In every profession there are exceptional talents. Among cigar makers, too, there are a few who do the term “genius” justice. One of them is Abdel J. Fernandez.
In music one talks about the phenomenon of perfect pitch – attributed to Mozart, Bach or Chopin, among others. How the neuronal connections work is not clear, but we do know that the gift is in the genes, and can also be learned, and that the early childhood environment can strongly foster this talent.
The Man with Perfect Taste
If there were something like a person having the perfect sense of taste, A. J. Fernandez would be a candidate for this list. In the meantime, however, research has found that taste originates in the head and is subject to learning processes as well as cultural influences. Both cornerstones of taste education are present in the curriculum vitae of A. J. Fernandez.
He grew up in Cuba – not anywhere in Cuba, but in San Luis. The small town is part of the province Pinar del Río. Those who live in the well-known tobacco region mostly come into contact with tobacco processing already as children.
One of A. J.’s early memories is how he helped his grandfather with de-ribbing leaves. “Where I was born, coming into contact with tobacco was simply not avoid-able. Tobacco was omnipresent. I grew up with it. There was no question as to what I would do later in life – it was already sketched out,” says the Cuban exile, describing the start of his professional career.
“In my universe, nothing except tobacco existed, for my father worked with tobacco, my grandfather, my uncle … It was placed in my crib, so to speak; it is in my blood,” he further muses. But the young Abdel had one other home advantage: he worked with Alejandro Robaina, who initiated him into the secrets of tobacco. This ideal legacy he took with him to his new home of Nicaragua.
While he is talking about his childhood A. J. takes a long draw on a cigar. Each day he smokes one cigar of each line of his portfolio … and one of each format. “His cigars are like children for him,” explains the marketing manager for A. J. Fernandez Cigars, Clay Roberts. “Every day he wants to know what condition they’re in.”
If you think about the fact that A. J. Fernandez only left Cuba nine years ago, it’s all the more remarkable that today his factory produces between 40,000 and 60,000 cigars daily. In 2004 he began working for his uncle, Nestor Plasencia, for a short while, but in no time at all he was buying tobacco himself and opened his first “factory” in Estelí – a garage in which he had six rollers rolling for him.
Even today, the name “Tabacalera Fernandez” still adorns the door. There has been no production there for a long time now, but A. J. and his emotions are still attached to the place and he isn’t giving it up.
The then-25-year-old produced cigars for the brands that sold very well. Word quickly got around in the branch that in Estelí there was a young, talented Cuban exile who was producing cigars.
He was flooded with order after order. As early as 2006, A. J. was able to rent his first own tobacco plantation and plant tobacco himself on the farm La Soledad. A milestone was laid in 2008 – the business bought its first own field and the workers remember the long, happy party night – right on this field.
But there were even more reasons to celebrate in the year 2008. Well known, big labels had in the meantime started hav-ing their wares produced in the Tabacalera Fernandez. One of them was Rocky Patel with his Summer Blend 2008. In 2009, the cigar Man O’ War became a bestseller in the United States – made by A. J. Fernandez. In addition, for Cigars International he produced the brand Diesel and Ave Maria, and alongside those, lines for Gurkha, Padilla and continued his work for Rocky Patel. In answer to the question how he was able to deal with so much success within such a short time, A. J. answers simply, “Through work, work and more work.”
The Move to his Own Brands
Although from 2004 production volume grew month by month, and the one small garage became seven factories spread throughout the whole of Estelí, the cigar maker began to want to create his own brand. Not any kind of cigar but the cigar. In 2010, A. J.’s first private label was released on the market, the San Lotano. San Lotano was his grandfather’s house brand in Cuba; the name derives from his birth place San Luis. The creation was enthusiastically received by passionados worldwide. In the USA, 1.5 million are sold annually.
Thomas Strickrock of Woermann Cigars imports them to Europe and, when talking about the impressive sales figures, he goes into raptures. “San Lotano was and is the lucky strike for our house because it causes huge interest worldwide. Thanks to this brand, we’ve gained a huge number of international customers in our European distribution. Now the new private label from A. J. – the Pinolero – is already on its way.
