In the 50’s the M & N Company was using more Cuban tobacco than ever before, and to facilitate their manufacturing process the company moved to Tampa, Florida. One of J.C. Newman’s dreams was to have a truly “premium” cigar in the M & N stable; Stanford accomplished this with the acquisition of the Cuesta Rey brand from Karl Cuesta. His next problem was how to competitively market his new premium, the Cuesta Rey Palma Supreme, at 26 cents:
A fellow will try a new cigar, like it, and never buy it again. He goes back to the brand he is used to. It’s like a marriage. A man can go out with a girl on the side and think she’s the best woman in the world, spend the whole night with her, but in the morning he’s forgotten her name and he goes right back to Mamma. I often told our salesmen that we were only going to get as many conversions to our brand as there were divorces.
His solution was to market a new line, the Cuesta Rey “Number 95.” The numbered name was distinguished and unlike the competing brands. And he did something else to distinguish it from the others: he raised the price from the standard premium price of 26 cents to 35 cents! (A tactic still in use today by premium cigar makers, if I might add.)
The use of 100 percent high quality Cuban tobacco was also a factor in the success of the new Cuesta Rey. This involved numerous trips to Cuba to inspect the tobacco, and as it turns out, the fertilizer.
My visits to Cuban tobacco plantations always began the same way: The tobacco grower led me straight to the largest pile of cow manure on his farm. “Just look at that nice big pile!” he would say, beaming with pride. As my tour of the plantation continued, the farmer inevitably called my attention to every immense pile we came across.
One of Newman’s primary suppliers in Cuba was Carlos Toraño Sr., who was betrayed by Castro after the revolution and by Newman’s account appeared in person to seize Toraño’s farms. (This was Toraño’s reward for helping Castro finance the revolution, believing Castro’s declaration that he was not a communist to be sincere.) But the revolution had repercussions for Newman as well, especially after Kennedy signed the Cuban Embargo into law.
The Tampa cigar manufacturers stored most of their tobacco in warehouses in Havana and had it sent to them as needed on a ship called The Privateer that traveled between Havana and Tampa twice a week.
One man convinced me to prepare for the day when The Privateer might no longer be allowed to bring Cuban tobacco into the United States: Angel Oliva, one of the most prominent leaf tobacco dealers in Havana and Tampa, and one of the fairest, most honorable businessmen I knew. He was convinced that the Cuban situation was only going to get worse. He believed the U.S. would soon be forced to embargo Cuban tobacco in retaliation for Castro’s increasingly hostile conduct. In July of 1960, Angel invited me to visit a tobacco grower and packer in Quincy, Florida, the same tobacco-growing region I had turned to when Connecticut Shade became prohibitively expensive after World War II.
At first, I declined Angel’s invitation. Why buy Florida tobacco when I could still get it from Cuba? But Angel was persistent. He practically dragged me to Quincy, even paid for my plane ticket. In Quincy, we discussed the possibility of growing candela wrapper. The tobacco dealers did not want to produce the candela tobacco unless someone was prepared to buy it. I agreed to put up the money for an experiment to produce about 100 bales.
When the tobacco was ready, I took fifty bales and encouraged Angel to take the other fifty as samples to show other cigar manufacturers. I wanted to make this wrapper tobacco popular so that it would be accepted by consumers and the industry. Most of the manufacturers wouldn’t even look at it. They quickly changed their tune when, four months later, the embargo Angel had predicted came to fruition. The other Tampa cigar manufacturers then followed my lead, placing orders with Angel Oliva for more than 6,000 bales of Quincy candela wrapper
Eventually Cuban wrapper would be supplanted in the U.S. by Cameroon leaf, which was controlled by a French monopoly. Cameroon leaf was auctioned off at events called “Inscriptions,” and at one of these Stanford had yet another opportunity to display his business acumen.
One year, when the Cameroon tobacco crop was in short supply, I set an Inscription record for the highest bid ever offered in the auction’s history. I joked that if one of my employees had paid that price, I would have fired him. If I had been working as tobacco buyer for someone else, I’m sure they would have fired me too.
I believed that if we had the highest quality tobacco, our cigars would sell; that the bitterness of poor quality remains in a smoker’s mouth long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten. And I was right.
In 1986 Carlos Fuente approached Newman with a proposition. Fuente wanted out of the machine-made cigar business he had in Tampa to concentrate on his hand-made cigars in the Dominican Republic. He asked Newman if he would interested in taking over his Tampa brands. Newman did the math and found that he couldn’t make a profit on this deal. But he said he’d do it anyway, on one condition: that Carlos Fuente make premium hand-made cigars for the Newman outfit. He agreed, and soon Fuente was producing La Unica for Newman, followed soon by Cuesta Rey. As the cigar boom caught fire in the late 90’s the Newman-Fuente combo came up a number of super-premium smokes, among them the Diamond Crown which features tobacco aged for five years and an inspection regimen so stringent that only fifteen of every fifty cigars produced are approved for sale.
Today the Newman family and the Fuente family work side by side as cigar families; in fact their website is just that: http://www.cigarfamily.com/
Cigar Family is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the American cigar industry. And for anyone who enjoys Diamond Crown, Cuesta Rey, La Unica, or any of the other great cigars from the Newmans—it’s required reading.
And a great deal on Newman’s Cuesta Rey Centro Fino cigars is available by joining the Connoisseur Club by J. C. Newman.
Stay tuned for a review of a Diamond Crown Maximus pyramid which has been beckoning to me from the humidor…