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Arturo Fuente  - A History of the Legendary Cigar Makers

Arturo Fuente - A History of the Legendary Cigar Makers

Posted by Greg Rosenberg on 7th Oct 2022

For over a century, Arturo Fuente has been dedicated to premium cigars and the preservation of the romance and heritage of the pastime. From the days of working out of a small home-factory to where they now thrive on the international stage, Arturo Fuente's history is the story of a family business with an unwavering philosophy. It's a story about the perseverance of people and the bonds between them, even amid great adversity. From Güines to Key West, Miami, Estelí, El Caribe—it's a North American success story. 

Arturo Fuente

In 1902, a teenaged Arturo Fuente left his home of Güines, Cuba for Key West, Florida. He was one of many who had sought new beginnings during or in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Most Cuban expats were settling in established Cuban enclaves in the US, Caribbean, Canary Islands, and elsewhere. These US communities, namely in Florida and New York, came about with early influxes of immigrants in the late 19th century; the result of two Cuban wars of independence with Spain. 

Arturo Fuente arrived in a community where the nexus of Cuban culture and industry thrived. Only 90 miles off the Havana coast, Key West had a significant Cuban presence. By the time Fuente arrived, the small fishing economy had turned into the epicenter of Clear Havana cigar production ("Clear Havana" refers to cigars manufactured in the US with Cuban leaf prior to the embargo).

Fuente eventually made his way to another prominent community in the US Cuban cigar industry—West Tampa, where in 1912, he opened the A. Fuente & Co. cigar factory.

The operation was a great success while it lasted with Fuente employing 500 workers. However, tragedy struck in 1924 when a fire razed the factory while Fuente was in Cuba purchasing leaf. It would take two decades to repay the debt from the losses.

This wouldn’t be the first devastating loss that the Fuente family would have to weather. We’ll see that much of their story is about shaking off the soot and trudging on.

The first rebeginning

Fuente lived in Chicago for a short stint after losing the factory, but then returned to Florida, settling in the Tampa neighborhood, Ybor City.

Vincente Martinez Ybor founded Ybor City in 1885 to embrace the growing cigar industry and further Tampa’s centrality in the industry. When Fuente arrived, the city of mostly immigrants was the cigar capital of the US.

Hand rolling cigars in Ybor City factory
¹ Employees hand rolling cigars in a cigar factory - Ybor City

In 1946, a 58 year old Arturo Fuente reestablished the company as the Arturo Fuente Cigar Company, operating out of his home with wife Christina Fuente and their three children. There was a long back porch of rolling stations. The work force was modest, nothing close to the early days before the fire, but production was supplemented with the help of friendly neighbors and family. 

Cigars were more than a product here, they were at the heart of the community. It wasn't mere neighborly kindness that had friends in the community pitching in, there was a social element to these evenings when folks would gather at the Fuente residence after leaving their day jobs. They would enjoy the warmth of company, wonderful meals, and Cuban coffee prepared by Christina, herself rolling cigars through the day before moving to the role of gracious host. 

Arturo’s youngest son, Carlos Fuente (Sr.), was born in 1935. As a child he and his brother, Arturo Jr., put their time in for the business. Every day after school they were expected to roll 50 cigars. But things took a rough turn for Carlos when just shy of 12 years old, he contracted polio. It took years, but he eventually did regain his ability to walk unencumbered.

Carlos Fuente, Sr.- early years and joining the business

Carlos Fuente was only 18 when he married his childhood sweetheart, Anna Lopez Fuente. The following year, 1954, they had their first child, Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr.

Although Fuente Sr. had a deep affinity for cigars from an early age, he had to prioritize his new family. Arturo ran a modest business, selling only in the Tampa area for cash, his concern was to support him and his wife. The business didn’t bring in enough for Fuente Sr. to assure his own family's security, so when his father-in-law found him work as a baker, he took it.

However, he couldn’t stay away for long. Arturo Jr. didn’t have quite the same interest in cigars as his brother. So in 1958, Fuente Sr. bought the company off his father for one dollar, but the young man had growth in mind. With hopes to expand from Arturo’s cash-only, local operation, he sought to establish ongoing accounts, and for that, he needed to sell on credit. He opened up distribution to Florida more broadly and New York City, focusing on locations with Latino communities. 

Expansion and the Cuban embargo 

All of the cigars up to this point were rolled from Cuban exported leaf. Then came the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Despite the tension in the air and heightening trade restrictions, access to Cuban leaf seemed stable enough the first few years. However, during a visit to Cuba in 1962, Fuente Sr. could see the reality of what was coming down. He bought up all the Cuban leaf he could afford. Then the embargo dropped.

