In November or December of 1995 Rocky traveled to Honduras to meet a cigar-maker who he hoped would make cigars for him. At the time, Rocky was an entertainment lawyer living in Los Angeles. Among his clients were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gene Hackman. Life was good. Smoking cigars on movie studio lots between takes was a regular activity.
In the evening, Rocky would smoke cigars at the Grand Havana Room, the epicenter of cigar culture in Los Angeles. As enjoyable as life was, Rocky flirted with abandoning the law to pursue his passion for taste. Luckily for us, he chose cigars over wine and cooking – though he privately indulges in both of those.
INDIAN TABAC BEGINS
This trip to Honduras resulted in a relationship with Honduras Cuba Tobacco, the company which would make his first Indian Tabac cigars. “During the ‘cigar boom’ it was easy to sell cigars” Rocky says. As demand was at its peak, Rocky created the Indian Tabac Super Fuerte. Instead of making them with Honduras Cuba Tobacco, he made them with Nestor Plasencia in El Paraiso, Honduras.
The relationship with the Plasencia family continues to this day, though it has evolved constantly over twelve years. Rocky explains that he wanted to work with the Plasencias because “they had all the tobacco”. In 1998 demand for cigars was so strong that manufacturers competed fiercely for the best stocks of tobacco. So Rocky developed a plan. He went to the family that grew the most tobacco in the region, the Plasencias, and partnered with them for his cigar production.
Rocky explains, “at the time the Plasencias were big growers but they were not making many high quality cigars. My idea was to make cigars with them that they would be proud of. If they made good cigars for me, they could tell people that they made those and then that would help their business.” Of course, making good cigars for Rocky, would also be good for Rocky.
YEARS OF GROWTH
And it worked. In 1998 Rocky shifted the production of Indian Tabac cigars, not just the Super Fuerte, to the Plasencia facility. That year he sold $400 k of cigars. In the following years sales grew (600k in 1999, 1.2m in 2000, 1.8m in 2001). This growth happened while cigar sales as a whole shrunk in the United States.
Sales grew at the expense of “shoe leather” says Rocky. Not only did Rocky spend months a year in the factories and fields of Honduras, but he visited hundreds of cigar retailers in the same period. He would spend weeks or months at a time on the road visiting stores and getting people to try his cigars. Clearly his efforts paid off. But this was just the beginning of the company. In 2001-2002 the company marketed a new cigar line, the Rocky Patel Vintage cigars. These featured tobacco, acquired from the struggling UST company, which had been aging since 1990. The tremendous reception to these cigars increased RP sales in 2002 to $2.5 million.
BUILDING THE FRATERNITY
Now the company had reached a size that needed an infrastructure to support it. One by one, Rocky had assembled a team of sales staff, marketeers, office and warehouse personnel. The key personnel were all drawn from friendships and family members.
This hiring practice is evident today as the company headquarters feels more like a coed fraternity than a corporate office. Situated in a business park in tranquil and gorgeous Naples Florida, Rocky Patel Premium Cigar Company bustles with youthful energy. Personalities shine within. During a walk through the halls you are likely to hear conversations ranging from the merits of various social media, to the pros and cons of a “fair tax” or often comments about Nish Patel’s fashionable shoes. It is a fun environment but do not be misled, their focus is business. Somehow every conversation relates back to cigars. Rocky explained that “I prefer to hire people I trust and who have a passion for cigars. If they don’t have experience in that type of job I will train them but they need to have a passion for cigars. When I started this company I had to do everything so now I can train people to do all of the work here.”
A LITTLE HOLLYWOOD
Rocky did not leave Hollywood entirely in his past. He has brought a little glamor and audio video technology to Naples, Florida. The marketing department has its own a/v suite to play with, complete with green-screen. Visit www.rockypatel.com and you will hear “Hi, I’m Rocky Patel and I’d like to welcome you to our website. I can promise you that nobody works harder to make you a better quality cigar than we do.” Rocky magically emerges from the tobacco fields on your screen to talk to you. That was all shot in their studio, and they have more video to come.
