Sal Fontana was something else… He was the kind of person you couldn’t forget. If you met him once, you had a “Sal Story.” He defined memorable. Let’s face it; he wasn’t the tallest or best looking guy in the room. He wasn’t a smooth conversationalist or a polished public speaker. He didn’t even try to know that much about cigars! He used to say, “I know shit about cigars, all I know about whether a cigar is good or bad is if it sells…and sometimes, when you too much about a cigar, that’s not good either.” For me this was out of left field but what do I know? Sal had been selling cigars for more than 20 years by the time I was born!
Even if you did try to question his methods you were screwed. There was no winning an argument with that man because he knew where you were coming from before you had even thought of it. He was like those old-school, crafty pitchers who didn’t have terribly good stuff but made a long career out of simply getting hitters out because he knew exactly what they thought he was going to throw and he challenged them to adjust. Sal always challenged you and always when you least expected it. He really was something else.
If we tried to include the stories of all of the people in the cigar industry who felt mentored by Sal, we would need an entire magazine. So we’ve narrowed it down to four of his “pupils.” Enjoy.
President of Camacho Cigars
I first met Sal when I was around 8 or 9 years old and he was a partner in, I’m not sure if it was called Upmann International or Fumas at the time, but my dad started making cigars for them in Honduras. I think it was the C Upmann but I’m not sure. What I distinctly remember is that Sal always brought gifts, electronic gifts… but the crap never worked! I remember the first thing he brought me was one of those rulers that had a calculator on it. Now, the school that I went to in Honduras was very poor, we didn’t even have textbooks. We literally made our own textbooks. We started the beginning of the year with a blank legal book and we would write the lessons every day and by the end of the year you had an entire textbook, so you can imagine, calculators were strictly prohibited. So I was the first to show up with this ruler and I wanted to show it off to all of my friends that I had this ruler with a calculator on it. But the crap never worked. (laughing)
When I first started doing business with Sal at a professional level was in 1992 when he had invited the Shermans down to Honduras to work on their Host Selections. Now Sal was always a gadget guy and he brought down this camera, I guess it was a Beta Recorder and he kept filming this donkey. And as he recorded this donkey, he kept calling it a horse. Then later he’s recording a horse and he keeps calling that a donkey. And I remember thinking, “Man this guy is really New York, he doesn’t know the difference between a horse and a donkey!” But what did impress me was the relationship he had with the Shermans and how easily he was able to speak to them.
Now during the boom it became very hard to get good tobacco, especially Connecticut wrappers, so we had to substitute Connecticut with Indonesian on the Baccarat orders and Sal was always complaining about how we didn’t give him the right stuff. He was always fighting to protect that brand and he was the guy who kept that company running and helped build it. Especially the Baccarat brand which today, I would venture to say, is the 7th best-selling brand in the United States.
I moved to the US in 1998 and you know, I was the son of the boss and Sal wasn’t crazy about me working with him, especially me coming in and shouting orders or any of that stuff. But we began to build a relationship and I accepted his mentoring and he began to teach me about the business. He sent me on the crappiest road trips! At that point the only brand we had going was Baccarat. We were launching a couple of brands and we had already bought Camacho but it was a non-factor at this point. We were just thinking about survival. But together we started building a company and a sales force.
When I started working with Sal I was a sponge and I learned just about everything in this business from him. One of the most important lessons he taught me was how to treat and respect your customers. Build strong relationships, treat them well, respect them and they’ll respect you.
The interesting thing is that I know I had a very strong bond with Sal but I was pleasantly shocked to see how many other people felt exactly the same way I did. So many people felt they were mentored by Sal.
When he would get away with saying or doing something ridiculous he would say,
“I have a license.”
He loved to say this,
“We work on 10%, buy it for a dime, sell it for a dollar.”
When retailers would start talking about margins and stuff he would say,
“How can you sleep at night, makin’ all that money?”
This is a classic,
“If only I had 100 just like you, problem is that I have 200.”
When we would have a contest and giveaway a trip to Honduras he would say,
“1st place wins one week in Honduras, 2nd place wins two weeks in Honduras.”
Director of Marketing for Camacho Cigars
The first time I met Sal Fontana was in June 2005, when he was at the ripe young age of 81. I remember he and Selim Hanono being probably the most entertaining duo I had ever encountered. They sat together in a small office at the top of the stairs at the old Caribe warehouse. I remember them going back and forth, taunting and teasing each other like they had been married for 30 years. It was quite the situation to experience on a daily basis.
Through the years, Sal and I became very close — mainly after Selim had left the company in mid to late 2008. We would go out to lunch together every day he was in the office and Sal spent the majority of his days sitting on the side of my desk filling it up with coffee cups and leaving an endless trail of little Cafe Creme cigars. By the end of the day, there were normally about 20 of these cigars scattered around my office and all of them had only a few puffs taken off them.
We would sit and chat about everything that was going on in the industry and almost always the discussions were at someone else’s expense. He gave me a lot of advice on how to manage my growing responsibilities and balance the effects it would have on my personal life. As much as anyone could learn from spending time with him, you could never learn the honesty and modesty that came to him so naturally. In my opinion, those were his strongest qualities!
