As the majority of cigar smokers in the United States surely know, David Garofalo is not a stranger to the business. After 30-plus years selling cigars through his retail network, 2 Guys Cigars, David also expanded to cigar making with United Cigars as well as what is arguably the best cigar podcast The Cigar Authority. In early September 2021, I attended a launch event held to celebrate Rocky Patel’s 60th birthday at one of David’s locations in New Hampshire and tried some of United Cigars’ fantastic smokes. I thought it would be interesting to talk to both him and Oliver Nivaud about the company and the amazing cigars they distribute and sell.
Jorge Tapies: Dave, what is the origin of United Cigars? How and why did you come up with the idea of starting the company?
Dave Garofalo: In 1901, United Cigars began as a chain of cigar stores in the United States. The brothers Charles and George Whelan founded the retail shop and wholesale tobacco company in Syracuse, New York. By 1926, United Cigars grew to nearly 3,000 shops nationwide, specializing in cigars. The company grew big, they distributed cigars for Consolidated Tobacco Company and American Tobacco Company and even bought Marvel Comics. They changed name and business in 1970 and, unfortunately, it was liquidated in 1986. I acquired the trademark in 2010. I first came up with the concept of United Cigars while I served on the board of directors for RTDA [Retail Tobacco Dealers Association, later called IPCPR and now PCA (Premium Cigar Association)]. I found that most cigar retailers were lacking business skills, and, in our changing industry, I felt things would get tough on the brick-and-mortar retailers. I tried to turn those organizations into education-focused ones but was not successful. As my personality would have it, I decided to take matters into my own hands and formed United Cigars.
I wrote a mission statement in 2010 and launched the company in 2011. The original mission statement read: “The Mission of United Cigars is to improve the performance of the shop owners and employees and improve customer loyalty. We will work together, united, to build profitability through an education strategy through open communication we call our think tank. Members of United Cigars will be proactive and motivated to improve and grow their businesses and the businesses of the members.”
In 2011, I went live on a Fuze meeting (much like a Zoom meeting today) with 214 retail stores listening live as I explained what I wanted to accomplish and how they could join me. Only seven retailers joined, and although disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm, we began. Bi-weekly meetings took place where I would bring in guest speakers or research business topics that would help cigar retailers. I learned so much myself, but membership and attendance were dismal. I set up at trade shows for the next three years to recruit new members and only built it to 20 members in total. Seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, I decided to pivot, and turned United Cigars into a cigar distribution company, but with the same mission statement. I thought, “let me make and distribute the right products to brick-and-mortar cigar retailers that can set them up for future success; divide and conquer.” The company was initiated to help the brick-and-mortar cigar retail grow and succeed, from the brands we make and distribute to the business practices we stand by.
Next, I set up manufactures to package and brand cigars for United Cigars and work in collaboration with us on unique and special projects. This caught the eye of Nelson Alfonso, who had come to the United States and had launched three brands of his own. He already had his own distribution but loved the idea of what United stood for and asked if we would consider handling his ultra-premium brands. After some discussion, I accepted, and United Cigars became the US distributor of Atabey, Byron, and Bandolero.
JT: What is the relationship between 2 Guys Smoke Shop and United Cigars?
DG: I own both companies. 2 Guys is also probably United Cigars’ best customer, but that’s where it ends. Sure, I usually know what’s coming out before others, and sometimes they Iet me try a cigar before it comes to market, but I delegated all the duties to Oliver Nivaud in 2016, and he deserves all the credit for its success, not me. I talk with Oliver weekly and meet with him when he is in town, but Oliver is a busy guy and not only travels throughout the United States but also handles our production in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
JT: Have you purchased any legacy brands?
DG: I got into the cigar industry in 1985 and I was always a creative guy. I made my first brand of cigars in 1990 called Dos Hombres and created and brought to market over 30 brands. I have also bought a few brands over the years, small brands to help out failing companies and make small amounts to keep them active. One in particular that I own I am very excited about for next year, as United will relaunch the oldest cigar brand in the world. Red Anchor was the first registered trademark for a cigar shop in 1770 in Delft, Holland, the first boutique cigar brand two years later, and then the factory of the same name. I acquired this trademark and added small amounts of these cigars to the portfolio over the years, but United has big plans for Red Anchor’s 250th anniversary in 2022. Like any good company, United Cigars has a forward-looking business plan, and the future looks bright and exciting.
JT: What’s the story behind Firecracker? Did you come up with the idea and the first cigar?
