By: Erik Calviño
Photography: Manny Iriarte
Every exiled community does it. They substitute. Exiles view their time in a new land as temporary, so they find substitutes in their new land for things they miss from home, as opposed to the immigrant mindset which in many cases denounces the ties that bind them to their homeland. For the large Cuban community exiled in Little Havana post 1959, José Orlando Padrón’s cigars were the perfect substitute.
The Nicaraguan tobacco had a similar profile to the cigars they were used to smoking in Cuba and the price was right. A Padrón Fumas was 30 cents back in 1967 and was available at just about every mom and pop cafeteria, supermarket, and pharmacy frequented by the Cuban community in Miami. Between 1964 and the early 1990s, Padrón Cigars dominated in Little Havana but were largely unknown outside of South Florida.
Today Padróns are among the most sought after in the cigar business thanks to the vision of one man, the work of an entire family, and the support of two loyal communities.
José Orlando Padrón
“When I started this business in 1964 I didn’t want a salesman to push my product. Who could sell it better than me?” he asks while lighting his third or fourth cigar of the day. It isn’t yet noon but he’s already demanding that we stay and “almorzar” (have lunch). Then he switches back to our conversation about why unlike other cigar companies they do not employ a sales staff. “My philosophy was that this business should run like a restaurant. If you have a good cook,” pointing to himself, “all you need is waiters to take the orders.” It is so matter of fact and has been so successful that it seems to make perfect sense; but then again no. No other major cigar manufacturer operates this way.
One thing that stands out as you visit with Padrón smokers around the country is the loyalty they have toward the brand. It didn’t get to be that way overnight… “Our goal has always been to put out a product that the regular guy could afford and enjoy smoking daily.” This detail is lost on many new smokers who only know Padrón Cigars for the Anniversary series, 1926, and Family Reserve. José Orlando continues, “From 1964 to 1972 we sold cigars only in Miami! We built a solid local following in those years; this community gave us the legs to stand on.” He’s astonishingly good with numbers and dates, using them constantly to corroborate a point. Then, so as to prove he’s not blowing smoke, he produces 30-year-old statements and spreadsheets that he keeps in a neat stack just to the left of where his hands rest on his desk. “We were selling 6 million cigars a year while selling only in Miami. That foundation gave us the strength to grow. We owe a lot to this community.” The stories of the lengths José Orlando has gone to protect the Little Havana cigar smoker are countless. In turn, those smokers have gone to great lengths themselves to support him.
It’s hard to imagine but in March of 1979 a bomb was discovered in Padrón’s offices on West Flagler Street. As part of a group of Cuban exiles trying to negotiate the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners, José Orlando went to Cuba to meet with Castro to negotiate. When photographs from the much publicized meeting landed on the cover of the Miami Herald, one photograph in particular caused a stir. During the meeting, Fidel Castro asked José Orlando if he could sample one of his cigars. The photograph of José Orlando handing the Cuban dictator a Padrón cigar set off a group of extremists. Between 1979 and 1983 they planted four bombs in Padrón’s offices, three of which exploded. The community rallied around Padrón and never stopped buying their cigars. Quite the opposite happened; sales actually increased. “We did 4.6 million cigars the year before the first bomb and 5.1 million the following year. The people knew that we were being unjustly targeted and they supported us.” I asked him: if he could go back to 1979, would he still go to Cuba and negotiate the release of those political prisoners? “I would do it again without hesitation. Whatever you do in life, you have to do with honesty and with all of your heart.”
We’ve been chatting for a while now and one thing has been missing, Cuban coffee. The 84-year-old Padrón fumbles with the telephone, presses every button on the dial until he eventually finds someone, and moments later we’re enjoying our “cafecito.” You know that brief moment of silence that you have when you’re about to take a sip of nuclear hot coffee? It’s that tiny window when your attention is diverted from whatever you’re doing to the prevention of singeing your entire mouth. That’s HIS window; almost as if he’s testing your ability to hold down that hot coffee while laughing hysterically, he disarms you with a series of jokes and humorous anecdotes from his early days in the business. He gives you great phrases passed down to him like, “El tabaco es como la mujer, mientras mas le pasas la mano, mejor se pone.” It refers to the handling of tobacco during the early stages of the process and it loosely translates as: tobacco is like a woman, the more you massage her, the better she gets. His delivery is spot on and you do everything in your power not to make a mess in his office.
