NORWALK, Conn - He sits diligently at a wooden work bench by the door, his hands busy, his eyes content. In front of him is the day’s work so far—small bundles of more than 50 Robustos, Churchills, Coronas and double Coronas.
Alberto Hernandez reaches into a bag to pull out a moist brown leaf of Nicaraguan tobacco. He stretches and kneads the pliable frond, cutting off sections he doesn’t need with a small, half-moon shaped blade called a chavetta.
“I brought this with me from Cuba,” Hernandez, 65, said at the Cigar Factory Outlet on Hanford Place, where he’s taken center stage. “I’ve had it for ten years.”
For smokers who buy boxes of premium cigars hand-rolled in other countries, Hernandez has sent up smoke signals. Since he began his job last month, demand for his product has been high.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to build up enough inventory because as soon as he rolls 200 cigars, we sell 150 immediately,” Walter Amador, general manager at Cigar Factory Outlet, said of the cigars that sell for $7 to $8.50 each.
Sometimes Hernandez rolls 100 cigars a day, a huge output. But it is second nature to Hernandez, who grew up in Cabaigaun, Cuba, a region known for rich soil and quality tobacco.
“When you live in Cuba, it’s very common when you visit someone’s house for them to hand you some tobacco and say, ‘You roll a couple of cigars while I go make coffee,’ ” he said through an interpreter.
For 45 years, Hernandez worked as a roller at the Partagas factory in Havana, which he left 14 years ago, and at a factory in the Dominican Republic, where he remained until six months ago when he immigrated to New York City.
It was there that he saw an advertisement for a cigar roller posted in the Spanish newspaper La Prensa. Amador took out the ad at the request of Ronald and Brian Shapiro, the father-and-son owners of the Cigar Factory Outlet.
Of the three rollers who replied to the ad, Hernandez impressed the Shapiros the most. He was interviewed by representatives of the Oliva Cigar Family, which provides Cigar Factory Outlet with bales of the 3-year-old Nicaraguan tobacco Hernandez uses.
“After they had him interviewed, they said this was the roller for us,” Ronald Shapiro said.