Manny Iriarte

Manny Iriarte: branching out

This story was originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Cigar Snob Magazine.

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December 7th, 2000, 02:15 AM: He couldn’t sleep. His dream was becoming a reality; he had escaped the oppressive clutches of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and he was finally in the United States of America. After years of failed attempts, prolonged detours in South America, and numerous risky plane changes, he had made it. He pinched himself till there was no way that this was a dream. He finally fell asleep while his cellmate snored the night away at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster, California.

Here’s a quick lesson on US immigration policy towards Cuban nationals. From the US
State Department Fact Sheet: “The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), Public Law 89-732, was enacted on November 2, 1966. The law applies to any native or citizen of Cuba who has been inspected and admitted or paroled into the United States after January 1, 1959 and has been physically present for at least one year; and is admissible to the United States for Permanent Residence.”

There’s a lot going on in that seemingly simple statement. Distilled down it means that after going through a short inspection and admission process, a Cuban national will be admitted into the US, and that after just one year of living in the country, he or she may become a permanent resident alien. In the complicated and risky world of immigration, this is the equivalent of a golden ticket. What isn’t in the above statement but is also part of the deal with Cubans is that they do not need to use a family-based or employment- based immigrant visa like just about every other group. And finally, a Cuban national is not required to enter through a port of entry. In the end, if a Cuban national makes it to American soil, regardless of how he gets here, he or she can legally stay in this country legally and permanently after one year of residence.

Upon arriving in LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), Manny alerted customs and immigration that he was a Cuban national. As part of the standard procedure, he was taken to Mira Loma where he would have to wait for admission into the country. A few days later, he was released into the streets of Lancaster a free man. Free from the tyranny, from the oppression, and from the failed political ideals. The moment was bittersweet on various levels. On the one hand, he was free to pursue a new life while on the other he was far away from family and friends. He had been released and had gained legal entrance into the United States but he was alone, cold, and penniless in a foreign land.

Imagine this recent arrival Cuban with only the clothes on his back, speaking almost no English, hailing a cab in Lancaster, CA. “I will never forget that cab driver,” says Manny. “I don’t know how he understood me or why he even bothered to fight through this conversation but he eventually took me to a Western Union where I was able to have some funds wired from Miami to pay for the cab, some food, and a flight to Miami. I don’t know what would have happened if not for that cab driver.”

“Manny’s a special human being. He has incredible talent and creativity but beside that he has a feeling of the culture, the history, and the passion of cigars which is something to be admired and respected. Another thing about Manny that I admire is his work ethic; he’s very serious and hard-working but he’s also very responsible. In a short time Manny and I have become close friends to the point that I
consider him like family.”
— Carlos "Carlito" Fuente, Arturo Fuente Cigars

He eventually made it to Miami where he began a new life. In Cuba he was a swimmer for the Cuban National Team but in Miami, he was just another recent arrival. He worked as a personal trainer taking Spanish speaking clients. When you don’t have much, the most insignificant things bring you joy. “I was living in this studio apartment in Southwest Miami and every day I would receive these flyers in the mail for electronic stores. I loved them!” His eyes light up when he talks about these lean times. “I would ip to the camera section and imagine what it would be like to shoot with something from this century.” Back in Cuba a tourist had gifted him an old 35mm camera that sparked his growing passion for photography.

Soon he learned to speak English, received a teacher certification for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and took a job as a physical education teacher in the public school system. “I loved it. Helping kids get in shape and get better at sports was a lot of fun, but at night I kept taking pictures of cigars.” He loved smoking cigars and loved taking pictures... it wasn’t much of a stretch to put both passions together. “Cigars are so photogenic. People always ask me how I get the smoke to look so real in my pictures.” His answer is always the same. “I get the smoke to look real because it is real! You have to smoke the cigars you’re taking pictures of; it’s one of my favorite parts of my job.” It was during one of these practice sessions using natural light that Manny took the shots that he eventually showed me during our very first meeting.

It turns out that the gym where Iriarte worked out daily was the same gym that a dear friend of mine frequented. (Some day, I too will have to join a gym...) The friend in question, Angel Elizalde of A.S.P. Enterprises (www.aspenterprisesinc.com), saw Manny’s work and immediately suggested he contact me.

Five years later Manny Iriarte is unquestionably the cigar industry’s “go-to” photographer. His work in the cigar industry has opened eyes in other sectors as well. The marketing team at Beck’s Beer Latin American division fell in love with his work and commissioned Manny to shoot for their Latin market in-store poster campaign. If you look up Arturo Sandoval’s award-winning “A Time For Love” album, you’ll find that all the photography, including the cover, are Manny’s shots.

