SMOKE: Tell us about your family's history in the tobacco business.
REYES: We have been in the tobacco business for more than 150 years and six generations. I'm the fifth generation, but my son Augusto, Jr. is the sixth. He is now working in the factory.
SMOKE: Does your family originate in Cuba?
REYES: My family is from the Dominican Republic, but my brother was manager of tobacco in Cuba for five years. We've grown many different kinds of tobacco in the Dominican Republic, including from Cuban seeds.
SMOKE: Six generations in the Dominican Republic is unusual in the cigar business, isn't it?
REYES: Yes, it is. But we've been tobacco growers for many years, even when there weren't many cigars being made [in the Dominican Republic]. In 1990, we established a cigar factory.
SMOKE: Where was that factory located?
REYES: We started out in a town called Navarette, near Santiago. It's an old, traditional area to grow tobacco. We had that factory - called Tabacos Flor de los Reyes - for a long time, but we moved to larger quarters in the free trade zone in Santiago when we expanded to the four companies we have now.
SMOKE: Could you describe what each of the companies does?
REYES: Tobacco Leaf Sorting, S.A. is dedicated to the importation and sale of tobacco to cigar factories in other countries. This is the company run by my wife, Monika Kelner. Capas Nacionales is for purchasing tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic, especially filler and binder. The whole process of fermentation, stripping, aging, and packing is done there. This branch is also in charge of producing blends for our cigar manufacturing companies. One of those, Corporacion Cigar Export, is dedicated to producing handmade cigars, like the Fittipaldi and our private labels. The company is also in charge of handmade miniature flavored cigars. One other company, De Los Reyes Cigars, is devoted to machine-made natural and flavored cigars.
SMOKE: How are your cigars distributed in the U.S.?
REYES: A company called De Los Reyes Cigars, Inc. is based in Miami; it markets the Fittipaldi brand and soon, the new Augusto Reyes brand. Carlos da Cruz, who is Emerson Fittipaldi's son-in-law, and Arsen Gasparyan run that company. De Los Reyes Cigars itself works with Ohio-based Caribbean Cigars Distributors, Inc., who sells our cigars nationwide.
SMOKE: What cigars were you producing at your original factory?
|Augusto Reyes inspects the leaf sorting operation at Corporacion Cigar Export.
REYES: We started out making only private labels, all premium cigars, like Havana Room and Rey de Reyes. During the cigar boom [in the 1990s] we were commissioned to make a lot of brands. Right now, we are making around seven private labels for both Europe and the United States. Also, we make 12 brands that we own outright. Our machine-made brands are all for private label customers.
SMOKE: How did the 1990s cigar boom affect business? Did you have trouble producing enough cigars, or difficulty finding skilled rollers?
REYES: The boom was a terrible time for getting rollers and tobacco. Everything was priced so high at the time. We eventually lost a lot of money in the market, too, because we had many private label clients who just disappeared when the boom ended. Because people remember that situation, most would like to increase their production step by step. Those clients are looking for stable factories, and that works out for us. We've managed to replace all of that business since then.
SMOKE: How did you get involved with the Fittipaldi brand?
REYES: We started it in 1996, and it has developed a very good market in Europe, the United States, and some other countries. We now make several different lines of that cigar. We have it in a Connecticut, Cameroon, or Brazilian maduro wrapper, in full-bodied Gold Series and the medium-bodied Silver Series. We have a limited-edition Anniversary Series. And we have a special brand called Fittipaldi Emmo 500. Emmo is Emerson Fittipaldi's nickname. Because we have a whole company devoted to importing tobacco, we have all kinds - from Cameroon, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Brazil, wherever. We have a high inventory, because even if you can make very good cigars, the goal should be to make them with consistency. If you don't have a large quantity of tobacco you cannot make quality cigars. Many cigar businesses went bust during the boom because they were unable to keep up consistent quality.
SMOKE: Was Emerson Fittipaldi himself involved in choosing the blend?
REYES: Yes. Emerson started the business with Carlos da Cruz. In the Dominican Republic, we created some blends, and we flew to Miami with cigar samples for some meetings with him. We had a tasting panel of Emerson and several of his friends. They smoked them, found the cigar they liked, and Emerson gave us the authorization to make the cigar. We started selling a lot of them in Brazil around that time, and then also in the United States.
SMOKE: How many premium cigars are made in your factory?
REYES: We made around 12 million premium cigars last year. We are planning to make 14 million this year. Next year we are planning to increase production another 20%. We have the inventory to double even that quantity, but we prefer to go slowly.
SMOKE: What are the taste differences between the various Fittipaldi lines - the Silver, Gold, Anniversary, and Emmo 500?
REYES: The Gold series is a medium-bodied cigar made with either Ecuador-grown Connecticut or maduro wrapper. The Silver Series is a milder cigar. Emmo 500, which you're smoking now, is a stronger, full-bodied cigar. You can feel in your nose, the strength and power of the cigar, yet in the mouth, it is clean. It has a very clean finish.
