Even as company patriarch Jose Orlando Padrón nears his 91th birthday, the family company he founded continues to methodically build upon its strong foundation, crafting top-quality cigars for an ever-broader range of cigar enthusiasts. >By Frank Seltzer
Padrón is a well-known name in cigars. This month, company founder Jose Orlando Padrón celebrates his 91st birthday and in September of this year, the company will mark its 53rd year in business. Padrón is a very tight family operation. The company has no salespeople on the road nor brokers. Everything is handled directly, out of the company’s Miami office, and usually by family members. Jose has turned the day-to-day operations over to his son Jorge who spoke with Smoke magazine’s Frank Seltzer about the company, its history, and future.
SMOKE: Your company, Padrón Cigars, is just over 50 years, but your family has an even longer tradition in tobacco, doesn’t it?
PADRÓN: Yes. My great great-grandfather emigrated from the Canary Islands in the late 1800s and settled in Cuba. When he arrived he started growing tobacco. The family continued growing all the way up until the revolution.
When my dad got out in 1961, he left Cuba and went to Spain first, then to New York, and finally came to Miami. He was doing different jobs—anything to make a living. He was doing carpentry work and yard work. He founded Padrón Cigars on September 8, 1964. He had one cigar roller and he would sell the production at night. Initially, they were short fill cigars, but he also made some long fill that were sold to the Cubans in Miami in cafeterias. The long fill cigars were in boxes.
SMOKE: At that time he was using whatever tobaccos he could get, but how did you get involved with Nicaragua and its tobacco?
PADRÓN: My father was approached by gentlemen who had tobacco from Nicaragua for sale that he was looking to sell it to Europe. It was tobacco that was grown in Jalapa. He stopped in to show some samples to my father and my father realized how good it was. My father knew the tobacco he was offering was probably not going to be accepted in Europe because it was too heavy a tobacco and, at that time in Europe, they were using lighter and thinner leaves.
My father told the man, on his way back, stop in and we’ll see where it goes. He did and eventually my father went to Nicaragua after being invited by this gentleman. Dad then traveled to the farms and met with President Somoza who asked my father about the tobacco and what he thought. My father said it was the second coming of Cuba, it was great tobacco and Somoza should continue the project. Somoza had started this project of growing tobacco in Nicaragua but there wasn’t a market for it.
So Somoza basically had to create a market for it; that was the problem, because it was not easy. My father saw the opportunity and for him it was a perfect thing because he was starting off here in Miami and needed tobacco. Not only did Somoza have the quantity my father needed, but he also had the quality so it was perfect. My father was actually the first person to import Nicaraguan leaf into the United States for production.
SMOKE: You were still producing cigars in Miami, but when did you start moving to Nicaragua?
PADRÓN: Around 1970. He still had the factory here but shifted production to Nicaragua and, little by little, phased out the production here. It was obviously a very complicated time in Nicaragua because of the war, but my dad did have the benefit in that he was not involved in politics in Nicaragua with Somoza. He was very appreciative of what Somoza did, but they never had any partnerships and that helped him tremendously during the civil war because the people knew he was not involved in politics.
My dad approached Nicaragua based on the advice he got from his grandfather who said never mix business and politics. Somoza’s people did approach my dad and wanted him to open up a factory with them, but he remembered the advice and said no. Besides, he liked being on his own. That was a good thing because [the revolutionaries] remembered he wasn’t involved with Somoza and people respected my dad, but still the factory was burned down. It wasn’t the Sandinistas, but more like looting and such that took place during the war. He had already moved [some] tobacco into different warehouses [when] they burned the entire factory with bales of tobacco inside as well as another warehouse, but he had spread out tobacco into other areas of Nicaragua. He was able to reopen a makeshift factory a month and a half later to get the production rolling again.
SMOKE: The war in Nicaragua forced many cigar makers to leave the country. Did you move too?
PADRÓN: Yes, we eventually opened a factory in Honduras, around 1979, because of the problems that were continuing in Nicaragua. Then when the embargo hit in 1985 we shifted all the production to Honduras and closed the Nicaraguan operation. In 1990 the embargo ended and we went back to Nicaragua. We maintained the Honduras factory until 2007. It just wasn’t cost efficient because all of our tobaccos came from Nicaragua and it was a pain moving the tobaccos to Honduras.
SMOKE: Your father is still involved in the company isn’t he?
PADRÓN: My dad is very involved in the company now. In fact, right now he is in the office right next to me writing a book about his life. He has been hard at work on that for the last several months. We don’t know when it will come out, we’re working on it but there is a lot to do. He’s got an interesting history and a lot of things have happened to him over his life. He has a lot to write about. I think it is going to be an interesting read.
SMOKE: You are not known as a company that adds a lot of new cigars every year, in fact many times you have not added any new lines at all. Is that by design?
PADRÓN: Yes. It has been many years for us in the business and we certainly have not done it in a quick fashion. We’ve taken slow and steady steps and built the company that way. I think it is almost impossible to do what we did in today’s market. During the boom we were very respectful of our retailers and consumers and we have kept doing business that way. We have created a loyal customer base based upon mutual respect for our consumers and retailer. We have some expensive cigars, but we also have some very great value cigars that are competitive products and great quality and that is sacred. We haven’t touched that. We want to keep those things in line. If you want spend $30 for a great, great cigar you can do it. If you want to spend less you can still get a Padrón, a 2000 or 3000—they are great cigars. I think it is important as a company to have a wide array of products so you can reach consumers of all types and we’ve been careful to maintain that and preserve that over the years.
SMOKE: A few years back, you released something very different, the Dámaso—a Connecticut wrapped cigar named for your great grandfather. That was a pretty big departure for you.
PADRÓN: Absolutely. In our world you need to have products for every market and what people are asking for. We felt there was a segment we were not reaching and we could potentially lose out. Consumers come into the marketplace and try a mild cigar. And they work up to more full-bodied cigars like ours. We did not have a cigar for an entry point, we also didn’t have any product for consumers who like to smoke lighter cigars…a cigar that tastes good but one that is milder. But we are never about volume; we are focused on having a presence. Little by little we will make our inroads. Almost 60 percent of the cigars that are sold in the market are Connecticut or lighter cigars. For us not to have a presence in that area is not a good thing. I don’t want a customer to walk into a store…six out of 10 customers that walk into a store or even five out of 10 come in and are requesting a lighter milder cigar, and we don’t have something in that category we are automatically out in 50 percent of those transactions. So we needed to have something in there where people had an option with the Padrón.
SMOKE: So are you going to add to the Dámaso this year?
PADRÓN: We will be adding a couple of new sizes to the Dámaso, but we are also coming up with a little bit stronger version. We wanted to make something a little more medium bodied with a bit different flavor but still Connecticut. We also will be adding a size to the family reserve and of course we’ll have a cigar to mark my dad’s 90th birthday. At this time the blend is almost done so I can’t say exactly what it will be but I can say it will be a kick-ass cigar!