If I ever needed advice on anything, Sal would be the first person I would call. He always thought with a cool head and for the most part, was spot on with what he told me. He cared for my family, just as I learned to care about his. He was old school and continually hammered me with the line “Family always comes first.” When I didn’t put them first, he would let me know how much I would regret putting so much weight on just work.
Anyone who knew Sal knew that he would tell the same stories over and over again. But, the majority of people ignored his repetition and always listened as if it was the first time he was telling it. People looked forward to having a conversation with him, even if it was only one way. There were certain people he would tease constantly. Usually these people had a nickname that he gave them and they would never live it down. He had fun with people and understood social dynamics like no one else I have ever met. He was a fan of conversation and almost always did things just to see how people would react to him.
Sal may be gone from this world, but his memories will always be with us. It’s impossible to forget a man like him. He was truly one of a kind and I’m glad that I was able to be part of his life and that he was part of mine.
One night during last year’s TPE (Tobacco Plus Expo) in Las Vegas we all went out to dinner at the Italian restaurant in the Hilton. As usual at any trade show Sal attended, he used a scooter as his main form of transportation on the show floor and around the hotel. We all walked into this Italian restaurant and sat down at a table in the back. I think there were about eight of us total. Sal, coming into the restaurant on his scooter, had to use the wheelchair ramp to make it to where we were sitting. Not paying much attention to how long he was taking, we sat down, and IMPACT! We hear plates and silverware flying, glasses crashing and a rather loud, “Oh shit!” in a very familiar New York accent. I remember quickly turning around to see what had happened. Sal and his scooter were parked underneath this couple’s dinner table which was now at a 45 degree angle. The couple was covered in food and wine. Sal spent about 10 seconds parked under the table and now he and the gentleman wearing his dinner were in an “old west style” stare-down. After a few more moments, Sal got up from the scooter and said, “Jake [a young Camacho sales rep], come get this piece of shit.” He walked over to our table and sat down. Waiters ran over to the 45 degree table of the now quite irate couple. Sal sits down at our table, looks us all in the face and says, “What? That table was in the way.” Needless to say, we could not contain our laughter. It was a classic Sal moment. Best part is, on the way into the restaurant I mentioned to someone that we had not experienced a real Sal moment yet on the trip — how quickly that changed!
Owner of EO Brands
I met Sal in 1998 when the company was called Caribe Imported Cigars. There were really only three of us in the office: Christian Eiroa, Sal, and myself. I was hired to do sales and Sal showed me the ropes. He taught me little things that turned out to be big, like not to park in front of a retail shop you were visiting because you would be taking the spot of a paying customer. Or when you’re visiting a retailer, don’t hand a customer a free cigar until they pay for one first. You don’t want to take away a sale from the store. They were little things that made all of the difference in how that retailer felt about you. You know, he was the first guy that I met in the industry other than Christian.
Sal had a big impact in my life. He was my mentor.
Every time I tried to thank him for all that he’d done for me he always switched the conversation. He never really wanted to talk about it. Even at the end, Jonathan Drew, Marvin Samel, Selim Hanono, and I went to visit him in hospice about one week before he passed. On the way up we were all in the same car and Marvin said, “Look I don’t think I want to see Sal this way.” And Selim said, “I guarantee you that by the time you leave that hospice, you’re going to leave with a smile on your face.” And that’s exactly how it went. The whole time we were there it was all laughing, smiling, joking, and just having a good time. Even while we were there he took an order from one of his accounts over the phone. Unbelievable.
Proprietor of Smoke Inn
I first met Sal through a mutual friend at the RTDA show in Miami in either 1996 or 1997. I was still living in Chicago and was thinking about getting in the business. Sal invited me to join him for lunch. All throughout lunch, he kept ribbing me about if there was enough food for me and that set the tone for our relationship for the next 14 years. Sal joked about my size, and I told him not to buy green bananas. Sal was full of insights such as “We only work on 10%….really! It costs us a dime and we sell it for a dollar!” I could write a novel about all the “Sal-isms.” When I moved to Florida in 1998 to operate my first cigar store in Tequesta Florida, Sal was a regular in the shop. He lived in Jupiter only a few minutes away and seldom missed a Saturday lunch with the gang at the shop. At the next trade show, Sal single-handedly walked me to every manufacturer and introduced me as a dear friend. Sal had not only become my mentor over the years, but also one of my dearest friends. Everyone I knew had the highest respect for Sal and there was no way you couldn’t help but to love him. Sal would go to any end to help a friend. Over the years as my company grew, it was Sal who always glowed with pride as a father would of a son.
If you asked Sal, “How are you doing?” his rapid fire response would be “Anybody I can, kid.” Sal not only epitomized all that was good about the cigar industry, but also an era of the true “gentleman” that is slowly fading out. My shop on Saturdays will always feel a little empty without his presence. I will miss our back office chats where we would share what gossip we knew about what was going on in the industry.
Sal lived a long and full life. I feel fortunate to have been able to share in his wisdom over the years. As I move on and continue this journey of mine, I hope he is still watching over me and from time to time, I hope to feel his proud smile for what I have accomplished.
Rest in peace my good friend.