“Our sales are way up, and we are actually having a very strong year,” says Robert G. Levin, taking stock after nine
months of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think that in these times, people revert to quality brands that they’ve known and are confident in.” The young-at-heart 74-year-old was inducted into Cigar Journal’s hall of fame this year and was awarded the Cigar Trophy for his life’s work. In his acceptance speech he said: “I think what this really means is that I’ve been in this industry for a long, long, long time. And I’m still standing.” And, indeed, this businessman has almost 50 years of experience in the cigar business – as a specialist, as a mail-order merchant, as a brand owner, a lounge operator, a lobbyist … he knows the industry from all angles. From his small shop in Philadelphia he built up a globally operating empire, which, as mentioned, stands on several legs. Together with his son, Sathya, and daughter, Meera, he manages one of the leading family businesses in the cigar industry. This includes the Holt’s Cigar Company with two specialty stores, and the Ashton Cigar Bar in Pennsylvania’s largest city as well as Ashton Distributors, Inc., which sells the family-owned cigar brands, pipe tobacco, humidors (called Savoy), and accessories.
After his studies in communications and media, Robert actually had little to do with his parents’ cigar business. Nevertheless, he began working at Holt’s Cigar Co. at his father’s request, and later took over the store. “I learned to love the business,” he says, summarizing the beginning of his career, and remembers the time fondly. “When you opened your cigar store at 7:30 in the morning, there would be a line of people waiting to get in. Remember, in those days you could smoke in offices, so people would pick up a handful of cigars and take them to their offices. But the majority of those weren’t handmade cigars, they were machine-made. As the huge national drug chains like Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid started carrying cigars and selling them at prices nobody could compete with, it was a natural progression for us to concentrate more and more on handmade cigars.”
At the time a young entrepreneur, he managed his father’s small store literally from the basement. Today, the warehouse and offices extend over 6,000 square meters (65,000 square feet). With more than 100,000 active customers in their database, Holt’s is among the five biggest cigar merchants in the world, whereby the main part of the business is of course done via e-commerce. At least four million cigars are constantly in stock under optimal conditions.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Levin released his first cigar brand, called Ashton, which was at first produced by Tabadom and, from 1988, in the Tabacalera A. Fuente. Ashton cigars were the first super premium cigars on the American market; at a price ranging between USD 1.70 and 2.50, they were pretty much the most expensive you could find. Together with Carlito Fuente, Levin has been creating all Ashton blends for more than 30 years. The two of them are bound by a close friendship; their fathers were already friends. Today, Robert says of Carlito, with a smile, “You should have seen him in his younger days. He looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger because he lifted weights all the time. Being around him, I always felt well protected.”
The basis of their collaboration was naturally the unbelievable knowledge of the Fuentes and an unwavering commitment to quality. All cigars with the Ashton logo on the ring are rolled at Fuente, and this will not change in the future, Levin assures. Ashton regularly ranks among the best-selling brands in the United States, and the Ashton Classic is still the best-selling cigar in the company’s portfolio, which includes around 20 lines (see Cigar Portfolio info box). A special jewel in the Ashton selection is the Estate Sun Grown (ESG) line, which was created in 2005. Robert Levin still beams with joy when he thinks about the birth of this cigar. “I was having dinner with Carlos and Carlito Fuente in the Dominican Republic and they told me that they had cultivated some sungrown tobacco from Chateau de la Fuente. As you know, for the OpusX they are using shade-grown tobacco from that same farm. So, I immediately jumped on that. ‘Let’s do it’, I said. ‘I’m taking it’. That’s how we came out with ESG.”
The 1990s brought the premium cigar business in the US to a boil. “Cigar Aficionado had a great deal to do with the cigar boom,” Levin says, also convinced about the role the magazine played. “Cigars were everywhere. The demand was so huge that it ended up in a shortage of good aged tobacco. There was a lot of stuff on the market that was unsmokable.” An experience that confirmed his conviction that quality must be paramount in the cigar business.