“So, naturally we had Cuban tobacco for three years,” explains Fuente Sr. “So, then I was offered all kinds of money. I remember I paid for those bales at that time 250 dollars a bale. And then we were offered 1,250—1,500 dollars a bale.”

However tempting, it was important to keep the quality consistent while they experimented with new blends, using leaf from other countries so that when the Cuban leaf ran out, they would have something great to offer. The first of these was Flor De Orlando.

Flor de Orlando box art
² Flor De Orlando box art 

Business was picking up, all the while, manufacturing was still being done out of Arturo’s home factory. They were quickly outgrowing the back porch and had to move into the main house. Furniture would be removed for the shift, sometimes placed on the street. Then everything would be broken down, cleaned, and the living room reassembled.

Finally in the early 1960s, the Fuentes found a building in Ybor City. For the first time since 1924, Fuente cigars were rolled in a factory. Now with the space to thrive, they would employ almost one hundred workers within the year. 

Even after Fuente Sr. bought the company, Arturo remained active in the business until his retirement in 1963 at age 75. Although, you can't say he ever really stopped being active. Even in retirement, he would visit the factory every day to advise, which wasn't much of a commute—he and Christina lived upstairs.

Two years later, Fuentes Sr. expanded with his purchase of the Charles the Great building in Ybor City, which they still own and have recently renovated. 

An opportunity to compete

One of the greatest obstacles to the Fuentes' wider success was overcoming cigar smokers' preference for the familiar. Folks have “their” brand, they’re happy with it and don’t often see a reason to take a gamble on the unfamiliar. However, the shake up from the Cuban embargo was a great equalizer, or at least, it gave less established names a chance to make their case. Every company was forced to find new recipes and sources for tobacco. Smokers in the US had to rediscover their palates in the profiles of new blends from alternatives to Cuban leaf.

This is where Fuente Sr.’s artistry came into use. He possessed a refined palate, and set to blend cigars to approximate the Cuban taste.

Some brands suffered in the aftermath, struggling to find new blends that sparked upon yearning palates. David Savona details this in his article  The Exodus, writing for Cigar Aficionado; the top selling Clear Havana in the US, Bering, plummeted. But then you had cases like Benjamin Menendez. Following the nationalization of his father’s factory, he left Cuba for the Canary Islands and founded Cia Insular Tabacalera S.A. He would release the Connecticut shade wrapped Flamenco to some success, then making waves with Montecruz, wrapped in the West African grown Cameroon leaf. The late 1950s into the 60s saw a swell of experimentation with Cuban seed in Nicaragua and Honduras. Angel Oliva of Oliva Cigars infamy was a force in this regard. He began planting in Honduras in 1960.

Nicaraguan tobacco took a bit longer to have its say, but it did so loudly. In 1970, the release of  Joya de Nicaragua set the standard—bold, full-bodied cigars weren’t lost in the embargo.

Nicaragua is ultimately where the Fuentes found themselves, but not after riding the rough wake of the embargo’s impact. Manufacturing became too expensive in the States and was relocated several times. First Puerto Rico, then Mexico, but the quality was not up to the Fuentes’ standards. The Dominican Republic was considered, but the inimical red tape was too restrictive. Finally, in 1974, Fuente Sr. was connected with an impressive cigar maker in Nicaragua and invested in an Estelí factory.

Sadly, Arturo Fuente passed away in 1973 at 85. Although he wouldn’t be there to see Fuente Sr. through the joys and difficulties to come, his guidance and philosophy would continue to reverberate through the company, as it does now. It would prove to be an important source of strength as Fuente Sr. was soon faced with a tragedy Arturo knew too well.

Flor Fina 8-5-8

In 1975, the Flor Fina 8-5-8 was released—a tribute to honor Arturo Fuente. This was the patriarch's special blend. Featuring Dominican tobacco wrapped in Cameroon leaf, a popular wrapper for full-bodied cigars after the embargo, 8-5-8 has been a classic in the Arturo Fuente range ever since. 

Arturo Fuente Flor Fina 8-5-8 Corona Cigar

Manufacturing in Nicaragua proved rewarding for much of the 1970s—great leaf, great cigars, and an unfamiliar sense of stability. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last. The disorder and violence of the Nicaraguan Revolution was exacerbating and in 1978, the brief sense of security was over.

“I got on a plane,”  Fuente Sr. recalls. “I went home, and the next day at midnight they call me, ‘everything is lost. We got burned down. Everything is lost.’ I never went back.”