It’s this quality, this easy going ‘we are in this together’ type of feeling he conveys, that he credits for his success. “Being there with the workers, through the good and bad, that’s the reason that they’ve been so loyal to us through the years.” He tells the story of how the factory workers protected the factory during the civil war in Nicaragua. “As the war escalated and as I understood that civil war better, I started moving tobacco out of Estelí to spread the risk. You need to understand, our raw material is our single most important asset and I protect it with everything that I have.” Like every other eye-popping story that he tells, he tells it in a very casual, matter of fact manner. So he continues, “Now after the Sandinistas took over the country, I couldn’t return to Estelí. During that time, the workers kept working with the tobacco that we had left in the factory. For an entire year they worked unsupervised while the rest of the country was on strike; they just kept working and protecting the factory. When I was able to come back, the only thing that was missing was a little scale that we used to weigh tobacco… ‘incredible’. I’ve always protected them and they’ve always protected me. I owe a lot to my Nicaraguan family.”
“Continuity and consistency in our cigars is the key to Padrón,” says Jorge, President of Padrón Cigars. “We have to maintain that level of quality because our marketing is the cigar itself.” After graduating from Florida State University with a degree in marketing and getting his MBA from the University of Miami, Jorge came to work with his father with some new ideas. “I saw that our brand was well respected in Miami, but there was very little awareness nationally. I thought about our core market at the time, the old Cuban guy in Little Havana, and how after a certain amount of time there would not be many of those guys left. That’s when we decided to go to trade shows and get the product into the national market.” Amazingly, after being in business and thriving for almost 30 years, Padrón was about to go national. This would mark the beginning of a new era for the company; they had been quite literally through the fire with the bombings and burned down factories and had come out on the other side a stronger company.
“My brother Orlando, my friend Willy Pujals, and I headed to the 1993 RTDA (trade show) in Dallas.” His smile is infectious as he tells of his trials in the company. “We built the trade show display ourselves and it wasn’t so bad, except we used wing nuts to hold the whole thing together. All told there were about 3,000 wing nuts for a 10’ x 10’ display! We had built it a couple of times in our warehouse to make sure we had it right but needless to say when we got there it didn’t go so smooth, wing nuts everywhere!” At the end of the show they came back to Miami with 12 new retailers on board; and on those modest returns was how Padrón started its national expansion.
There’s real pleasure for Jorge in telling these stories. He’s a grounded businessman, fully aware of the different challenges that have come at his stage of the game. “You know, thankfully I have not had to deal with the difficulties that my dad overcame. My job has been to strengthen the brand and grow the company.” Growth is certainly a constant for the Padrón operation. When they returned to Nicaragua in 1990, they moved quickly to bring the war-torn factory back to form. “My dad was in Estelí a few days before they lifted the embargo, painting and repairing. He knew it was going to be lifted and was chomping at the bit to get back down there.” Now, 20 years later they operate out of 22 buildings in Nicaragua. “For our business, space is critical. In the last two years we’ve built two 2,500 square foot warehouses to store raw material. We are vigilant about having enough tobacco to maintain our blends and our flavor profile. We have a very distinct flavor profile and we have to ensure its continuity at all costs.”
That distinct flavor profile has been the hallmark of a Padrón cigar, which is why soon after the 1993 trade show, the brand spread like wildfire throughout the country. So much so that when the company launched the Padrón Anniversary 1964 to commemorate their 30th anniversary in 1994, the cigar immediately sold out. “We’ve never really caught up with the demand for that cigar, we just can’t make enough of it and I don’t think we ever will.” They don’t operate on an order basis; this means that they don’t try to make a certain number of cigars to fulfill orders. Instead they make what they can make based on the raw materials that are available. “I’ll give you an example of how serious we are about it,” says Jorge, leaning in. “Take the Family Reserve; our idea is to release a new Family Reserve every year leading up to our 50th anniversary. But if when the time comes we don’t have the raw materials to make the 47th, we won’t make it; it’s that simple.”
