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Boutique is in the heart
Most of my previous column (“Fuck Making The List, Make The Legend”) addressed the eighteen-year struggle of Drew Estate, as well as a tidbit about my personal history since our start at the World Trade Center in New York City.
In writing this second column for Cigar Advisor, I figured that it would be interesting to address why I still view Drew Estate as a “Boutique” premium cigar company, even though we have become one of the largest in the world, currently producing 92,000 hand rolled cigars per day, every day…
One of the things that I cherish the most about my career of cigar making is spending time in Nicaragua with the full Drew Estate and Cigar Safari team. Since 1996, I have put my heart into that country and its people, and I never could have imagined how much they would have given back in return. Not only has Nicaragua become the home to Drew Estate, but it has become home to me personally as well. Throughout the years, I have spent close to 80% of my time there, and when you spend that much time in one place, believe me – you get to know it well. Attending various Cigar Safari trips with all sorts of veteran and newbie cigar smokers has become an important part of my life, as I will explain.
Cigar Safari is a tour that we run for consumers in which we take them to Nicaragua to see the sights, experience the culture, and live the world of tobacco. The trip is four days, three nights, and during each tour I get to spend significant one-on-one time with everyone attending. I truly cherish these moments, as they allow me to unwind, get to know new cigar advocates, get feedback on how we're doing as a company, and learn what Drew Estate can do to make the cigar smoking experience better for everyone throughout the world.
If you've traveled with anyone before, especially to a new country, you know how much of a bonding experience that can provide. Imagine being able to show your new acquaintances something so near and dear to your heart, and something you've literally poured 100% of your blood, sweat, and tears into for almost twenty years. My heart swells with pride every single time I see the reactions of the attendees to our main Rolling Floor when they see it for the first time. The energy in that space is truly unparalleled; thousands of bodies moving perfectly in sync with one another, creating something so integral to our existence as a company… EPIC.
If you've ever had the pleasure of visiting our factory, you know what I'm talking about. I truly believe that the Drew Estate Rolling Floor is unlike any other in the world, not just within Nicaragua. Much of this has to do with the unique Drew Estate workforce and creative departments, such as the 5,000 sq ft “Subculture Studios”, made up of 36 graffiti artists who know how to get berserk with a spray can.
On the Drew Estate Production Floor, we prefer to hire people with little to no experience. We have an extremely specific method that we use when producing cigars and we find that people who have prior experience rolling with a different method tend to fall back into old habits, even with extensive training. Can you imagine the amount of muscle memory that becomes ingrained in your brain when you roll 250 to 300 cigars per day? Those habits are next to impossible to break, which is why we hire employees who are fresh to rolling, then train them for years as they reach their respected potential. Not everyone becomes a Liga Privada team member, trust me. I think this is a major part of the reason our rolling floor has such a special energy, because the “Rolleros” and “Buncheros” are extremely unique… well, also, don't forget the music that we blast all day long… ha ha ha.
Another aspect of Drew Estate Nicaragua that I am very proud of is the paternal manner in which we treat our employees at every level of the workforce. While rolling, our staff is allowed to listen to their own music, talk to their friends, and generally enjoy themselves while they make beautiful cigars, of course. Again, there is a vibe and aura at our factory that is very unique, which everyone notices when visiting us on a Safari tour. Paying the highest wages to our workers, along with providing healthcare and other benefits such as life insurance, creates a “team relationship” that grows each day among the people who “actually make the cigars”. We are not talking salesmen here (no disrespect of course, but salesmen and marketing people don't roll cigars, factory employees do!).
I have surrounded myself with talented young professionals who have become my personal friends throughout my eighteen years in Nicaragua. I'm going to talk about a few of them below but, with over 1,450 employees at our factory, I'm definitely not addressing everyone in this article.
First, I have to talk about Fat Boy, my man Jessi “Victims” Flores. Jessi has been with Drew Estate Nicaragua since 1999, after we met each other at a gas station when his fat ass jumped out of a shadow. We both had a passion for tobacco, hip-hop, graffiti, art, and all things Nicaragua. We soon combined these interests to concoct Subculture Studios, a graffiti-based art studio attached to our factory in Nicaragua (it was actually a tattoo shop in the center of Managua first). Because of the work of Jessi, Subculture Studios, and the 36 full time graffiti artists, we were recently recognized for our design work by receiving the “Outstanding Art” award for 2012 from Cigar Journal Magazine.
Our Executive Director of Tobaccos and Production, known as the “Chief of the Broadleafs”, Nicholas Melillo, has been with the company for ten years now and has been a major asset in bringing our company to our current level of expertise and quality. Nick, an Italian kid from Connecticut, has been instrumental in creating blends to categorically change the traditional cigar market. Nick also manages all of our tobacco buying (somewhere in the “spend” neighborhood of 15 to 20 million USD yearly at this point), and has been made responsible for securing enough raw leaf to keep our operations running smoothly into the future. He is absolutely essential to our success as a company, as is Manuel Rubio and Jessenia Moncada, who we will discuss in a future article.
In regards to Cigar Safari, one of the most important characters of them all is Pedro Gomez. Pedro is our Cigar Safari tour guide and, if any of you have been on a Cigar Safari, you know Pedro well! He's become a bit of a legend over the years, as he seems to know EVERYONE in Nicaragua. In fact, I've heard Pedro addressed as the Mayor of Estelí (the city where our factory is located in Nicaragua) more than once by Cigar Safari attendees. Some Nicaraguans sincerely think that he may one day actually become Nicaragua's president! Pedro will be moving to the U.S.A. in June 2013 to help lead our Events Department, visiting stores and final consumers who have gotten to know him over the past six years.
This brings me to the beginning and the end. At what point does a “Boutique Cigar Company” lose its roots and become a “Corporate Cigar Company”? The answer is the same as the question, “When does a person become old?” The answer is defined in the person's heart, their attitude and, in this case, in the market's perception, quite honestly.
I never want to see Drew Estate as anything other than a “Boutique Cigar Company”, a company of innovation, a company not afraid to take risk, and most of all, a company who is made up of Hommies who keep it Local and Loco.