SMOKE: You must be excited about your new family-named blend, Rey de Reyes, debuting in the United States. Tell us about that project.
|It's good to be King: Reyes enjoys a cigar break outside the factory.
REYES: Rey de Reyes means "King of Kings," and it is selling very well in Europe. In January 2006, the cigar will be available in the United States, but with a new name and a more full-bodied blend. We're calling it Augusto Reyes, or the "AR" cigar. We will have a major launch in the winter for the Augusto Reyes brand. We first introduced the blend at my wedding last year. Now it seems all the people who have tried that cigar are looking for it. People in Spain, especially, are waiting to get this new special blend. The cigar was the first non-Cuban cigar to ever be smoked at the famous Epicur dinner in Spain. We made a more powerful, Cuban-style blend especially for the dinner - because we know the Spanish like that style of cigar - and that is the cigar that will be available in the U.S.
SMOKE: Do you think that the typical American cigar smoker is now looking for a stronger cigar than he was a few years ago?
REYES: Yes, I believe the American market is changing. We have communications with many different cigar companies as well as cigar smokers, and, what we've seen is that all the companies are looking for more ligero leaf, a main element in making strong cigars. Many Americans smoke full-bodied cigars now, provided they are also very good cigars.
SMOKE: What can you reveal about the blend of the Augusto Reyes cigar?
REYES: The cigar is 100% Dominican tobacco. The filler is Piloto and Criollo 98, Olor, and some Corojo. The binder is Dominican Olor, and the wrapper is Criollo '98 grown in the Dominican Republic.
SMOKE: There are not a lot of wrappers coming out of the Dominican Republic. Many growers find it very difficult to grow successfully. Did you have any kind of problem getting the quality you wanted in your wrapper?
REYES: No. We have a very good system to produce that wrapper, and we have a really good quality wrapper right now, after aging. The new crop is aging now and it should make a very nice wrapper - even better than the one from last year's crop.
SMOKE: How long were you working on getting a perfect Dominican wrapper?
REYES: We started experimenting with the crops as far back as 1961. We tried samples with Connecticut seed, with Habana 2000, and Criollo '98. Now we are selling some of the wrapper to other companies, especially in the Dominican Republic. Many of our clients are also using it to make 100% Dominican cigars.
SMOKE: So when cigar smokers in the U.S. begin to see new Dominican puros, it is likely that the wrapper on them is wrapper you've grown?
REYES: That's correct. But the wrapper for the Augusto Reyes cigar is grown on a separate farm especially and exclusively for us. It's got a very unique taste; look at the shine, the color... it's very consistent. Next year, we will introduce a new blend for the Fittipaldi, an all-Dominican blend, including a Dominican wrapper. We are making the cigars right now, and we started aging the first of them last month. They should be ready for the market in about a year.
SMOKE: You mentioned your son is in the business. Do you see him and future generations of your family continuing in it?
REYES: We have talked about it. It is a tradition in our family and we value that experience. We teach our sons about the cigar and tobacco business, and we leave the choice to them whether to stay.
SMOKE: Could you tell us about the factory you've opened up this year?
REYES: Yes. We moved into the new factory in the summer. It is a very nice building - the most modern factory in the Dominican Republic right now. We have a high-tech system for controlling the temperature, humidity, and air quality. At this moment we have 350 employees there, and we are increasing production to 14 million cigars a year. Every 15 days we have been finding and hiring new roller with lots of experience.
SMOKE: Do your rollers come mostly from the Dominican Republic, or are you looking for Cubans who may have more experience in cigar rolling?
REYES: It is only Dominicans there. Right now the whole workforce is Dominican, and today you can find many with experience. We also have a school to teach new rollers; they should be ready for our expansion next year.
SMOKE: When you started in 1990 it must have been somewhat difficult to find experienced rollers in the Dominican Republic.
REYES: It was, but production was still stable in 1990. By '96, '97, and '98 it was very difficult to meet demand because during the boom other companies were paying a lot of money to get rollers. All the companies were bidding against each other.
SMOKE: Would you say that cigar rolling is more part of the culture there now because there were so many Dominicans trained during the boom years?
REYES: Yes, I do. All the big companies had a school during that time because they needed new cigar rollers. We still need to create new rollers every year because we intend to increase production.
SMOKE: Obviously, after the boom, things went downhill a little bit in the cigar trade. Since your plans are for expansion and increasing production, do you see things continuing to improve - the demand for cigars continuing to go up?
REYES: People are always looking for good cigars. There are a lot of people who are starting in the business with new brands. Many old companies have new brands, new blends, and they are changing the market.
SMOKE: Have you found the market for flavored cigars to be strong?
REYES: We make all kinds of flavors and we've noticed a very good market for them. The most popular flavors are vanilla, rum cherry, and honey, but we have a wide variety. It is a nice introduction to cigar smoking, because many people don't like to smoke cigarettes; they prefer to smoke miniature cigars with flavors. They can be a transition between cigarettes and miniature cigars and natural, premium cigars. We are creating a market for the future.