Destruction from Nicaraguan Air Force bombings
³ Destruction from Nicaraguan Air Force bombings

Not ready to walk away, Fuente Sr. partnered with a Honduran tobacco grower. Before even a year’s time, that factory burned down in an accidental fire.

Move to the Dominican Republic

Fuente Sr. again tried for the Dominican Republic. He mortgaged his home, cashed in his retirement, and arrived in January 1980—the beginning of a new year, a new decade, a new start for Arturo Fuente. And this chapter would once again see the strength of two Fuente generations steering the ship.

It wasn’t an easy start in the Dominican Republic. Fuente Sr. began living in a hotel but when that became too expensive, he moved to a boarding house. Still, he was determined, and at last found a vicinity he thought promising. He called his son, and the Fuente men went in as partners. That September, 1980, the Tabacalera A. Fuente & Cia Factory was opened in Santiago.

Another rebeginning

Our lives started to change, we’re here, we're hungry, we have lost everything. As father and son, we have walked together, we have fallen together, we have skinned our knees together—Nicaragua, Honduras, Tampa, Ybor City—but now this is survival. We’re hungry.
 
Fuente Jr.

When being pummeled by wave after violent wave, the foremost concern is keeping your head above water. In this period, we see the wonder that can come from the Fuente ethos and fortitude when they aren't being exhausted in a battle to survive the barrage of outside forces. 

What is that ethos? It seems to be a matter of feeling and intuition over cold calculation; of looking past cigars and tobacco as products, looking beyond market trends and industry norms, and seeing things through the lens of heritage, of art, of culture. It’s a matter of trusting in that vision, respecting it. In an  interview with David Savona, Fuente Jr. ruminates on memories with his grandfather, sitting on his lap, engrossed in stories of Cuban lore—learning of the oricha El Indio, the Santerían deity said to protect the tobacco fields. Clearly, cigars and tobacco are one piece of a larger mosaic. 

"The tobacco farmers lived a life to make tobacco taste better," says Fuente Jr. "It was in their culture, in their veins. My grandfather told me all these stories, and I was like a computer without information, a blank slate. And all these stories are my inspiration." 

Perhaps the best way to explain the Fuente spirit is to give examples of it in action—

Chateau Fuente and the move toward bolder blends

When Fuente Jr. was 18, his father sent him to the Dominican Republic to work with José Mendez & Co to learn tobacco and cigars intimately from the ground up. Mendez was one of the trailblazers growing Cuban-seed Dominican tobacco after the embargo, foreshadowing Fuente Jr.’s later accomplishments. Also foreshadowing Fuente Jr.’s contributions to come was his affinity for strong, full body blends. 

His companions on the farm were impressed to see the young man rolling cigars with coronas and medio tiempos—the high, thick leaves on the stalk that make for a bold smoke—to satisfy his affinity for rich cigars. This just seemed natural to Fuente Jr., it’s how his father and grandfather taught him to appreciate cigars. As he puts it to Savona, “maybe it’s part of my heritage, but it’s just what I love. Like the coffee we drink, like the food we eat.”

Of course, strength is not simply  a heavy nic hit, it's about a full, vivid sensory experience. But in the early 1980s, the market was leaning toward mild blends. Perhaps the years following the embargo filled the market with less bold cigars as companies experimented with new options in the absence of the once ubiquitous Cuban tobacco. Or maybe it was more systemic than that, maybe it was the era of light beer, light cigs, lightsabers—alright the last one doesn’t really apply, but perhaps cigars were not immune to this trend.

Nonetheless, Fuente Jr. trusted his appreciation for a cigar that is full and rich, it was central to how he knew cigars. Arturo Fuente cigars had slowly leaned toward milder blends, but Fuente Jr. foresaw a re-embrace of the rich smoke, and if the “trends” didn’t show it yet, perhaps there needed to be a nudge in that direction.

Arturo Fuente Double Chateau Fuente Toro Cigar

Released in 1982, Chateau Fuente was the first cigar to move back in the full-bodied direction—a full flavored blend, but with a mild Connecticut wrapper.

Hemingway

The following year, the Fuentes again looked to old ways to create something fresh.

Upon a visit to Ybor City, Fuente Sr. went through old cigar molds, returning with all the Perfecto shapes he could find. Fuente Sr. fondly looked back on these tapered figurados his father had taught him how to roll in his youth. At the time, there didn’t seem to be any cigars rolled as Perfectos on the market—perhaps not produced since the 1960s.

Fuente Sr. taught the method to their master roller and in 1983, the Hemingway was released, a hit for the company.