DG: Yes, I did, and to be honest with you, everyone said it was ridiculous and gimmicky and I agreed, but I thought it could sell and would be a fun project and it has been. I created Firecracker in 2006, feeding off another cigar I’d created called the Spark Plug, which was a short, fat cigar that was later given to Oliva Cigars. Oliva turned it into the now-famous NUB, another gimmicky cigar that I watched turn into a huge success; something I had in my hands and didn’t go national with, so I decided to go national with Firecracker. This project is truly a united product, where we use a different manufacturer each year to produce our limited release, but we do have our tried-and-true, everyday Firecracker that sells every day. The cigar was to be short and had to have a long fuse on it, The Firecracker. I called cigar manufacturers to ask if I could attach their brand to this project and was turned down because it was viewed as too much of a gimmick. Pepín García, from My Father Cigars, who was a new manufacturer at the time, visited me in New Hampshire, and when I told him of the idea, he said it was “loco” (crazy), but he would do it. He even made me a few samples at my store that day. I approved, and ordered 300 boxes to be produced in Miami, and everyone thought I was crazy.
The original Firecrackers arrived in early 2007 but didn’t go on sale until June of that year, as we wanted them for the 4th of July celebrations. That was the idea of Firecrackers and still is today on the Limited Release Firecrackers, which we make with a different cigar manufacturer each year. Also, we have an ongoing United Firecracker line that is available all year long. Then came the copycats, brands that copied my crazy idea, something that has no effect on the taste or the overall performance of the cigar itself. Just a wick to differentiate the Firecracker from other cigars. I took the brand national through United Cigars, selling them to retailers across the United States.
As I said, I have been very creative over the years, take the United Cigar Pencil, for instance, this is a 6-inch-by-28-ring-gauge cigar (152 x 11.1) modeled after a Number 2 pencil. While big ring gauge cigars were getting more and more popular, I made a 28-ring-gauge cigar, and it’s a huge seller for United Cigars and the retailers who push and promote them. They taste great, too – there’s amazing flavor in this tiny cigar. Oliver is now going back through my archives and has plans to relaunch some of the cigars I let sit dormant that he thinks he can resurrect; we’ll see.
JT: Do you have your own cigar factory?
DG: No, I never pulled the trigger on doing that; I’ve had the opportunity, but I didn’t. With cigar shortages now, I wish I had, but that comes with a whole lot of different challenges. We have great factories and talented people that we work with directly, such as Magia Cubana in the Dominican Republic (DR), Davidoff (both DR and Honduras), as well as with Perdomo, JRE, and Selected Tobacco. Perdomo produces the Garofalo brand in Estelí, Nicaragua, and La Gianna comes from Davidoff’s factory in Honduras. JRE makes the newly released Abuelo brand in Honduras, and from Costa Rica and Nelson Alfonso, we have our super premium brands Atabey, Byron and Bandolero.
I am proud to say that we have the best tobacco people securing the right tobacco for us and taking the extra steps we require for cigars to meet our three criteria. (1) It must burn well, (2) draw perfectly, and (3) taste great and consistently. There’s nothing worse for a retailer than to stock product that doesn’t meet these three criteria. Our partners and factory owners know the drill with us. We may sound like a broken record, but I know how it is on the front line, in the shop; that’s what United Cigars is all about.
JT: Oliver, tell us about the United portfolio. It’s very diverse, from a very affordable cigar to premium products like Atabey and Byron.
ON: We have over 20 different lines that we either manufacture or distribute. From USD 1.00 to 50.00, we have the right cigar for every palate and pocket. The United portfolio is exciting not only for the brilliant cigars we produce but for the coveted collaborations we share with retailers. Our United Firecracker is a great example, this vitola (89 x 19.8 | 3½ x 50) is produced on a regular basis at the Magia Cubana factory with extra wrapper leaf at the head to form our famous fuse. In 2021, we released the Wise Man Maduro Firecracker, blended by Nick Melillo of Foundation Cigars, as well as the re-release of the 2020 Perdomo Firecracker. This is just a glimpse of the great tools available for retailers to keep their customers engaged with unique products.
JT: How many cigars does United make and sell every year? And in how many states are your cigars sold?
ON: Last year we imported just under a million cigars. This was great growth for us, even with the pandemic and labor shortages. United is currently in over 40 states, but that’s up from last year as we recently added representatives to cover more states. Up until 2019, I was the only United representative traveling to all the states. This year we will be expanding outside the US.
