The maker of many of the top cigars of 2010 and Cigar Trophy winner for Best Cigar Line USA 2010 is José “Pepin” Garcia. But in 2000 Pepin was a cigar roller in a rural factory in Cuba. He has created more world class cigar lines in a short time than most cigar makers dream to.
In October 1950 little José was born in his grandparents cigar factory. At the age of seven, he started to work with the factory’s tobacco. He sorted picadura at first and then at age eleven he began rolling. The factory was called Fabrica de Tabacos W de Eduardo Garcia and the brand was simply “W”. His grandfather José Garcia sold cigars mostly to Havana but also to Camaguay under the W name. Young Pepin would work in the factory during the day and attend school in the evenings. Because his family had so little money it was important for Pepin to help out as much as he could.
REVOLUTION CLOSES W FACTORY
In 1963, Fidel Castro’s reforms had a direct impact on the Garcia family. The W factory was closed and everyone was instantly employed in the large state run factory near by. Pepin, being only thirteen years old, became the youngest roller in the factory. He worked for five years in the Felix Rodriguez cigar factory, named for Camilo Cienfuego’s bodyguard who disappeared at the same time as Camilo. His time at the factory was only ended by a required stint in the military.
Pepin served in the Cuban military from 1967 to 1970 as a driver. After his service, mostly in Las Villas, Pepin headed straight back to the cigar factory. But getting his old job back was not an easy task. The manager told him that there were no seats available. So Pepin had to beg, and convince the Chief that rehiring him would be worth the trouble. Luckily for the factory chief, Pepin was a motivated and talented roller. He worked his way up to the front of the rolling gallery and became very popular, according to his own assessment.
His first child, Jaime, was born just nine months after Pepin returned to cigar rolling. Things were going well. In 1973, he was nominated by his factory to represent the region in a national cigar rolling competition. The challenge, held in Cabaiguan, was to roll the most Montecristo #1s in four hours. 200 cigars later, Pepin won the contest and was declared the best roller. “That was the day I knew I was really good”, Pepin said.
BASEBALL AND BABIES
According to Pepin, there was only one team that was better than his. Havana Industriales was the only team that Las Villas could not beat. Pepin played Third-base for Las Villas in 1967 and played serious baseball between 1963 and 1976. Although he was highly competitive in baseball, having his second child made Pepin switch his focus. It was time to think about the family so he retired his baseball jersey. Now his only jersey is a Mickey Mantle, New York Yankee’s jersey. “Jaime was the perfect child”, says Pepin “he was studious, contientious, quiet and easy to handle.”
At age 12, Jaime went to a special school for agronomy. It was in Coralio, near Matansa. The school was called Aurora and it trained boys to work in the field of Agriculture. At the age of fifteen, he finished school and returned to his family in Baez. Back at home, he was put in charge of La Estrella, the largest farm in the area. His first farm in Nicaragua would later be named La Estrella after this farm.
COMING TO AMERICA
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Cuban citizens apply for a chance to leave Cuba for the United States. It is called the lottery and many apply but few are selected. Janny applied for the lottery and in 1996 won a place, interviewed with the US embassy, and left for Miami. Pepin and Maria, Janny’s parents didn’t want her to go. The family struggled with the decision and it is clear that just the memory of the decision is very emotional. During the interview for this article, both Pepin and Janny became very emotional. Janny explained, “It is very difficult to talk about this. It was a hard decision, to go”.
But they signed her papers, because she was under 20, and she headed off for Miami. Janny described living in Baez as, “A little town in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t know anything about the USA, I just went to Miami and wanted to see what would happen. When you live in Cuba, you think that living in the United States is easy and that there are lots of parties, but it is hard.” She had no family in the USA. Her only safety net were three friends who she stayed with after she arrived. Her only contact with her family was every two weeks by telephone. But after a few years, Janny was introduced to a man who owned a factory in Nicaragua and needed someone to manage it. She volunteered her father and he was hired. Pepin got a visa for Nicaragua and left, but his family was now even more spread apart.
A year later, Pepin was able to acquire visas for his wife, and Jaime with his wife. “Nicaragua was only a step for us. Our plan was to have them go to Nicaragua and then to the USA where I could see them again”, Janny explains. In 2002, once the four of them were all in Nicaragua, they bought visas for Mexico and headed for the US border.
