From Gastronomy to Tobacconist: A Professional Journey
My background professionally is in the food industry. My father started his own catering business in the mid-nineties after working for others for most of his life in restaurants. I have worked in that very family business for over two decades and now enjoy being one of the owners of this rather successful enterprise. After getting into cigars, I found the comparisons between the food and the cigar industry to be intriguing. I, like many cigar enthusiasts, consider cigars to be another branch of the culinary arts. While we do not consume tobacco quite the same way as we do food, we do still appreciate their flavors and aromas much like any other gastronomic creation. Even the dichotomies of the two industries have striking similarities. I want to explore these similarities in regard to the different types of brand owners in the cigar world and their food industry counterparts.
The Corporate Owner Model
There are, as I see it, three major types of brand owners in the cigar industry, each with their own style, approach, pros and cons, and business strategy. Starting with the most widespread, we have the Corporate Owner Model. These are brands that belong to larger conglomerates, so brands such as Macanudo, Montecristo (non-Cuban), La Gloria Cubana, CAO, and many others fit into this category. These sorts of brands may have once been independently owned and operated by a single owner but are now all part of larger entities like STG and Altadis. The clear comparison in the food industry for brands such as these can be found in chain or franchised food service establishments, like Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, etc. Much the same way that foodies would usually stay well clear of these places for a meal, boutique cigar enthusiasts will often express similar sentiments when faced with the above-mentioned cigar brands. The obvious advantage of this model in both food and cigars is the apparent consistency of the product and the sheer volume of production and sales. It is also worth noting that these sorts of brands are not without merit in terms of quality. Often, companies with a larger budget can acquire special or proprietary tobaccos—or ingredients, if you will—in greater quantity. The disadvantage, however, can be seen in a more generic product that is often the case in both industries. The creative latitude of the blenders (and chefs) working in such companies can be limited due to the corporate nature of the business model, which may not be to the liking of consumers looking for a more authentic or unique experience.
The Brand Masters
The next category of owner is what I call the Brand Masters. These are the sorts of brand owners who are independent, have extensive knowledge of the industry, and while they do not do any of the blending for their brand, they do find high-quality blenders to work with. Jon Huber of Crowned Heads and Skip Martin of RoMa Craft are two prime examples of Brand Masters. Both individuals do what the best restaurateurs do: set up an environment for their employees to do the best work possible and also market their wares with mastery. A great restaurateur makes it his priority to showcase his restaurant and menu to the public with enthusiasm, all the while highlighting the talent of his chef and crew. Similarly, the Brand Master will also be thoroughly creative in marketing his cigars, while ensuring to highlight the names of the legendary blenders or factories they work with. Jon Huber himself is very frank about his role, stating that he leaves the blending to those who do it best. He instead focuses on what he can do best: showcasing the brand.
The Master Blenders
Lastly, we have the most artistic of the owner types, the Master Blenders. To be clear, there are MANY master blenders who do not own their own cigar brand, and likewise, many master chefs do not own their own restaurant. What I am focusing on here, though, are the master blenders who also own and run their own brand. Much like a master chef who owns his own fine dining restaurant, a Master Blender in the ownership model will be in control of as much of the sourcing or even producing and growing of his ingredients. He will be the one ultimately responsible for concocting the original recipes for his brand and overseeing the execution of his vision in his factory. The factory is, after all, his “kitchen,” and nothing will leave that kitchen if it does not meet his standards. The Master Blender will insist on sourcing his tobacco from only the best farms, if not growing it themselves on their own farms. Similarly, the great master chefs of the world will often grow their own produce and herbs, make their own cheeses, butcher their own meats, and forage their own mushrooms and truffles. The approach and the advantage of this ownership model are one of artisanal authenticity. AJ Fernandez, Jose Orlando Padron, Carlos Fuente Sr., and Litto Gomez are just a few examples of who I consider to be Master Blenders in this ownership model. When you enjoy a cigar from a brand owned by a Master Blender, or a meal from a restaurant owned by a master chef, you can be certain of that original authenticity. The successful Master Blenders and master chefs are truly marvels, as they have demonstrated their prowess not only in the creative aspect of their craft but also in the business sector as well. This is no small feat, and whenever you come across them, they truly seem larger than life.
Embracing the Diversity in Ownership
In both of these industries, all three ownership models have their place and serve a unique purpose. The industry would not be the same without any one of them. And while it does seem that there is an increasing frequency of brand buyouts in the cigar world, there is also a never-ending emergence of fresh new companies that enter the fold. I have great respect for all of them and will always be in awe of the craft they represent. Cheers!
About the Author:
I am a Certified Consumer Tobacconist, having enjoyed cigars for over 10 years. I operate the Jonose Cigars cigar review channel on YouTube. My principal objective is to introduce and propagate the cigar lifestyle to as many individuals as possible. Simultaneously, I am dedicated to exploring every facet of the cigar craft throughout this journey.