Back in the cigar business, however, Iriarte’s photography clients needed more than just photos. Logos, artwork for ads, poster designs, shelf-talkers, and even trade show displays are dressed with Manny’s work. My Father Cigars hired Manny to shoot all of their product shots and design all of their ads, posters, and catalogs. Padrón Cigars used several of Manny’s shots when they recently launched a new website. Oliva Cigars used Iriarte’s photography in ads and marketing collateral all over the world.

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Early 2008: Manny is setting up the studio for a product shoot for J. Fuego Cigars (www.tabacossa.com) while Jesus (pronounced Heh-Seuss), the J in J. Fuego, is thinking aloud about a problem he’s having. “I have this new blend that I love, I already have the initial batch of cigars rolled and ready, I have the name for the brand, but I don’t have a band design that I like. Do you know someone who can help?” Similar to the tourist who gifted Manny that 35mm back in Cuba and sparked his passion for photography, Jesus didn’t know he was playing with a blowtorch in a barn full of hay. “I’ll do it. I’ll create the label for the new cigar!” Manny designed the cigar label for the 777 by J. Fuego brand. Much like the events that led to this one, this chance request paved the way for the next step in his career.

Over the last 12 months, Iriarte Photography and Design has been hard at work balancing the photography requests with the growing number of design requests. The biggest area of growth for Manny’s business over this time has been cigar label and box art design. “I think that in order to stay energized and motivated in life, you need to take yourself out of your comfort zone,” explains Manny.

“At first it wasn’t easy to come up with designs that worked for cigar labels, but I worked closely with Albert Montserrat and his team at Cigar Rings in Santiago, Dominican Republic and we’ve been able to come up with some incredible new designs.” It has reached the point where Manny’s designs are pushing Cigar Rings out of their comfort zone. “We’ve ordered new machines and new materials that can execute some of the amazing designs that Iriarte Photography and Designs has sent us and we are excited about what we’re able to produce together,” added Albert during a recent phone interview.

It won’t be long before Manny runs into a new medium of inspiration... or perhaps he already has. “I’m working on the most exciting project I have ever worked on. I am thrilled and honored that my company was chosen to create this design to commemorate a major milestone in the modern cigar industry, I can’t wait till it’s public!”

There he goes again...

Cigar industry leaders on Cigar Snob's 10th anniversary

We asked some cigar industry leaders (and our publisher) to reflect on the last 10 years of Cigar Snob. Here’s what they had to say.

Erik Calviño

Publisher, Cigar Snob Magazine

About eight years ago, I was working on the magazine from a New York City hotel room. At that time, I was an IT consultant in the data warehousing field by day and producing the magazine at night. It was around midnight when my old friend José Oliva, fresh off the CRA Freedom Tour, called. We had spoken at the Freedom Tour’s grand finale in Orlando, where I’d expressed hesitation about taking the magazine national. Up to this point, the magazine was called Florida Cigar Snob and was only distributed in our home state. I felt we had a good format and had figured out readers’ likes and dislikes, but I wasn’t sure about the investment it would take to go national.

We talked late into the night about how to grow the magazine and what he’d want to see as an advertiser. It was useful insight, but the pep talk was priceless. He used the analogy of a ship cruising in the harbor where the waves are insignificant and how the true test of the ship was how it handled the “blue water.” Can it stay the course in rough seas? That issue, the November/December 2008 issue, was the end of Florida Cigar Snob. In January, we published the first national Cigar Snob. We’ve been sailing blue seas, rough water and all, ever since. Thank you, José.

This started as and still is a partnership between my father, Oscar M. Calviño and me. We’ve always been fortunate to have surrounded ourselves with talented, dedicated individuals who make tremendous sacrifices for the magazine. Ivan Ocampo has not only made sacrifices, but has elevated his skill as a producer and fixer. Those skills are on full display in every issue’s photo shoots. Thank you, Ivan.

When we’re against deadlines and during crazy travel schedules, my wife Barbara has held down the fort at home with amazing grace, and managed to get our boys to every Tae Kwon Do class, football, baseball, and cross country practice without missing a beat, or a day of work! Without her support, none of this would be possible. Thank you for that. I love you.