On the Audio side, the gang of personalities have started to produce a company branded podcast. Weekly, fans will be able to tune in, via internet, to hear the antics afoot at the Rocky Patel Premium Cigar Company. The crew includes a smooth Hollywood Producer, a quick-witted king of Fraternity-boys, a Country everyman, the worldly Patel Brothers and a host of periodic visitors from all parts of the company. Rocky will always join in the podcast, even from the road, if only for a few minutes. The chemiestry of the group shows through on air and makes great “radio”. In addition to internet content, the boys have been hard at work creating a DVD which our European readers are well acquainted with. These are all parts of a global strategy to transform the Rocky Patel Premium Cigar Company into a Lifestyle company.
PATH TO LIFESTYLE BRAND
Rocky’s family/fraternity have been cranking out hit cigars for nearly fifteen years. The gang practically live together and always talk about cigars. They spend holidays at each other’s houses. Whether Rocky is cooking at his house or the Patels are at another employee’s house playing dominoes, they are almost always together. They have created a lifestyle, the Fraternal Order of Rocky Patel Cigars, that combines fine cigars, travel, drink, and cameraderie with a youthful edge. Now that his cigar portfolio includes so many hits like the RP Edge, RP Decade, RP Sungrown, RP Vintage 1990 and 1992, and the list goes on, Rocky is expanding his product portfolio outside of cigars, but with a connection to cigars.
The first Burn Lounge just opened in Naples Florida. When you walk in, you are entering a mansion in old Havana. The walls appear to be in disrepair but somehow it is luxurious. Sitting in an eggshell chair, you are surrounded by arches and above you seems to be the sky. The humidor is stocked with every Rocky Patel cigar you could desire but also exclusive cigars made by the Fuente family, Ashton, Padron, Litto Gomez, and others. Burn Lounge is a concept that Rocky expects to roll out across the US first and then the world. His idea is to create a comfortable place to enjoy cigars. The theme is cigar related but is not your typical English bar. He proudly features fresh fruit in cocktails and fresh herbs as garnish. This five-star type service is likely to win over many connoisseurs of the good life. The first lounge is open in Naples, but Rocky is working on three other locations right now and is in talks with a national hotel brand about opening Mini-Burns in their prestigious properties.
Life-Enthusiasts need more than cigars and a place to smoke them. With that in mind, the guys at Rocky Patel Company have created products that complement the lifestyle. A clothing line has been under development for a couple years. The line of mostly shirts is in a Tommy Bahama relaxed style but with a Cuban twist. Extremely high quality Guyaberas (Cuban Shirts with many pockets), and relaxed beach shirts feature detailed embroidery, and colors that allow you to wear the shirts anywhere.
You need to smell good when you wear an RP shirt so Rocky is developing a fragrence for men. Laughing, he said “it won’t smell like cigars but it will draw on some of the tastes associated with cigars like spice, wood, et cetera.”
Once you have a good cigar, a nice shirt, you smell good and you have a place to smoke, all you need is a nice drink. Rocky will soon have you covered there too. He is developing a Rocky Patel Rum. At the time this is being written we only know a few things about the Rum. Rocky is talking with several distilleries including the Guateamalan distillery which makes Ron Zacapa. Rocky told this magazine that the rum will be very high quality. “It will be one of the best rums in the world” he said. “I want it to have lots of spice, also nuts, caramel, cherry, pepper and other flavors.”
15TH YEAR AND FORWARD
Clearly, Rocky is not a man who likes to sit still or rest on his laurels. Recent high ratings in this magazine of his Decade cigar are apparently not enough. He is launching a new cigar in July caled the Rocky Patel 15th Anniversary. It is an amazing cigar with tremendous flavor and smooth richness. It tastes a little like a cigar version of his upcoming rum. Perhaps that is no coincidence. There will be two versions of the cigar. One will be for Europe and the other for the US. The only difference between them is that the US version will be mold-pressed into a rectangular shape. Clearly, Rocky Patel Premium Cigar Company is a company worth watching. Conveniently, they are making it easier to watch them than ever with their internet content. But more interestingly, they are a company to meet. With Burn lounges, lifestyle products, and a cast of characters, RPPCC will somehow be accessable to you wherever you are.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2010. Read more