The year 1997 marked a milestone in the career of the Ashton founder. He himself had been traveling one week per month to promote his cigar brand in tobacco shops across the country, and he finally hired a small sales team. Today it is a team of 16 people who visit the shops throughout the US monthly. Internationally, Ashton, La Aroma del Caribe (in the US: La Aroma de Cuba) and Paradiso (in the US: San Cristobal) are on the market with a total annual production of over 12 million cigars in more than 50 countries and sold by renowned distributors. Since 1988, Levin has been working with Kohlhase & Kopp in Germany. Company head Adam Kohlhase speaks highly of his business friend in the United States. “Our business relationship now goes back two generations. I think that says a great deal. I’ve known Meera and Sathya since they were kids. And Rob is a gentleman through and through; straightforward, honest, generous, and warm-hearted. He always has an open ear and also a wonderfully dry sense of humor.”
For several years now, Eric Piras of Cigraal in Hong Kong has also been a distribution partner. “I truly respect and like Rob. He offered me the distribution in 2017 and I’m pleased about the substantial growth of the brands in the region.” While the international side of business is run by Robert’s daughter, Meera, her elder brother, Sathya, is de facto the man in charge of all day-to-day business. They both look up to their father with pride and respect.
For the two brands La Aroma de Cuba (… del Caribe) and San Cristobal (Paradiso) the Levins are in partnership with another highly respected cigar family, namely that of José “Pepin” García, his son, Jaime, and daughter, Janny. Today, all cigars of both brands are produced by My Father Cigars in Estelí, Nicaragua. La Aroma de Cuba was Winston Churchill’s favorite cigar during his time as a soldier and war correspondent in the Cuban War of Independence against the Kingdom of Spain (1895). Robert Levin was so taken by this detail of Churchill’s history that he registered the brand, which had already been abandoned, in the United States. But only for the USA, which is why it is called La Aroma del Caribe on the international market. In the first few years, it was manufactured at Flor de Copán in Honduras. “But once I had met with the Garcías, whom I already did business with, seeing their tremendous knowledge, their passion, and their hard work, I wanted them to take over this project. I love these guys.” At that time, Mr. Levin had already launched the San Cristobal (Paradiso) brand with Pepin García. Incidentally, the name is derived from the city of San Cristóbal in the Dominican Republic, as Robert Levin describes. “I had registered San Cristobal in the United States in the late 1980s because every time I would visit the Fuentes in the Dominican Republic – way before there was an airport in Santiago de los Caballeros – they would pick me up by car and we always passed this city.” This brand name is also claimed internationally by Habanos, which is why the cigar is known outside the United States as Paradiso. Paradiso had already been used as a brand name in the history of cigars, for Levin had found an artistically designed cigar band with this name on it in the Vrijdag Premium Printing museum in the Netherlands, where he has all packaging materials printed.
Robert Levin thinks back on the first few years of the new millennium, which were marked by recession, with mixed feelings. “The years 2008 and 2009 were the only years in our company history when we were not growing, not even slowly.” But rapid growth is not his goal anyway. “We are very careful what we come out with. We don’t come out with ten brands a year; we rather grow slowly and make sure that what we have is the right quality. The same is true on the retail side. When a consumer walks into your retail store you want to give him the best service you can. So, it’s not about the quick buck, it is about building a relationship.”Generally, Levin is convinced that cigars are in better hands with family businesses than with corporations. He says this out of conviction and experience after having taken his companies public once himself – if only for three years. “I hated it. Our niche business with handmade cigars is really meant for family businesses, because it’s not about numbers, it’s about people.” Between March and August 2020, both of Holt’s cigar stores in Philadelphia were forced to close due to COVID-19. The famous Ashton Cigar Bar was, at the time of our interview, also shut. Nevertheless, online business was all the more lively in 2020. Levin does not give exact figures, but he leaves no doubt that he himself was surprised at how much the demand for cigars increased during the COVID-19 crisis, saying, “This year saw a huge increase.” But even if many cigar companies will see growth at the end of 2020, Robert sees challenging times ahead for the industry.
“I think that every state in the US is hurting for money, for tax revenue and we all [the cigar business] are always the low-hanging fruit. I see that 2021 will be a brutal year with a lot of political fights. They [the politicians] are going to go after us. It’s just a matter of how hard.” This is where the lobbyist in Robert Levin comes through. For years, he has been chairman of the Cigar Rights of America and is fighting together with the Padróns, Fuentes, Newmans, Patels, and many others, for the existence of the premium cigar industry. And ultimately quite successfully. His heart beats for the cigar and … for all of us. Thank you, Robert Levin!
Copyright Images: Ashton Distributors