Oscar Valladares recently moved his production into the old Oliva factory in Danlí, Honduras. He currently has around 100 employees, but the space is actually only half-filled with bunchers and rollers. This is a place to expand, which is what he’s done very quickly. “We have 20 couples at the moment, but we’re soon going to have 20 more,” he says, pointing to an empty space. “ This has all happened really fast. Sometimes I wake up and wonder if it’s all for real.” Yet, it is. In only four years, Valladares has made his mark on a highly competitive market with his Leaf by Oscar line.
And it all started 12 years ago, when he agreed to drive around some American visitors to Honduras for five days. “I lived in Tegucigalpa at the time and I worked in the tourism industry, renting out cars, booking hotels, and stuff like that” Oscar explains. “One day, all the drivers were busy, so the manager asked me if I could pick up a couple of ‘gringos’ at the airport and drive them around for a few days. I’d never driven a bus in my life, but I worked in an office and it was boring, so I said yes. The roads are really narrow here sometimes, so I drove on the sidewalks when I tried to do sharp turns, but we never had an accident,” he says proudly.
One of the “gringos” turned out to be Rocky Patel. “I formed a good relationship with Rocky and I saw him smoking cigars. He was going to bring more groups to Danlí and wanted our services, so I told the manager about the offer, and that I wanted to do it. I started smoking, and after a while I noticed my palate changing. When Rocky did tastings I could tell him which leaves were sweeter, and so on. He told me I had a good palate.”
Two years later, Rocky offered Oscar a full-time job, which he turned down. “I didn’t want to sit in one place all the time,” explains Oscar. The following year, Rocky asked again and got the same answer. “‘Are you insane?’ ” he asked me. “He told me that I’d make more money that way. I didn’t want to. But the following year, my girlfriend, who’s from Danlí, got pregnant, so I said ok.”
We walk around the factory. The entrance is through a small shop that sells all Valladares’s brands – Leaf by Oscar, Rosalila, Island Jim #2, which is a private label for the cigar shop Leaf & Bean in Pittsburgh, and even his first brand, 2012. “I like for every cigar to have its story,” explains Oscar. “When we did our first cigars, I put a single cigar in the middle of every box, to make it stand out. According to Mayan tradition the world was going to end on December 21, 2012, so it was meant as your last smoke ever, or to celebrate new beginnings.”
Eight years ago, Valladares started his first own company. He was still not producing cigars, but was distributing Rocky Patel’s in Honduras. “ There were no cigar shops in Honduras, so I’d drive around and try to sell to souvenir boutiques, restaurants and bars, but they only bought singles. So I decided to organize an event. Fifty people came. They smoked cigars and loved it, but nobody bought anything. Two months later, I had another event, which Rocky came to. Same thing, but it was all good. I had invited magazine journalists; in their articles there were all these diplomats with cigars in their pockets, so Rocky Patel became fashion. Then I made 75 small humidors and put them in restaurants, bars, gas stations. Sales went up 300 percent. Rocky was impressed and gave me the whole Central American market.”
At the same time, Oscar took on a partner, but that didn’t turn out very well. “I had to leave Rocky Patel, and in 2011, I moved to Tegucigalpa because I was broke. One year later, I moved back to Danlí again, and that’s when Bayron called me.”
We continue through the aging rooms, the sorting room and the complete disarray of cardboard boxes full of tobacco, all over the sample room. This is where master blender and Valladares’s partner, Bayron Duarte, has his goldmine. “I smoked my first cigar when I was four years old,” Duarte tells me. “I grew up around tobacco and have worked with it for 22 years now.” The pair first met when Valladares started driving the bus for Rocky Patel. “Bayron is here all the time, seven days a week,” Oscar says. “Once he called me at 3am and told me to come down and test this new blend.”
Duarte grew up around the Padrón family and started working in tobacco when he was 12 years old, starting in the construction of the actual factory and moving on to bunching and quality supervising. “Bayron was production manager for Oliva when a group from Canada was looking for a factory to produce one million cigars,” Oscar explains. “He and some friends got a factory. The Canadians paid for 25,000 sticks, and then disappeared for two years. So Bayron was broke, too, and his partners wanted to sell. Then he called me, but I had no money.” Oscar had never planned to have his own factory, but he called his brother to ask for a loan. At first, Oscar’s brother said he didn’t have that kind of money. “But you have the house,” Oscar reminded him. “Do you trust me?” were Oscar’s magic words, and his brother agreed to take out a mortgage, saying “My wife will kill me.”
After that, it was mostly uphill. The company started by doing 24 boxes of 2012, using only tobacco grown in Mayan areas. That’s when Leaf & Bean owner, Jim Robinson, came into the picture. “Jim had a group coming down for a week, so he called me. He liked my cigar and wanted to be the first shop in the US to sell my cigars. He bought 30 boxes. Then he wanted my cigars to be his house blend and call it Leaf & Bean by Oscar. I didn’t want my name to be on it, but he said it would sell better if people who came to visit Honduras could relate the product to me.”
Robinson ordered 5,000 and took 1,000 with him, giving all his visitors 100 each. After a week, Oscar was asked to send the remaining 4,000 cigars because Robinson had sold out. Apparently, people loved the packaging. Instead of cellophane, the cigar was wrapped in a tobacco leaf. Bayron and Oscar had come up with this idea for the cigar that stood out in the 2012 box. They asked Jim if he wanted it, and he said yes. “A tobacco leaf preserves the flavor better than plastic,” Duarte explains. “ This is more natural and in the spirit of the Mayans. It’s more rustic.” Robinson ordered more and more; Valladares went from one roller and one buncher to 25 employees in total. He moved out of the private house in which he had started his first factory, to a bigger place. His cigars started gaining attention on social media and other shops began contacting Robinson to start selling Leaf & Bean by Oscar. “I didn’t want to sell cigars with a shop’s name on it, so I changed the name to Leaf by Oscar.
Jim opened about 100 accounts in the US in three months. Today our cigars can be found in 1,000 shops across the country, as well as in a few countries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.” After this, the company moved two more times and, in January 2015, finally settled in the old Oliva factory.
They take me outside, to the cooling room. “Do you want to see something different? Oscar asks suddenly. “Bayron and I have a hobby.” We walk to the far end of the property. Next to a body shop there are 10 to 15 cages set up along the back wall. “We do cock fighting. It’s a tradition here,” he continues, taking out a rooster to show me its feathers. “ This one’s from Alabama, this one’s from Puerto Rico, and this one was given to us by A.J. Fernandez,” Duarte says. “He likes cock fighting, too.” He takes out another rooster, but it gets too close to Valladares’s and they start jabbing at each other. The roosters, that is. “ They’re brothers, as you can tell,” Duarte says with a laugh.
So the story of Valladares continues. He now owns two cigar shops – a small one in Tegucigalpa and one with the only lounge in the country, in San Pedro Sula. He’s growing his own tobacco, and in 2016, he launched the brand The Oscar. All in all, it’s been an intense ride so far; looking back, Oscar is happy about the ups as well as the downs. “Being broke can bring out the best in you. If I’d had money at the time I probably would have made some fancy packaging, like everyone else. The idea is to be different, and I like to see people’s reactions when they see the cigar, like, what the heck is this? Some people even smoke it with the leaf on.”