Though we publish a magazine, this business looks and feels a lot like a family-owned cigar company. It’s a dream come true to walk into the office every morning and be greeted by my “little” sister Jamilet. The operations of the company are handled by my father. Without his tireless efforts, we wouldn’t have the money to pay for printing, much less our monthly coffee supply. Thank you, viejo.

It’s been a hell of a ride. Thanks to our team for your hard work and dedication. Thanks to our advertisers and partners for the continued support. And thanks to you, the reader. You are the reason we do this.

José Oliva

CEO, Oliva Cigar Company

The pages of this magnificently matured publication are filled with the stories of an industry made up of dreamers and craftsmen. Men and women who represent a world mostly alien today. True frontiersmen who place a seed in the earth, cultivate the fruits of that earth, craft a product by hand and bring it to market. Without automation or manipulation — just what human hands can create and relationships can market. I can think of no other industry like our own.

Such is the story of Cigar Snob, a publication started by a father and son, armed only with their passion for this rare craft and a desire to tell its stories. For a decade now, they have taken us along with them on their journeys. We have been fortunate to be both spectators and participants. Along the way new cigar families have started their own stories and with them have come true innovations. The older families have cemented their legacies, steeped in tradition and true to the tenets of our craft. Together, they form the brilliant mosaic of the premium cigar industry.

Flipping through a decade’s worth of Cigar Snob publications, we can relive these journeys as they unfolded through the eyes of Erik Calviño. Cigar Snob has a lot in common with cigars themselves. It is the product of someone who set out to tell a story and became one of the stories and part of the whole family.

Congratulations on your first decade. To many more!

Dylan Austin

VP Marketing, Davidoff of Geneva USA

Wow. Has it been 10 years already? Erik and the Cigar Snob family were some of the first people I met when I came into the business 10 years ago. I left our first meeting thinking, “These guys will do something special.” And they have.

It’s been exciting watching the evolution of the magazine and its team — every careful step advancing the unique, quality experience they provide to readers and advertisers. Most people don’t understand what it takes to put together such a top-notch publication. I’ve seen firsthand the work Erik and team put in, the passion they have for great content, and the dedication to repeat this with each issue. It’s nothing short of amazing and the success of Cigar Snob since inception is proof.

As Cigar Snob grew, we grew along with them. We became part of their success; they became part of ours. We became part of their family; they became part of ours. Not something you find much these days. This is the spirit of true partnership. For that, I am and always will be thankful.

Erik, Oscar, Ivan, Jami, Nick, Andy and the rest of the gang at Cigar Snob, thank you for a wonderful 10 years of partnership and friendship. I love you all like family, it’s been a blast and I’m looking forward to celebrating your 20th anniversary and all the memories created in between.

Michael Herklots

VP Retail & Brand Development, Nat Sherman

Ten years have come and gone awfully quick. While much remains the same, so much is different. The premium cigar industry was “under fire” 10 years ago, subject to regulation and taxation in ways we had never seen. Ten years later that statement remains entirely true, though the severity has far surpassed that of a decade past. Many faces of our industry remain familiar, yet the perception of those faces and their brands has changed. Those of us who welcomed and embraced new “boutique” brands have proudly watched them transition into leaders. And as new consumers come to love our hobby, they only know the current snapshot of who’s who and what’s what, paving the way for another wave of “boutique” brands to win favor with fans, while allowing the “industry veterans” to welcome the new generation to a place at the table with companies that once inspired them.

A decade ago, the tobacconist was the conduit between consumer and manufacturer, helping guide manufacturer decisions and consumer palates. If you wanted to learn, you needed to have a conversation with someone with proven expertise. Today, too often in solitude, words are entered into rectangular boxes on a screen and, after reading blogs, “liking” images, a retweet and a direct message, new experts are born...accepting what they’ve just seen as fact. Facts, a decade ago, were checked. Most of them.

Ten years ago, I was the youngest guy... Ten years ago I met Tiffany. Ten years ago, I had the privilege of working for a great family business, Davidoff of Geneva. Today, I’m married to Tiffany, the mother of our two beautiful little girls. Today I have the privilege of working with a great family business, Nat Sherman. A decade ago, today, and hopefully for many decades to come, I’ll remain blessed doing something I love, with people I love, in an industry I love. Congratulations Cigar Snob on 10 years!

Jeff Borysiewicz

President & Founder, Corona Cigar Co.

Congrats to the Cigar Snob family on 10 great years of informative, entertaining and eye-catching content. Besides being a huge fan of the magazine, it’s great to witness a small, family business grow from a local publication to a well-respected national magazine. You guys have stayed true to your vision and passion. Looking back on the early days, I can’t forget Gary Arzt, who introduced me to Cigar Snob magazine. Gary was a great guy and I still miss him.