MAKING IT IN AMERICA
Once the family was reunited in Miami, a new chapter started. They had all done their part to bring the family together in America and now it was time to build something together in Miami. The opportunity came when Pepin, then working as a traveling cigar blender and roller, met a tattooed young man in Beverly Hills. His name was Pete Johnson. When Pepin met Pete, they hit it off instantly. Though neither could speak the other’s language, they started talking about cigars. The conversation at the Grand Havana Room lasted into the night. They decided to pick it back up in Miami.
So Pete traveled to Miami to meet with Pepin and they discussed the type of cigars Pete wanted made. Pete had long wanted to create a cigar brand that had the characteristics of the Cuban cigars he so enjoyed. In Pepin, a top level Cuban roller and blender, Pete found a partner. These two would-be icons in the world of cigars met before Pepin even had a factory. But with Pete’s commitment to buy the first order of Brown Label Tatuaje cigars, Pepin and family opened their factory. El Rey de los Habanos (The King of the Habanos) was the factory name. A name that was ambitious at the time.
When “Pepin began rolling cigars”, it was literally Pepin who was rolling the cigars. So was Jaime’s wife. Janny and Jaime were pack- aging and running the administration while their mom prepared and sorted wrapper leaf. All in a small room on Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana, the family worked together to fulfill Pete’s order and make their own first brand. The first cigars made were the Tatuaje Brown, Don Pepin Garcia Blue, and soon after, El Rey de los Habanos, and Vegas Cubanas. Pepin recalled those days, “People told me that I was crazy. We opened next to La Gloria Cubana and people said that was crazy. But I know tobacco and I know that I can make a different cigar, a Cuban (tasting) cigar.” Janny recalls, “With all of our early blends, we were making ‘cuban cigars’.” Cuba was theirs and Pete’s model.
They both said that Cuban cigars did not live up to their potential. They wanted to create a cigar modeled on the best of Cuban cigars. But while their goals were lofty, the competitive reality of the cigar market was harsh. At the beginning they struggled to make payroll. Janny recalls, “sometimes we would have a cooler full of cigars but we couldn’t pay ourselves or buy tobacco until we sold them. It was hard”. Soon their problems would change.
After two years of hard work, introducing their cigars to the American retailer, their sails caught wind. Tatuaje became a cult hit and sales began to rise. The Miami factory needed to hire more rollers. The next hit was the Don Pepin Garcia Blue Label. Soon the factory was pumping out hundreds of thousands of cigars from only a couple thousand square feet. Production reached a level that exceeded the capacity of the factory even though it doubled its space in 2006. So the family decided that it was time to expand into a large facility in Nicaragua. Thanks to the popularity of the cigars being rolled in Miami, Pepin started to draw attention from other cigar companies. Some wondered what his secret recipe was.
Others wanted to be part of his success. Eddie Ortega and Erik Espinosa, owners of EO brands approached Pepin regarding a new cigar. They hit it off famously and their 601 lines were the first new lines produced from Pepin’s Nicaraguan factory. For a brief time, Ernesto Padilla’s cigars were made by Pepin but that relationship terminated after a couple years.
MEETING WITH ASHTON
Sathya Levin, V.P. of Ashton Distributors, was impressed by the cigars that Pepin made in Miami. With the idea of creating new brands with Pepin in mind, he brought some of Pepin’s cigars to Rob Levin, President of Ashton. The cigars were impressive and the Levins made an appointment to meet with Pepin. Since the Garcias were learning about the cigar industry as they went, Janny admits that she didn’t even know who the Levin’s were. But she quickly learned and Pepin, having been in scores of tobacconists, already knew and was in awe of the company. Pepin explained, “I felt very proud because Ashton came from Carlito Fuente and everybody knows that Fuente is at the top of this cigar industry.
I felt proud because Ashton trusted me out of everyone else in the business to make a cigar for them.” The result of their meeting was the San Cristobal (in Europe called “Paradiso”). The relationship has flourished. Manny Ferrero, Ashton’s chief of sales and jack of all trades, feels passionately about their relationship with the Garcias. “They are our family. We have a connection that is much deeper than just cigars. But they make f***ing great cigars!” Pepin had been making San Cristobal and La Aroma de Cuba (La Aroma del Caribe in Europe) when Rob Levin attended Pepin’s birthday party.