The next highlight that many consumers and traders are already asking for!” In the meantime, the newest brand already comes in six formats. While San Lotano is an homage to Cuba, with the Pinolero, A. J. Fernandez is paying homage to his new home. Pino is a type of fruit in Nicaragua, a Pinolero is a “juice maker.” The Pinolero has been on the market in the US for eight months and the factory can hardly keep up with the orders. “If the numbers continue to grow like this, within a year we will have sold half a million Pinolero cigars,” says Clay Roberts happily.
The business has now reached a point where it is impossible to take on new orders from external companies. Eighty-five percent of A. J. Fernandez Cigars’ production is for external labels; 15 percent for their private labels. However in the next few years, this ratio is supposed to develop so that at least 25 percent of the capacity should be freed up for the production of the company’s private labels.
Asked about the recipe for A. J.’s success, the taciturn tobacco person’s explanation is brief: “My maxim is simple. It’s made up of two things: discipline and passion.” A. J. gives tobacco the time it needs and he uses only the best raw materials.
“I don’t take on orders that ask me to use young tobacco. That’s one of my principles,” explains the business man.
The XXXL Factory – An Investment in the Future
During my visit to Nicaragua the production of cigars was spread across seven different factories within Estelí – and in the meantime, another, new, huge factory has opened its doors on the outskirts of the city. It is one of the biggest cigar producing factories in Central America. From the storage of the raw materials to the fermentation and the refrigeration – everything is housed under one roof – on an area measuring 12,000 square meters.
A. J.’s eyes shine when he asks “What do you think of the new factory? It was high time for us to combine our forces and put everything under one roof.” The size of it simply flabbergasts me, but if you’re producing 15 million cigars, you’re going to need some space. The factory also houses a rolling school; three to six months is how long it takes to become a roller for A. J. Fernandez Cigars.
The business offers 1300 people jobs; the key positions, however, are almost solely occupied by Cubans. Here A. J. relies on family members and friends.
The structure is well thought through, everything goes hand in hand, and logistically, no unnecessary distances are covered. Right next to the new factory building A. J.’s brother-in-law works. He is the owner of the box factory, with 220 employees. This is where the boxes for the Fernandez cigars are made, but also for the external brands and for many other labels that are produced in Estelí.
Besides talent, geniuses are also attributed with creative powers. This is also palpable with A. J. Fernandez – his interest is only in cigars, nothing else. To put himself in the spotlight is beyond him. Even if his cigars carry his name, he doesn’t want to be the star who represents the brand on the outside.
His place is in Nicaragua, on what have since become 15 plantations, and in his factory. He sees himself as a tobacco planter and blender, nothing else. Sometimes, late at night, he has the best ideas for new blends. Then nothing can stop him and – suddenly inspired – he will drive to his factory to immediately try out what taste-wise has just taken place inside his head.
Ten Questions for A. J. Fernandez
Who was your most important teacher?
What has served you best in your life?
My family, friends and close associates.
What kind of mistakes can you forgive?
I am a very forgiving person. I always forgive. I like to focus on the future, rather than keeping mistakes of the past alive. Of course, I do learn from the mistakes that I have made.
What personal characteristic of yours do you find special?
Humility! This has led me to where I am now.
Who is your hero?
My parents and grandparents. My entire extended family have always been so supportive of me. It’s a blessing.
What has been your greatest triumph?
I was lucky enough to be trained by a handful of the world’s finest cigar makers. My greatest triumph has been taking that knowledge and producing some very fine cigars myself.
And your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement is the personal satisfaction I gain by providing many different kinds of people with steady jobs.
How do you explain your previous success?
Hard work and the desire to achieve my dreams.
What is the perfect cigar?
The creation of a perfect cigar consists of several factors: careful planting and care of the actual tobacco plant; time honored harvesting methods; secret methods of curing and fermentation; and the quality selection and blending of the final product. I take great care in bringing all these labor intensive elements together to create the perfect cigar. A cigar with a perfect burn, beautiful texture, and a taste delight from the beginning to end … something that truly makes people say WOW!
Where do you see AJ FERNANDEZ Cigars in ten years?
Oooff! In ten years a lot can happen in one’s life. For me, so much happened in the past ten years. My consumer and retailer base continues to expand on a daily basis. I can only imagine that the AJ FERNANDEZ brand will someday be common place throughout the world. I want cigar lovers from all walks of life to enjoy my product. That is my goal. And as the company continues to grow with each and every day, I must also grow, both professionally and personally, without ever compromising my commitment to quality and humility.
A. J. Fernandez – Portfolio 2013
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2013. Read more