Arturo Fuente Hemingway Classic Cigar

Through the 1980s, the Fuente team experienced more success with releases like the Don Carlos series in 1986 and a partnership with the J. C. Newman Cigar Co. seeing Newman taking over production of Fuente’s machine rolled cigars and Fuente taking over production of Newman’s hand rolled (a partnership that remains strong to this day, the Diamond Crown series being a collaboration between the companies).

There are numerous creations that evince the spirit behind Arturo Fuente cigars, but perhaps none greater than what was deemed Project X from Planet 9. A risky, ambitious venture that called for equal parts idealism, prowess, and grit.

Project X from Planet 9

It all started in 1988 when a respected colleague who was visiting the Fuente factory observed, “you don’t produce a cigar, you assemble a cigar.” Perhaps that sounds like semantics, but the message was that the cigars weren’t necessarily a Dominican product. They imported leaf and rolled it in the Dominican Republic. The Fuentes were no exception in this regard—many manufacturers were based in the Dominican Republic, but the only domestically grown wrapper was the Connecticut that General Cigar Co. grew for their candela (green) cigars.

But what about a Dominican wrapper that could satisfy the craving for something bold? What about a Dominican wrapper grown from Cuban seed? That’s exactly what the Fuente’s set out to do.

First, a little background on Dominican tobacco to understand why the mission to grow premium Dominican wrapper from Cuban-seed was such a big deal.

Dominican tobacco background

Methods of growing and handling the tobacco crop, from its culture in the field to its final processing in the manufacture of cigars and cigarettes, are susceptible of great improvement. In the Dominican Republic, however, under present economic and cultural conditions, the growers are probably doing as well as can be expected.

Allard, Howard F. - Tobacco in the Dominican Republic (1948)

Dominican tobacco had a poor reputation for much of the first half of the 20th century. Though its image was much restored by this time, it was only being used as filler and binder (save for the aforementioned candela). The judgements on the tobacco were not without merit at one point, but this had to do with circumstantial blights on Dominican tobacco production, not deficiencies inherent to the environment such as soil or climate.

We need look no further than the popularity of cigars of Cuban leaf wrapped in Dominican wrapper in the mid-19th century. A French diplomat writes in 1849, “The tobacco leaf of Santo Domingo has a better taste and looks more pleasant than other kinds, and offers a perfect elasticity and good strength” (Stubbs, 7 cited Baud, 11).  

So how did Dominican tobacco get this reputation?

Cuban cigars led the industry through much of the 19th century, but tobacco boomed in the Dominican Republic in the 1870s, rising above other mainstays of Dominican industry such as sugar, coffee, and cacao. This coincided with the Cuban independence struggles which started in 1868 with the Ten Years' War, complicating Cuban tobacco and cigar production. However, in the last years of the 19th century, these other exports skyrocketed and tobacco greatly declined in the Dominican Republic. Jean Stubbs writes in "Reinventing Mecca: Tobacco in the Dominican Republic 1763-2007," that “lack of agrotechnology; the economic development of the country with foreign capital as of 1870; the international market…and Dominican state policy” were all major contributing factors to the decline  (Stubbs, 7).

Numerous attempts were made well into the 20th century to rectify this: in the 1880s, Cuban growers were contracted to offer expertise on cultivation; in the 1920s, modernization attempts were made, building curing and irrigation infrastructure and testing different seeds such as Cuban; and the establishment of INTABACO in 1962, which meant to facilitate superior Dominican tobacco in the wake of the Cuban embargo.

These programs had their successes to varying degrees, but by the late 1980s, the established reputation, reinforced by recent failed attempts from other Dominican companies to grow premium wrapper, had calcified in a consensus that trying to grow Cuban-seed wrapper in the Dominican Republic was a non-starter, at least at the scale and consistency needed for regular production.

Despite negativity from others in the industry, Fuente Jr. was ready to change that.

The Fuente Leap

By the early 1990s, the Dominican Republic was the epicenter of the cigar world in terms of manufacturing. Even though Dominican puros were nonexistent, most all the major companies were buying from Dominican farms for binder and filler. While other manufacturers would still experiment with growing premium wrapper leaf, what was unique about the Fuentes’ project were the stakes. If they wanted to make this reality, they had to go all in. 

"Few if any growers will take the Fuente leap," writes Michael Frank in his article  Seeds of Hope for Cigar Aficionado. "Setting aside 50 acres of land, building roads, planting tobacco, employing scores of men and women—spending in excess of $250,000 to grow something that may never sell." 