At the party he gave Pepin a box of La Aroma de Cuba cigars. Pepin explained, “I was very grateful because I had always admired the art on those boxes. It was my favorite art”. The message that he didn’t understand, and that Rob explained was, “No Pepin, I am giving you La Aroma de Cuba … to make”.
A NEW FACTORY
In 2009 the Garcias finished building a new factory complex in Nicaragua. It houses leaf processing, box making, cigar rolling, packaging and administration buildings. It is state of the art. More importantly, the space was needed for the production of all the new cigars they were asked to create. Tatuaje Red Label, Tatuaje P, Tatuaje Black, La Riqueza, Cabaiguan, Ambos Mundos, La Aroma de Cuba Edicion Especial, San Cristobal Seleccion del Sol, Old Henry, Cubao, Murcielago, Nestor Miranda Special Selection, Giralda, and Pepin’s own brands, Vegas Cubanas, My Father, My Father Le Bijou, La Reloba, and many more are now produced at the Esteli factory.
FIELDS AND FAMILY
The latest Garcia expansion has been into tobacco growing. Jaime has led the charge for the family to grow its own tobacco in Nicaragua for four years now. They began with a farm called La Estrella, named for the first farm Jaime worked in Cuba. Now they work several large fields with curing barns and processing
back at their factory. Jaime explains that growing their own tobacco not only lowered their costs but it gave them more control over the tobacco going into their cigars. It also allowed Jaime to put his skills to work in the fields. Much to everyone’s delight, the tobacco has started working its way into blends and it is very flavorful. The Garcias are a remarkable family. Every member has contributed to their success. Janny’s gutsy move to the United States allowed them to take a foothold in the world of private business. Pepin’s undeniable artistry with tobacco brought them into tobacconists worldwide. And now Jaime is taking over production in the fields and the factory. But what is perhaps most notable is the love that they have for each other. They stand together through every adversity. And their magnetism draws in Pete, “My Gringo Son” as Pepin calls him, and the Levins who “I will do anything for” says Pepin.
“MY GRINGO SON”
“Pete deserves a lot of credit for this”, Janny Garcia stated plainly when talking about the start of Don Pepin Garcia’s cigar factory in Miami. Before Don Pepin Garcia made cigars under his own name, he designed a cigar with Pete Johnson. The Tatuaje Brown Label is in many ways the foundation of both of their businesses. It was Pete’s first cigar and it also propelled Pepin into the spotlight. “I made my first cigar with Pepin and I don’t plan to make a cigar with anyone else. We are like family”, said Pete Johnson during an interview in the Garcia’s Nicaraguan factory. The loyalty between Johnson and Garcia is unbreaking despite their simultaneous rise to celebrity. They act more like best friends than like heads of companies. Pepin reciprocates, saying that Pete is his “Gringo Son”.
Over the past five years, Pete’s various cigar lines have been rated highly in this magazine. In 2010 two cigars earned positions in the “Top Cigars of 2010”. In 2009 Pete gained distribution in most of Europe and East Asia. International sales have been brisk for this tattooed former rocker from California. Pete is quick to interact with his smokers. He twitters, facebooks, and interacts on cigar forums. He travels nearly 75% of the year. But most of his success is attributable to his long hours working with the Garcias to refine and perfect his blends.
“It took us a long time to select someone to make cigars with”, said Sathya Levin. Rob then explained “But when we met Pepin and Jaime, I knew immediately that I could trust them. These were the guys who would make our next cigars.”
“When I tasted the first samples that Pepin gave us, I smoked half way through a cigar and I was shocked. I told Pepin, ‘If this was a girl I would marry her!’” explained Manny Ferrero. The San Cristobal was the first cigar that Pepin made for Ashton and its success confirmed what the Levins originally thought, the Garcias were the right people to build a relationship with.
“We have worked with the Fuentes since 1980 and have a long standing relationship. We wanted to find someone to work with who we could build just as good a relationship with”, explains Rob Levin, President of Ashton. The team effort has brought forth more than five, highly acclaimed, new cigar lines distributed by Ashton since 2006. The relationship between the Levins and Garcias is palpable. The Levins have supported the Garcias through their growing pains and now the Garcias are supporting Ashton by keeping quality high and sending the cigars.
This article was published in the Cigar Winter Edition 2010. Read more