One of the true pioneers of the cigar industry was the late Sal Fontana. A Sicilian who grew up in NY and made a life in the cigar business, Sal’s official title at Camacho was “Consigliere.” He sold cigars for 62 years, but his true claim to fame was developing the monstrous Baccarat “The Game” cigars, as well as the La Fontana cigar brand.
Rarely in life do we have the chance to be mentored by somebody like Sal, who had an enormously positive impact on many people. I do not think anybody will ever mark my life the way Sal did, and the memory of him spilling coffee and leaving his little cigars all over the place, walking around with piss all over his pants, always makes me smile. He was a good man and a very hard worker.
I met Sal when I was about 8 years old; he gifted me a ruler calculator that did not work-it was a piece of junk, actually. He loved closeouts and bargains so whenever he saw one, he would buy it, no matter what it was.
I did not start working with him until 1995, when the cigar boom started and I had moved to the Camacho factory in Honduras. By 1998 the boom was over, and I had to go on the road to learn how to sell cigars. This was definitely not something Sal was happy about, and he would stick me on the worst road trips possible – remote places like Montana and Vermont, although he always claimed they were my idea.
What made him so memorable were his quotes, which were commonly used before or immediately after he would do something that would embarrass us. Sal's explanation for this was, “Kid, at my age, I have a license to say whatever the fuck I want!”
When asked “How are you feeling, Sal?”:
“Fucko, would you ask me if I were 40?”
When discussing offering trips as a prize for contests:
“First prize, one week in Honduras. Second prize – two weeks!”
When an order from a customer was a small one:
“Fuck you, I could smoke that many!”
When cigars were priced higher than MSRP:
“… and you sleep with yourself at night?”
When developing promotions:
“If they (the retailers) can't cheat on it, it's not worth doing.”
Sal was rugged, with a colorful sense of humor that only he could get away with. He never missed an opportunity to embarrass us, and nobody was safe. Once he reached 80, he began using a scooter for the trade shows because he felt he could get pity orders, and it worked, even though he was 100 % healthy and could stand all day long. But that was Sal.
“Jake, go get the fucking scooter!”
In 2008, after a trade show in Vegas, we decided to take the whole crew to a restaurant to celebrate. We texted Sal the information and he was on his way. About ten minutes later Sal arrived in his scooter, but the restaurant's tables were placed so that the walkway was narrow.
Once he spotted us he made his way for our table, but miscalculated his path and bumped into an even older couple having dinner. What made these matters worse, is that he backed up three times, each time bumping the table over and over, spilling the wine on the old lady at the table.
Of course, everyone at our table was praying he would not even look at us but instead, after wedging the scooter completely under said table, he jumps up – starts walking in our direction and says: “Jake, go get the fucking scooter!” Poor Jake had to go and apologize to the octogenarian couple. When we confronted him about this embarrassment, his answer was classic: “Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke”.
At one point Sal had actually prepared a resignation letter because I was driving him up a wall. Fortunately, he never did resign, and eventually stood as the best man at my wedding, and became Godfather to my third child, Santiago.
“I go to Puerto Rico every year…”
In 1998 I left the factory in Danlí and moved to Miami. This cigar boom had recently ended, and it was tough developing sales. One day a gentleman from Puerto Rico showed up. He operated the main duty free stores at the Cruise Ship port in San Juan, and was interested in bringing in our cigars. His biggest mistake was that he had terrible timing: Sal was in the office that day.
I was 25 at the time and remember being extremely polite to this very nice, but very formal gentleman, when in walks Sal: “What the fuck, doesn't anybody know how to drive in Florida?!”
I was terribly embarrassed, but acted as if nothing had happened. A minute later, Sal enters my office and I quickly make a formal introduction, explaining that the man in my office was from Puerto Rico and dropped a hint so Sal would understood how important he was.
Sal quickly figured it out and acted accordingly…or so I thought. He quickly extends his hand and says: “Puerto Rico? Huh, I go to Puerto Rico every year…to visit my hub caps.”
Wow!!! I felt the sale fall through instantly. The gentleman quickly got up from his chair, shook my hand, thanked me for my time and walked right out.
Introducing Camacho in 2000 was a huge risk for us: we were known for selling Baccarat “The Game” at $3, so for us to sell Camacho at $3.95 – $5.95 was a big difference. At the time, we had worked up some samples using Havana 2000 wrappers, but the prospects never took the blend, so at the 11th hour we decided to launch a second cigar, Camacho Havana, priced at $1.95 – $3.95, just so we had something to fall back on.
