Posted December 13, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
BY DANIEL SHOER-ROTH | Miami Herald
Jose Orlando Padron’s memories are still fresh from the turbulent days more than two decades ago when his Little Havana cigar factory, Padron Cigars, was bombed four times.
Company founder Padron had just returned from a trip to Cuba where he was part of a group that negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of hundreds of political prisoners. A photographer captured him handing the Cuban leader one of his cigars, and after the photo was published in Miami, anti-Castro extremists called for a boycott of his business, defaced his building with tar and bombed his factory.
But Padron Cigars has survived the bombings, the ups and downs of the tobacco industry, hurricanes that flattened crops and more through its 40-year history.
The company, which recently opened a new headquarters at 1575 SW 1st St. across from its old Flagler Street tabaquería , projects sales of $16 million for 2004, according to Padron. Moreover, all of the brand’s varieties—which are currently rolled in Nicaragua and Honduras—have notched a 90-plus score in Cigar Aficionado magazine’s coveted annual ranking.
‘‘They have always maintained a unique taste, and the quality of the cigars has always been extraordinary. They smoke well; they burn well,’’ says Gordon Mott, Cigar Aficionado executive editor.
An emphasis on quality, rather than quantity, is one of the keys to the company’s longevity, says Padron.
‘‘We’ve never fallen on the trap like other manufacturers that produce, produce and produce to respond to the growing demand, as if we were making churros,’’ says the 78-year-old Padron. “We’ve always protected our family brand; we’ve cherished it like the little girl of our family.’‘
So the company has never been in a hurry to increase production. In fact, in 1981, Padron sold 4.5 million hand-rolled cigars, almost the same as the company will sell this year. But revenue has increased through the years and Padron is predicting a record year in 2005.
All told, Padron has sold close to 150 million cigars since 1964.
Mott said that during the peak of the cigar boom in the mid-1990s, when most big cigar companies ramped up production, Padron stuck with its previous output despite overwhelming demand.
And that has added to the cachet of Padron cigars. Today, there are 800 retailers on a waiting list across the United States who want to carry Padron’s hand-crafted cigars, according to company president, Jorge Luis Padron, the 36-year-old son of Jose Orlando.
Adds Mott: “They’ve been determined to stick to their bottom line, which is high quality at [an] affordable price.’‘
The Padron family has been involved in the tobacco industry since the late 1800s, when Jose Orlando’s grandfather, Damaso Padron, emigrated from the Canary Islands to Cuba and began growing tobacco in Pinar del Río.
The founder of the Miami-based company was born on a tobacco plantation. As a curious, self-driven child he was quick to learn the art of curing Cuban-seed tobacco.
So when he left Cuba two years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, he took with him the techniques he had inherited.
‘‘I came to Miami and I couldn’t find good cigars,’’ acknowledges Padron. “So I got the idea that I could make a cigar for Cubans in Miami so that they might miss the island—but not its cigars.’‘
Forty years ago, the elder Padron launched his company with $600 in savings.
For many years, Padron concentrated his business mostly in the Miami market, catering to the local Cuban community, although he had some mail-order business across the country.
Even during the boycott in the early 1980s—which he deems unjust because he says it was Castro who asked to try his cigar, not he who offered him one—most Cuban exiles have supported the company and its cigars, Padron says.
‘‘It’s a nostalgic carry-over from the old days,’’ says Manruco Perez-Benitoa, 66, a long-time family friend who has been smoking puros (as cigars are known in Spanish) since he was 16 in Cuba. “Theirs is truly what most resembles a Cuban cigar, and believe me, I’ve tested a bunch of them.’‘
In the early 1990s, Padron and his son decided to expand distribution and go national.
Cuban smokers in South Florida were getting older, so the Padrons worried about losing their niche by just concentrating on the local market. It wasn’t easy to make inroads nationally at first, because at the time the general public was not accustomed to such strong cigars made from sun-grown tobacco.
‘‘I was confident that we had good products to sell,’’ says Jorge Luis Padron. The strategy was to market the high-quality cigars in the lower end of the price range to encourage customer loyalty.
Because Padron Cigars, which also operates under the name Piloto Cigars, grows its own tobacco in Nicaragua and Honduras, does its own sorting, processing, manufacturing and distribution, the cost of production is less, he says.
The price of a hand-rolled Padron cigar ranges from $2 to $25, depending on its size and variety.
Devoted fans of Padron’s products include Jack McKeon, the Florida Marlins manager, who is often seen with a couple of Anniversary and Millennium Padron cigars in his shirt pocket. Unless he’s desperate, McKeon says, “I don’t smoke anything else but Padron.’‘
In fact, after the Marlins won the World Series last year and the team was invited to the White House, McKeon brought some of his favorite puros to President Bush, he recalls.
‘‘They [the Padrons] have faced battles and fights, but they battled back and always got it right,’’ McKeon says. “That persistence in the family makes them want to be the best.’‘
In addition to the bombings that rocked the business from 1979 to 1983, Padron Cigars also encountered political problems in Nicaragua where the family had extensive tobacco holdings. During the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s, the Padron factory in Nicaragua was burned.
Years later, when the United Stated declared an embargo against Nicaraguan exports, the backbone of the business dwindled and the elder Padron had to temporarily move all operations to Honduras.
Although most of the company’s operations are in Central America, the Miami headquarters and distribution center employ around 40 people, including Padron’s daughter Elizabeth, 53; son Orlando Jr., 49, and three grandchildren.
As for the encounter in Cuba that brought havoc to his life, Padron said that although Castro was partial to tobacco that he grew, he tried the Padron cigar “and said that it was good. And for that, he congratulated me.’‘
On August 10, 2009, Tania Padron wrote:
I’m looking for my family ..I just met my dad about three years ago. He was in prison in California for ten years. His name is Miguel Leon Padron. My mother was married to him and had three of us. I understand some of my family is still in Havana,Cuba. My dad came during the “escape” with his brothers. He can’t find them either. If you can help ..Please let me no..Thank you.