In 1990, Fuente Jr. visited the Oliva’s tobacco farm in the Dominican Village El Caribe. They grew unshaded Connecticut on the farm for 8 years, but had recently tried to grow a little bit of Piloto Cubano to great success. It was wonderful to the palate and the eyes, which is essential in a wrapper. This confirmed to Fuente Jr. it could be done. Oliva was supportive of the Fuentes’ ambitions; he saw the similarities between the soil in El Caribe and San Luis, Cuba. But he knew it would be quite an undertaking.

Fuente Sr. committed to the entire 1990-91 crop of sun grown Piloto Cubano. This would be used for binder. Next was to take on shade grown wrapper. The Olivas sold the farm to the Fuentes, which would come to be known as Chateau de la Fuente—for the first time, the Fuentes were in the business of growing tobacco.

The first crop was harvested in 1992, but it would be some time before they could bring it to market. It had to be perfect—well aged and fermented.

Finally, it was released in 1995, the Fuente Fuente OpusX. They decided to wait for November 18th to ship, Arturo Fuente's birthday. A good omen. All they could do is wait to see how it was received. Calls started coming in from retailers, folks were lining down the block at their stores, curious to have their first smoke of the OpusX. It was a resounding success.

The Cigar Boom and Operation Blank Slate

The 1990s would see an explosion of growth. The Fuentes expanded from one to four factories by 1998 (Stubbs, 21). But the craze around the cigar industry brought many challenges with it. Chief among them, sustaining quality cigar construction while the Dominican Republic was swarming with newcomers poaching skilled rollers.

Fuente Jr. kept raising wages, trying to keep up, but it just wasn’t feasible. The Fuentes’ rollers were especially valuable. Less conventional vitolas were becoming popular and Fuente cigar rollers were more practiced in different figurados, which few manufacturers offered. Fuente Jr. had to look for a creative solution, what would come to be called Operation Blank Slate. He sought out green workers—no cigar experience whatsoever—and trained them in a different style from the industry standard—entubado.

Usually the folding of the leaf is done in a corrugated sort of “S” shape. The entubado method of rolling each leaf into a tube is more time consuming, but produces a fine, thoughtfully crafted smoke. This however made these workers undesirable to the vultures who only wished to find rollers already trained in the traditional method.

Before any cigar rolling even occurred, there were two or three months of “philosophy”—getting familiar with the plants, Cuban music, the lifestyle, the culture. Fuente Jr. was making an investment in these new rollers, and he knew shaping them as rollers from the bottom up meant spurring an investment in them, not merely in a job, but in cigars as the Fuentes' know them.

Now, the entubado method is used for all Fuente cigars.

Cigar Family Charitable Foundation 

With success came the opportunity to give back, and in 2001, the Fuente and Newman families' collaboration went beyond cigars, starting the now UN recognized  Cigar Family Charitable Foundation. The foundation was created to help those impoverished in the local Dominican community by building schools and facilitating access to clean water.

Fuente Jr. has made known his intention to bring the charity to Nicaragua as well, as he announced in 2018 that Arturo Fuente would be returning to Estelí. They recently broke ground on the Gran Fabrica de Tabacos La Bella y La Bestia. 

A continuing legacy

Tests to the Fuente mettle would continue. In 1998, Hurricane Georges devastated Hispaniola, destroying 17 of 19 curing barns in Chateau de la Fuente. This led to the creation of Arturo Fuente Añejo—a near identical blend to Fuente Fuente OpusX but with a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper. In 2011, Hurricane Irene destroyed two large tobacco warehouses, just shy of the company’s 100 year anniversary. 

Most woeful of all, Fuente Sr. passed away in 2016 at 81. But his legacy endures, as does the family centric vision at Arturo Fuente. Fuente Jr. and his Vice President and sister Cynthia Fuente-Suarez keep the company thriving, employing the same values that brought them to such esteem. And it shows in each  Arturo Fuente cigar. 


Reference(s):

  1. Allard, Harry; Allard, Howard, Tobacco in the Dominican Republic, (1948), Foreign Agriculture Report
  2. Baud, Michiel, La gente del tabaco: Villa Gonzalez en el siglo veinte (1984), Ciencia y Sociedad
  3. Stubbs, Jean, Reinventing Mecca: Tobacco in the Dominican Republic, 1763-2007 (2007), Caribbean Studies Centre, London Metropolitan University 

Attribution(s):

  1. State Library and Archives of Florida, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  2. A. Fuente & Company, "Flor de Orlando" (2021). Osterweil Collection of Cigars Labels. Image 631
  3. Dora María Téllez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons