Retailer scours Nicaragua for signature cigar blend
Posted: March 28, 2013 – 11:22pm
By KAREN SMITH WELCH
A concept truly conjured in smoke-filled rooms in Amarillo and Nicaragua should result in a custom product available by mid-summer.
Good Karma Cigars, a premium cigar seller in Amarillo, has enlisted Florida-based My Father Cigars to produce its signature blend, owner Todd Dailey said.
Dailey made the first of what he expects will be many trips to tobacco-growing Esteli, Nicaragua, in January to tour company fields and factories in search of a custom cigar to follow on the success of a no-longer-available variety Good Karma sold 18 months ago with its own wrapping.
“We sold 9,000 units of Donkey Dropping,” Dailey said, defining a unit as a single “stick” or cigar.
“It became an underground cult classic all over the country and beyond,” Dailey said. “Guys were trading it. Customers were almost bribing us. … We had a hit that we couldn’t get any more.”
Patrons snapped up the entire Donkey Dropping supply — a reference to Good Karma’s donkey logo — in 90 days at $6 a pop, Dailey said.
Dailey plans for the cigar under development to lead a new premium line, one of several growth strategies for the 2010 start-up that garners more than half its business online and anticipates $1.3 million in sales this year. Bricks-and-mortar expansion will come, too, for the shop headquartered at 1709 S. Polk St.
“We are in negotiations right now for a property in Lubbock to open down there,” Dailey said. “And we will add another two stores in primary markets downstate in the next 12 months.
“Before we ever opened the door, the idea was we would brand cigars. We will be spreading some good Karma around.”
A number of sellers pursue their own blends, said Gordon Mott, executive editor of Cigar Aficionado.
“Cache is certainly one way to look at (the advantages),” Mott said. “It gives them a talking point. But it is also a high-margin product. When you cut out the middle men and the distributors, … the margin is pretty high. So it makes sense.”
My Father Cigars manufactured Cigar Aficionado’s 2012 Cigar of the Year, the Flor de las Antillas Toro, Mott said.
Cuban ex-patriot José “Pepin” Garcia and his family built My Father Cigars from a Miami operation employing about a dozen cigar rollers to one of the biggest operations in Nicaragua, according to Cigar Aficionado.
Nicaragua’s cigar production is second only to the Dominican Republic, Mott said.
“While not every cigar manufacturer does private-label work, many of them do if they have some excess capacity and excess tobacco,” Mott said. “There are a variety of reasons that could support a private-label business. It really comes down to personal relationships.”
United States businesses import more than 300 million premium cigars a year, according to Mott and industry statistics from Cigar Association of America.
“These are premium cigars, not the things that come in little boxes at your gas station,” Mott said.
From sowing to smoking, the creation of a cigar is labor intensive, he said.
An industry maxim estimates “something like 520 hands, 520 people end up touching (a cigar) during the process, from putting the seed down into the ground to the final step of sealing the box,” Mott said.
Premium cigars can contain several tobaccos, Dailey said.
Seeds are sown in greenhouse nurseries, with plants a few weeks old transplanted to fields, he said.
Leaves have different flavor qualities, depending upon their location on the plant, Dailey said. They are harvested individually, tied in bunches and hung in large barns to dry.
Dried leaves are stacked to cure.
“They’re constantly stacked and unstacked: The top becomes the bottom, the outside becomes the inside,” Dailey said. “If somebody could watch this process, they would never come back to the U.S. and complain about the cost of a cigar.”
Cigar rollers, who work in pairs, churn out hundreds of units a day, Dailey said. The duo consists of one employee who rolls and molds the cigar’s inner blend and a finishing roller who wraps the inner stick with a top-grade leaf.
“So much of the flavor is in that one outer wrapper leaf,” he said. “If they could isolate it out and grow only wrappers, that’s all they would do.”
During his three weeks in Esteli, Dailey said, he worked with blending experts to zero in on the types of tobacco the Good Karma cigar will contain.
Good Karma will make an initial order of 35,000 to 40,000 units, he said.
They will come in three sizes. One example is a robusto, which is a cigar roughly 5 inches long with a “ring gauge,” or diameter, around 50/64ths of an inch, Dailey said.
“It’s designed to give you about a 45- to 60-minute smoking experience — big enough to experience the complexity changes throughout,” he said.
Signature blends in cigars attract connoisseurs, just as they do in whiskey, bourbon or other favorite indulgences, Dailey said.
“Our prototypical customer comes in and says, ‘What’s new?’ They’re experimental,” he said. “They’re familiar with 20, 25, 30 different brands.”
Companies like Good Karma hope to entice consumers who try a stick into buying a box, Dailey said.