JT: Who creates and blends the cigars for United Cigar Group?
ON: When I came on board in 2016, there were quite a few lines in the portfolio with a long history. My task was to introduce these lines on a national level at a time when United Cigars was unknown. My initial focus was the branding of United Cigars, so I worked on redesigning packaging for our core lines: United Cigars and La Gianna. After that, I turned my attention to quality control and profiles of the existing portfolio, as well as lines we’ve launched over the past few years.
Blending is a term that’s thrown around too easily nowadays. Blending is an art and there are only a handful of artists in this industry. So many talented individuals are behind the scenes creating magic. I’ll work on a line or retool a blend by tasting the samples that the master blender at the factory creates based on my direction. Once the blend is agreed upon, we then have a great team that shares their input on the final details, so when a cigar hits the market, we know it’s ready.
JT: Tell us the story of Atabey.
ON: This is a story in itself, and to be honest, it was the story that hooked me. The Atabey line is the brainchild of Nelson Alfonso of Selected Tobacco. This is the man who gave us the art to fill a museum; his lines are all works of art. Atabey is near flawless, the story, the cigar, and the man behind it all. The Atabey name is rich with history and a spiritual journey. The shortened version is that the Taíno Indians inhabited the Caribbean islands and devoted their lives to their gods. Atabey was their goddess of fertility and when the tribe sought spiritual guidance, they would gather in a circle under the full moon to communicate their prayers to their goddess Atabey. During the “Cohiba” ritual, tobacco leaves were bunched together and smoked by the tribe so that they could enter into a state of delirium and communicate with their gods. These tobacco bunches were blended depending on the needs of the village by the tribal leader known as the “Behike.” The Taíno would pray through the puffs of smoke they created and offer their prayers to the Behike, who would transfer the tribes’ prayers to the goddess Atabey.
JT: I tried a Byron Distinguidos last week, and I have to say that it was one of the best cigars I’ve had in a while. Are they made by the same factory as Atabey?
ON: Selected Tobaccos’ production is rolled at selective times, about three times a year, to avoid any cross-pollination with other lines that are rolled at the Tabacos de Costa Rica factory. This is only the start of the magic, though, and this is what separates Nelson Alfonso from the rest. After the production is completed, the rolled cigars are shipped out to the aging room with an aging process unlike anything I have ever seen. Imagine a room lined with five different cedars from around the world: Cuban, Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian, and Lebanese. These cedar planks are over an inch in thickness so that they can be shaved down a couple times a year and give the planks a fresh layer. The shavings are used inside of the Byron limited edition humidors that are released once a year to continue the aging process. While the cigars are resting, the humidity is reduced to 40% and then gradually brought back up to 70% over the course of these aging years. This not only allows the tobaccos to rest and marry together but takes the cigars through a final cleaning stage, releasing any impurities left behind. This process is never rushed, and aging times vary per line and blend. All Atabeys are aged for a minimum of five years while the Byron Centuries are aged anywhere from three to five years.
JT: How about your other products like La Gianna, United, Garofalo, etc. Are those sold only at 2 Guys, or do you sell nationwide?
ON: Although these were originally created to serve as an alternative to deeply discounted, online brands, they are all growing on the national stage. Like Dave said before, we have aligned ourselves with incredible manufacturers that deliver on their reputation. Abuelo and Dos Hombres are both part of United Cigars and available to retailers nationwide. We were particularly excited about the 2021 release of the Abuelo line that was blended by the Eiroa family at JRE Tobacco. It’s a beautiful Honduran Corojo blend from the Eiroa farm.
JT: Oliver, what’s next for United Cigars, what do you have coming for 2022 that you can share with us?
ON: Well, we’re always creating a new avenue for retailers to share with their customers. At the 2022 PCA, we will release one of the oldest cigar brands in the world, celebrating its 250th anniversary: Red Anchor, made by the Kelner Family. We have a few collaborations that we are excited to release around spring 2022 to celebrate America’s favorite pastime, baseball, as well as new releases from Selected Tobacco. Plus, we are honored to be releasing two more limited edition humidors celebrating the 25th anniversary of two amazing retailers, which I will leave up to them as to when they want to announce it.
JT: How do you see the future of the cigar industry in the United States, going forward?
ON: The industry is currently going through an amazing wave of growth. We all saw what working from home can do to the cigar industry. We have very educated smokers who are craving an experience when they light their cigars, and this won’t change. The future looks bright, and we all need to get United.