterday's may have been willing to overlook. Will the consumer benefit from the new world order settling in the cloud over Esteli? Oh, yes. Light one up - you’ll see.

Continued on next page...

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