Jorge spent his summers working with his father in the Padrón factory. “He would wake me up at like 6:30 in the morning and take me with him to work.” His father had previously told me about how he felt it was important to introduce your children to the family business early. How he had not forced his children to like the family business, but had always hoped they would. They must have all liked it, for they are all in the business with him today. I asked Jorge what his job was in those early days. “Oh man, there was plenty to do but one of the more interesting jobs was to be the Cuban coffee gopher. We didn’t have a ‘cafetera’ (coffee maker) so I used to go around and collect money from the factory workers and run over to a little cafeteria that used to be over there.” He pointed in the direction of what now looks like an auto repair business about a block away. We discussed some of the other jobs that he and his brother Orlando and his cousin Rudy did as kids, and you can’t help but think of the progression. To see the growth of the individuals in parallel with that of the company is remarkable.
Orlando “Orly” Padrón
To say that Orlando is the humble and conservative one in the family would be a tremendous understatement. Unlike everyone else in the company, he wears slacks and a business shirt to work every day. Now keep in mind, this is a family business. No investment bankers to impress, no stock holders… you get the idea. Everyone looks tidy, but when you see Orlando it looks like he’s working in a financial services company or an accounting firm. At the same time, he’s unquestionably gracious and well-mannered, always making sure that we had everything we needed during our time in their space.
“I came from Cuba in 1966 when I was nine years old.” He’s the oldest son of José Orlando and manages the distribution for the company. “I worked in the factory every day after school. The funny thing is that the school bus would drop us off here!” He was smiling now and loosening up. We discussed some of his early jobs. “I spent a lot of time folding papers,” he offered with no elaboration. It turns out that the papers he was folding were the papers that wrapped the bundles that Padróns were packed in during those years. After a pensive moment he added, “A lot of paper cuts; as a kid you get to the point where you don’t want to see another sheet of paper.”
Today, aside from managing the distribution, he also represents the family at many Padrón events around the country. “I enjoy our events; it’s refreshing and invigorating to see the consumer enjoying our product. We work extremely hard and it can be tough for some of the folks on the team who don’t get the opportunity to see how much the consumers enjoy our cigars.” The Padróns have always taken a little bit of a beating about not doing more events, so it was interesting to see how much each member of the family, including the quiet, conservative one, enjoyed attending events.
I wanted to go back to his childhood in the company because unlike Jorge, who was born after the company had already been in business for almost ten years, Orlando (albeit as a nine-year-old) has been working at Padrón Cigars since 1966. He’s been there almost as long as his father. “We started a box recycling program very early on because my dad felt that there was too much unnecessary waste in that part of our business.” The program gave retailers a discount on their next order if they returned the box. Rather than throw them out, they gladly set them aside, to be picked up when the next order was delivered. The program is still in effect today and if you look at the bottom of any Padrón box you will see the recycle symbol and a message asking you to participate by dropping off the box at your local retailer after you smoke them. “So who do you think had to clean those boxes when we started that program? We did, the kids! Jorge, our cousin Rudy, and I cleaned boxes for most of our childhood.” As comical as it was to imagine these guys cleaning boxes as kids, the idea of cleaning a box and refilling it with cigars is cost prohibitive unless you package your cigars in the US. You see, Padróns are made in Nicaragua and Honduras but shipped to Miami in bundles where the Miami factory handles the packaging. Most other major cigar companies ship their cigars to the States packaged, which saves them money on packaging labor but makes a recycling program like this much more costly. If you are vigilant and lucky, you may run into one of the old 1964 Anniversary boxes; you’ll know it’s an old one if it says Aniversario instead of Anniversary.
On the topic of 1964 Anniversaries, I wanted to know what Orlando smokes. Is he a big ring gauge guy? “No! I find that the bigger ring gauges are uncomfortable for me; I feel like my jaw hurts after a while. I am definitely a 48 to 52 ring gauge smoker. My favorite cigar has to be the 1926 Serie Maduro No. 6 (4 ¾ x 50).” We were both smoking the 1926 Maduro No. 6 when I asked him what his favorite part of the job was. “We’re doing it right now; smoking a great cigar.”
Rodolfo “Rudy” Padrón
“In this family, you’re born with brown blood.” These were literally the first words that came out of his mouth as we sat in the lobby of the Padrón offices. But that’s Rudy; he’s the kind of cat who likes to rib his cousins and joke with co-workers, and he’s adept in almost any setting. Even to the extreme; they’ve nicknamed him ‘Crazy Rudy’ because back in the day he allegedly disposed of a bomb meant to assassinate his uncle José Orlando. Yeah, pretty crazy. Sitting with him now and discussing the family business, you can still sense that he doesn’t shy away from a little danger.