Sal always said that this was a bad move, and that neither cigar was going to sell. Wouldn't you know it that we sold more than we ever dreamt?
Here we were, back at my office and I was fighting with him that he screwed me up and because of his warnings, we sold the Havana way too cheap. Sal quickly gets up and disappears for about two hours and then comes back with the most classic of solutions.
“Don't worry kid, I solved the problem. I told everybody there was a misprint on the price sheets and that the Camacho Havana Cigars were actually $1.00 more per cigar”. I fell out of my chair. It was incredible what this old guy could get away with!
We are a multi $$$ corporation…
It was during the late 1990's when we had concerns about Y2K that we decided to buy a MS Windows-based accounting software that was very expensive for us at the time. We called many firms until we decided on the one that would work best for us.
This poor salesman sang and danced for us during a three hour presentation until he finally revealed the price of the software, which was $25,000. Sal spits out his coffee, looks at the guy with a straight face and says: “Fuck you, don't you know we are a Multi Hundred Dollar Corporation?!”
That guy did not know how to react, I though he was going to punch the old man.
Over the years, it was impossible for his humor not to grow on you and I soon began to say things. As you can imagine, he was mentoring me in this business.
Case in point: We were visited by a short lived Florida magazine that was doing a story on us. The reporter was a little rough around the edges and despite a very nice interview, he over steps and asks a very personal question: “So what are your yearly sales?” I responded without missing a beat “$350 Million”.
Sal smiles at me proudly and looks at the reporter and says: “You see kid, you got a stupid answer to a stupid question.” Needless to say, the story never ran but as I think back, it was the very first time that Sal became proud of me for not taking any shit from anybody.
Hey you piece of shit…
Every year Sal would get invited to a hot air balloon event in New Mexico; apparently this is a very big deal over there. Each time, Bill Richardson, the governor, would attend and spend much of his time around Sal because he too is a huge cigar smoker. One year, when Richardson was running in the primaries for President there was also a smoking ban in NM.
Sal once again went to the event but this year we could no longer smoke cigars and sample them with the guests. In walks the Governor with his security detail. Sal spots him and walks across the room to greet him and says: “Hey you piece of shit, you fucked us all up with this smoking ban!”
If there ever was a moment that the security guards would beat up an old man, this was it. Richardson signaled the men to stop and actually took his time to explain to Sal that he was forced to sign it because of the way the law passed.
One of our last road trips together was to NYC. We went around the city to visit the different customers and as we are heading back, it starts pouring. We ran and took cover under the St. Regis awning. Sal turns to me and asks me to follow his lead.
Little did I know that he had flagged down the hotel’s Bentley to give us a ride, pretending to be a guest of the St. Regis. When I asked him what he was doing, his answer was simple: “Shut up, dummy, I got us a free ride to our hotel”. Not only did he get us a free ride back to our roach motel, but he made the driver wait for us and deliver us to the Four Seasons where we were having dinner.
“… He did”
Sal was very close to big Abe from the Smoke Inn, and if you have never met the man, he is a gentle giant, but a massive guy. One time they were working on a design on a computer and after reaching Nirvana on the design, Abe began to kiss himself all over the place. In doing so, he turned to Sal and said: “God should have made two of me.”
Sal, without thinking about it answers, “He did!”
Toward the end, Sal began to tell stories about his life but always kept his sense of humor about him. He began to tell me about his experience in the business and offering me advice as to what to do with my future and he began to share: “Christian, in my career, there are probably only two people who did not like me” I asked “Max Burns?” and he followed “Ok, maybe three people.” For some reason they never hit it off and he always said, “Christian, his wife put the UG in UGLY”.
Sal kept going on strong until he passed at the age of 86 in early 2011. His last days were very sad and the opportunities to meet with him were scarce. Fortunately for him his family was able to make time and he was surrounded by all of them. It almost seemed that he was most worried about making sure everybody was fine and that he expressed that he was ready to go. He still had to go out with a bang, though. He called all his big customers and said, “This is my last order, I am kicking the bucket tomorrow so you better make it a good one.”
They broke the mold when they made Sal, and there will never be another like him. It was very painful starting up again knowing he is no longer around, and I think about him every time I smoke a cigar, every single time.