Keep up the great work and continued success!

Abe Dababneh

Founder, Smoke Inns of South Florida

Decade. The word may only have six letters, but it is a pretty big word. I recall the feeling of immensity when I first learned its meaning as a child. A decade seemed like an insurmountable distance away. Unfortunately, as life ages us, time becomes fleeting. Don’t get me wrong; 10 years is a long time, it just seems to zip by us now as adults. When I heard this was Cigar Snob’s 10th Anniversary Issue, I was taken aback. Has it really been 10 years? This year, my company celebrated the 10th Anniversary of The Great Smoke, our annual mega cigar event. From its very first year and the throughout the following nine years, Cigar Snob has been its official publication. That is how far back I go with the Calviño family.

I remember seeing the first issue. I was with one of my mentors, Sal Fontana, in the Camacho offices in Miami. Erik Calviño was in an office with Christian Eiroa, likely trying to get new advertising, when Sal showed me the issue and told me about a nice young man (of course everyone was a young man to Sal) who was starting a cigar publication. “Crazy nuts,” I said to myself. I had seen other magazines flail and flounder attempting to find success. I thought this would be a fleeting venture. Then I had an opportunity to sit with Erik. I saw the passion and vision of where he wanted to take the magazine. His dedication to the cause was blindingly apparent. I’m proud to say I decided to begin advertising with what was then a small regional publication and have been an advertiser ever since.

To see Cigar Snob’s growth over the past 10 years, not only in circulation, but also in content, appearance and quality, has only confirmed that my decision to be part of it was spot on. Cigar Snob has become a national presence in the cigar community. I look forward to what the next decade brings us.

Congratulations to the Calviño Family and the whole Cigar Snob team.

Rafael Nodal

Owner, Boutique Blends Cigars

Congratulations to Cigar Snob on their 10th anniversary. I am looking forward to celebrating the 20th together. Ten years ago, I was 41, able to party all night, wake up and put in a full day of work the next day. Now I am 51 and have to go to bed at 11 p.m. or I can’t function the following day. I just hope that when we celebrate the 20th anniversary, the party is at 5 p.m. so I can go to bed by 8.

Alan Rubin

Owner, Alec Bradley Cigar Company

Erik and his Cigar Snob family have been instrumental in providing cigar manufacturers a platform to tell our stories. Actually, Cigar Snob was one of the first cigar publications to focus on the more personal elements of the individuals behind the brand — talking about our preferences on fashion, clothing, libations, vacations, cars, and more. Erik, being a family man, always brought a warm-hearted family atmosphere to our meetings. I’d like to personally congratulate Erik and the Cigar Snob family on a successful 10 years! The Alec Bradley Family wishes you many more years of continued success!

Erik Espinosa

Owner, Espinosa Premium Cigars

I and my team at Espinosa Cigars would like to congratulate Cigar Snob Magazine on their 10-year anniversary. Your magazine is a perfect blend of topical and educational information, keeping us up to date on industry trends and culture, as well as news and feature stories. Our congratulations.

Manny Iriarte

President, Iriarte Photography & Design

I practically started my career when I got to know Cigar Snob. I’ve always felt like part of the magazine. It’s a relationship of friendship, passion, work ... I would even say they’re like family. I’m very grateful and proud that we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the founding of one of the world’s best cigar magazines.

Craig Cass

Owner, Tinder Box Charlotte/President, IPCPR

Cigars get tons of negative press. Cigar Snob has done an amazing editorial job of finding real-life stories where cigars were a central character. None stands out more than the article on Darrell and Debbie Boyette. When Debbie had a critical heart issue, there were few surgeons in the world capable of performing the procedure. Darrell is my GM (Tinder Box Charlotte) and one of our best customers is Devinder Bhatia, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon. He knew a specialist in Houston, and with the cigar connection, Debbie was soon on an air ambulance to Houston. Cigars saved a life and Cigar Snob was there to tell the story.

Paul Palmer-Fernández

President, Casa Fernandez Cigars

I have known and worked with Erik Calviño and Cigar Snob for 10 years and found him to be forthright, a wealth of knowledge, uncompromised, and with a true passion for the cigar industry. It shows! We began advertising when Cigar Snob’s circulation was 5,000. After 10 years, it’s 60,000. Keep doing what you do and keep making the world aware of cigars, “The Last Affordable Luxury.” Thank You!