“I love to hunt, fish, ride motorcycles… I ride my bike to work every day.” Living in Miami and driving on its crowded streets myself, I can tell you that only someone with a bit of a wild streak would ride a motorcycle to work every day in this town. It didn’t take long during our interview for him to want to show off his bike. While standing in the parking lot of Padrón’s headquarters admiring the machine, my attention veered across the street to Padrón’s old factory.
Like Orlando, Rudy was dropped off from school daily at the factory where he learned the ropes. “Back then we still rolled cigars there; part of my job was to distribute the raw materials to the rollers.” But that didn’t excuse him from box-cleaning and paper-folding duties. “We laugh about it to this day but when Jorge, who is younger than Orly and I started working with us we would tease him and tell him that he was now entering the Padrón Institute of Technology!” But the Padrón boys learned about work ethic as well. “I remember that since we were closed on December 24th and 25th, we would work until 10 PM on December 23rd. Those days were not easy but it had to be done that way for this to be successful.”
The vision was not always as clear for Rudy; in 1978 he decided to leave the family business. “There was so much anti-smoking sentiment in the country that I had what I call my Maytag Repairman days.” Rudy left the company and joined Toledo Scales in their Sales division; his bilingual skills and outgoing personality helped him excel in Central and South American markets. For nine years he worked outside of Padrón Cigars. “During the time that I was away the business was changing. Jorge was pounding the pavement expanding our market and the consumer was changing too.” He returned to the family business with renewed energy and broader horizons. His experience in international markets has helped Padrón in their current international efforts. “We now have distributors in Europe, Australia, and Canada now that are helping promote our brand to a new consumer base. Caesar Gadea has been handling most of our international sales and he’s doing an excellent job. It’s pretty exciting.”
As of late, Rudy has been getting more involved in the blending and production side of the business. “We have a unique flavor profile that we need to maintain and protect. We continue to expand in Nicaragua in order to ensure that we have enough raw materials to maintain that profile for a long time.”
Marcos Soto Padrón
The next generation of Padróns is hard at work learning the ropes. “I am basically my grandfather’s right hand. Jorge is constantly traveling and my grandfather’s getting too old to go to Nicaragua on his own.” Marcos books his grandfather’s travel, takes him to the airport, coordinates the transportation from Managua to Estelí, and is with him 24/7 when he goes to Nicaragua. In return he’s receiving a priceless education in the cigar business. “I’m learning this business every day. My grandfather’s an interesting teacher; he never gives you a straight answer about anything. You ask him a question and he answers it with another question. He wants you to try to figure it out, take it as far as you can take it on your own, and then come back and ask the questions.” Interesting or not, you can’t put a price on the education. But some subjects are naturally harder than others. “I would say that the cultivation aspect is by far the hardest for me to grasp. Unlike my grandfather, I didn’t grow up on a farm so some of the concepts are foreign to me. Yeah, we exchange a lot of questions on that subject.”
Marcos has been working at Padrón since he was 14 years old and like his uncles Jorge, Orlando, and Rudy, he has been through the Padrón Institute of Technology as well. “When I was a kid we built the boxes. My cousin Jeffrey and I were pretty good at it. As a matter of fact, we’re all pretty good with our hands; I guess it runs in the family.” Now 29 years old and engaged, Marcos hopes to continue to grow in the business. “Besides my grandfather and Jorge who have very defined roles, the rest of us support each other and end up doing everything so you get to work on distribution, order fulfillment, events, etc….”
Two of Marcos’s cousins, Orlando’s oldest children Jeffrey and Jessica, also work full time in the office. Recently Jessica has taken over the company’s social media efforts, running the Facebook page and the company’s Twitter account. From a generational standpoint you can see that José Orlando, the 1st generation of Padrón Cigars in this country, was charged with establishing the company and giving it a solid foundation. No one can say that José Orlando had it easy. As if starting a brand with only $600 wasn’t difficult enough, he survived bombs, Sandinistas, and trade embargos. Hell, he didn’t just survive, he grew and prospered and is on the verge of celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary. Yeah, I’d say he did his job. The 2nd generation’s task has been to manage the brand and grow the business. Padrón’s lofty status among national and international tobacconists is proof that Jorge, Orlando, and Rudy’s generation has contributed a great deal and it still has a long road ahead. In the next five to ten years, the 3rd generation will likely start to take on a more significant role, and one can’t help but be interested and excited about what this group will bring to the company’s rich history.