Cigar Makers

Ashes-to-Ashes: An interview with Yadi Gonzalez-Vargas of Flor De Gonzalez Cigars

What was the very first cigar you ever smoked, and how well do you remember it?
Yadi Gonzalez-Vargas: Oh gosh, how could I forget. I was 24 years old and my dad was making these great cigars that were being highly rated by the cigar magazines. I was still going to school and wanted to act cool, so we go out one night and I took some “Gold Series” cigars with me. With nothing to eat and a drink, I totally forgot all the tales I had heard about cigars turning you green. Sure enough it kicked me right in the stomach. Although this is a mild to medium cigar, when you don’t know how to smoke, even the mildest of cigars can do a nasty little trick on you. I sure learned from that. I’ve had my share of cigars since then with no problems at all. Actually, now I can even enjoy the most full-bodied cigars.

Please tell us about your family background and how you got started in the cigar business.
Yadi: Our family background in the cigar industry goes back to my great-grandfather who was a tobacco grower in Las Villas, Cuba. My grandfather worked those fields and my Dad was barely old enough to play in them because his father passed away when he was still a little boy. A few years later when his grandfather also went to heaven to watch over us, his mother moved to Havana and took him out of the fields. But tobacco was already in his blood, so as soon as he had a chance, he started making cigars in exile. This was in 1993, and in 2005 he went all the way back to his roots when he purchased some land in Ecuador and began growing tobacco for wrapper leaf.

I entered the industry in 2001. The boom had ended and my father had started making cigars in Nicaragua, plus he had diversified his finances into other businesses such as liquor stores and real estate. Since I had an accounting and finance background, my father asked me to work with him to help in that area. Based out of the Cigar Factory in Hialeah, Florida, during free time from paperwork I was in the back getting my nose into the small production going on there. Little by little I was spending more and more time playing around with blends and embracing the entire process of making cigars.

Tell us about the history of Flor De Gonzalez Cigars, including when it was established, and your approach to growing and blending tobacco.
Yadi: Flor De Gonzalez was established in 1993 out of Hialeah, Florida. We have been manufacturing quality premium cigars at affordable prices for the past 17 years. During the boom cigars sold like hotcakes. There were 60 rollers making cigars and every single stick that was made was sold, and then some. The Flor De Gonzalez brand received some of the highest ratings given back then. By 1998 everything came to a halt and only a few who made certain changes survived. We are one of the fortunate. My father moved over 90% of his production to Nicaragua and focused on making mass production cigars, again, at very affordable prices. During those years there were no changes to the existing blends, no new blends, no new lines, no marketing, and no advertising.

My father is very hard working man, but admittedly he does not have a lot of experience in marketing and public relations. He is a man of his word and very respected in the industry among the old timers for the way he does things. When I started working with him and saw the potential that the brand had to make a comeback I started trying to make changes. This was not simple, and trust me when I say that our Sales and Marketing Director, Roberto Alonso, who has also been one of my father’s best friends for over 30 years, used to come to the factory on his down time from Real Estate and politics to smoke a cigar with my father. He saw me trying to make changes, and since he had an extensive sales background he decided to come on-board.

Robert has helped me with the marketing and the presentation of new packaging as well as the preparation for industry trade shows that we didn’t participate in before. We are now more proactive in making changes to please today’s demanding smoker by offering more complex, full-bodied, and flavorful blends in our cigars. Together we have made changes that have been very positive for the company. That said, we are focused on taking it to the next level very soon.

What was the first premium cigar line you brought to market and how did it do?
Yadi: In terms of full, hands-on blending and production, the first line that I brought to market being was the 15th Aniversario. This cigar was done as a tribute to our fifteen years in the Industry. We also had the great fortune and opportunity to debut the first crop from our plantation in Ecuador on that cigar. We used a beautiful milk chocolate color Desflorado Connecticut wrapper on the cigar that burns white as chalk. The 15th Aniversario line has been very successful for us since we introduced it in 2007, and since then everyone that smokes it really enjoys it. It is a limited edition cigar manufactured in our Miami location.

How many different lines of cigars do you produce, and which are your best sellers?
Yadi: We currently have 11 lines of cigars with 52 vitolas. This does not include private labels we produce like Journeys. I would have to say that all our lines sell pretty well. Our latest lines like the box-pressed Selection, the 15 Aniversario, and the Flor De Gonzalez Green series tend to sell more. This is because since the release of the Flor De Gonzalez Selection, we have started steering our blends to what the consumer is asking for in a cigar; a little kick and lots of flavor. Every time the lines are introduced to a new store and the owner gets behind them they become a hot seller because they are truly great cigars at very competitive prices.

How personally involved are you in the blending process of your cigars?
Yadi: I am totally involved in the blending process. I have been 100% involved since the blending of the 15 Aniversario. We have an excellent blender in Miami. He was a blender at Romeo y Julieta in Cuba for 15 years. Between my father, him and me, we make the blends and tweak them until we feel they are ready for production. I also have a few private label clients with whom I work very closely on the blending of their cigars. As a matter of fact, one of them was just rated “92” something we are quite proud of. I have learned tons from my father and continue to learn everyday from anyone that can teach me something. I have become so acquainted with tobacco that I have acquired the ability to smell and feel the leaf, and 9 out of 10 times be able to tell what it is. I just love it. As I always say, it gets in your blood.

Who would you say is the typical Flor De Gonzalez cigar smoker?
Yadi: I’d say the everyday smoker as well as the social smoker could be identified as a typical Flor De Gonzalez smoker, simply because we have such an extensive line of cigars right now. So, you could say we cater to just about anyone who would like to smoke a good premium cigar. We have everything from mild to full body, as well as from the inexpensive everyday cigars like the Flor De Gonzalez bundles, to the super premium boutique cigars, all ranging from $1.50 to $9.00. So there’s a cigar for everyone’s taste and budget.

Since you entered the cigar business what are some of the most important changes you’ve seen?
Yadi: Sadly enough all the important changes that I’ve seen take place in our industry lately are mostly geared to high taxation and destruction of our business. The over 700% SCHIP tax increase that we experienced at the federal level last year shook the entire industry pretty hard. It has already left hundreds of people out of jobs right here in our backyard, not to mention all the taxes that continue to increase at state levels, the constant smoke bans across the country, full authority to the FDA over the tobacco industry, the bad image that marketing campaigns against tobacco portray, and the list goes on and on.

Fortunately, we are coming together by taking the offensive as an industry through different groups and organizations and having our voices heard. Our government needs to know that we will not continue to be their easy target for tax dollars. I think that this proactive approach we have taken will be marked as the most important change to our industry today.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the cigar industry today?
Yadi: Again, I’d have to say that all of the smoking bans, bad publicity and tax increases added to an economy that is already hurting. We need to find a way to be heard and to educate the public that our industry can not be compared and confused with cigarettes; that cigars are a hobby and a means to socializing with others, not an addictive habit.

What is it about the cigar business that gives you the most pleasure?
Yadi: What gives me the most pleasure is how I feel about the business. The simple fact that I eat, live and breath cigars and that I don’t get tired enlightens me. The fact that every day when I wake up I am ready to keep going despite taxes, smoking bans and the economy drives me. That I do not dread another day of work, that on the contrary, no matter how difficult the adversities seem sometimes, I still want to go in and give it my best shot one more time.

I work from home, the office, the park, and even on vacation because it doesn’t feel like work, it’s part of my life. I have fun doing it and I make some money while I’m at it. After all that, to have someone tell you “you guys make a great cigar!” what else can I ask for in life? It’s in my blood. (_[ca]__{{{