known throughout the cigar industry for his skill growing and blending different tobaccos for hand-rolled premium cigars, could walk into a cigar factory blindfolded and know immediately where he was. “A cigar factory is a factory of smells and sounds,” Quesada says. “You want to smell the tobacco and you want to hear the chevetas (tobacco cutting tools) clicking on the tables.”
Quesada’s family-owned company, Manufactura de Tabaco S.A. (Matasa), in a duty-free zone in Santiago, D.R. makes Fonseca, Cubita, Joe Benito, Casa Blanca, Licenciados, La Primera, Royal Dominicana, Ricos Dominicano, and other regional brands for export primarily to the United States.
Having founded Matasa more than three decades ago, at a time when there wasn’t much cigar making going on in the D.R., Quesada has become a cheerleader for Dominican-produced cigars and is vice president of ProCigar, an organization of Dominican manufacturers formed to promote Dominican-made stogies.
Quesada brought Fonseca cigars, the company’s signature brand, to the D.R. in 1974, opening a small factory with three rollers to make the brand that had been established in Cuba in the 1800s and manufactured in Miami since 1962.
Over the years, the number of Matasa brands has increased and the company distributes its cigars in the United States through SAG Imports Inc., a family-owned company based in Miami.
In 2002, Quesada suffered a deep personal loss — and the company three-fifths of its management — when his brother Alvaro, his nephew Alvarito, and Julio Fajardo, a key company employee, died in a small airplane crash while returning from Haiti after inspecting a cigarette factory Matasa was considering buying.
DI: You are currently producing a 30th Anniversary edition of the Fonseca cigar. How did that brand develop in the Dominican Republic?
Quesada: When we came from Cuba, we were not cigar makers. In Cuba we were leaf dealers since my great-grandfather’s time. He founded the Cuban leaf company in 1876.
When we left Cuba and went to the Dominican Republic, we continued the leaf business. In 1974 we bought Fonseca from Antillian Cigar Co. in Miami to start the cigar factory in the free zone that was just starting in the Dominican Republic.
DI: What was the cigar industry like in the Dominican Republic in those days?
Quesada: In 1974, cigars that were made in the Dominican Republic were strictly for domestic consumption. The Dominican Republic was not known for exporting cigars at all. It started to be better recognized when Consolidated and General started to move operations to the Dominican Republic. They both were in free zones — General in La Roma and Consolidated in Santiago.
And, of course, the D.R. went on to become the biggest exporter of cigars to the U.S. to this day.
DI: What’s new at Matasa?
Quesada: We just came out with an extension of the Fonseca line. It’s called the Cubano Limitado. It’s a radical departure from the Fonseca’s we’ve made for the last 30-odd years. It’s a little stronger in the impressions of the flavor, taste and aroma. There is a little more strength involved. There are four sizes — a bellicoso, bellicos corto, robusto and toro.
DI: Why did you feel a need to come out with a stronger cigar?
Quesada: There is a segment of the market that is asking for stronger cigars and Fonseca is willing to cater to everyone in the market. We now have cigars that are in the middle-range of strength, and a little higher, then a little higher than that.
DI: Do you still grow your own tobacco in the Dominican Republic?
Quesada: We are still involved in leaf as far as supplies to the factory. We do not sell any more leaf outside of our own consumption. We buy tobacco from Connecticut, Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador and Africa. We stopped selling tobacco to other manufacturers about four years ago.
DI: Why did you stop doing that?
Quesada: The Dominican Republic lost some ground in the international market for leaf tobacco because of price. The markets were becoming very difficult and very small. The countries buying tobacco from the Dominican Republican were mostly Spain and France. The prices that these markets were willing to pay for Dominican tobacco did not really make for a viable venture.
DI: How many acres do you currently farm?
Quesada: We are farming presently about 200 acres to grow filler and binder.
DI: And currently the wrappers for your cigars come from...?
Quesada: The Dominican Republic, Connecticut, and Ecuador — and Africa for the Cameroon.
DI: Have you ever grown your own wrapper in the Dominican Republic?
Quesada: We are involved with a Dominican company that is growing wrapper in the Santiago area, and we are obtaining some Dominican wrapper — the 30th Anniversary cigar, for example, has a Dominican wrapper. Growing wrapper is an expensive proposition, and you need to have markets for whatever doesn’t yield as wrapper. When you grow wrapper, not everything that comes out is wrapper. Some becomes binder and filler.
DI: What’s your take on a recent national news story that talked about a mini-boom in the cigars currently underway?
Quesada: Well, the boom is misrepresented. It’s not really a “boom,” but a boon for cigar smokers. Never in the history of cigar making has there been a time like this. The best blends ever are being produced today by all manufacturers of premium cigars. For cigar smokers, they find themselves with a vast array of excellent cigars at prices that are not unreasonable.
DI: Did the mid-1990s cigar boom have a lasting effect on the industry?
Quesada: Premium cigar production went from 80 to 90 million cigars a year to almost 500 million in 1997. Today, it is down to approximately 300 million premium cigars. That’s still a lot of cigars. A lot of the people that came at the time of the boom remained as smokers.
According to what I have gathered extra-curricularly — these are numbers that we think reflect what is happening — the industry is probably growing at a 4% rate, give or take.
DI: The cigar boom aside, what do you see as the difference in the cigar market today than what it was before the boom?
Quesada: Before, the cigar smokers were more or less committed to a size and a brand. They’d smoke a particular shape and brand and they would continue smoking that particular cigar.
Today you find that smokers will go into a cigar shop and buy a number of brands simultaneously and a number of shapes simultaneously.
Smokers have become more informed and they will have cigars for particular moments or particular events. It’s not unusual to see someone walk in and buy two cigars from five different brands and maybe five different shapes.
DI: What has changed since you came into the business?
Quesada: When we opened the factory in 1974 few knew even where the Dominican Republic was, geographically speaking.
They knew of Haiti, but they didn’t know of the Dominican Republic. Selling cigars from the D.R. in the 1970s was not an easy proposition.
There was a time when the Dominican Republican was known for baseball players only. Now it’s known for cigars first and baseball players second.
That has taken a long time and a lot of effort by manufacturers.
DI: Is there more competition today than there was 10 years ago?
Quesada: Yes. There is more competition today because there are more cigar makers than there were 10 or 15 years ago.
Let me give you an example. Santiago in 1992 had eight or 10 factories dedicated to exporting cigars. During the boom years — ‘92 to ‘98 — there were 120 cigar factories in Santiago. Now there are perhaps 14 or 15 companies geared for exporting cigars. And Nicaragua and Honduras experienced the same.
There are more companies now than there were before the boom. The numbers have almost doubled. There are more people offering product and there are more people fighting for retail space.