Rob Gagner (RG): I really, really want to talk about your journey because you have probably one of the most epic journeys in the cigar industry.
Voice Over (VO): There’s a story inside every smoke shop with every cigar and with every person. Come be a part of the cigar lifestyle of Boveda. This is Box Press.
RG: Welcome, everyone. I’m your host Rob Gagner, with Boveda. Welcome to another episode of Box Press. I am actually in Honduras right now with Oscar Valladares. Oscar, thanks for joining me and welcoming me into your shop. Thank you so much. I butcher the name of the capital here that we’re in. Is it… Go ahead Oscar. Where are we at?
Oscar Valladares (OV): Tegucigalpa.
OV: Yeah, you got it.
RG: That’s the capital of Honduras. We’re in the Tobacco and Company.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: So this is your shop that your brother helps you run. And there’s members here that you might be able to hear in the background, but we are enjoying the fine luxuries of… What are we smoking right now, Oscar? The Oscar, right?
What’s Rob Gagner’s Favorite Oscar Valladares Tobacco & Company Cigar?
OV: The Oscar Habano in Corona Size.
RG: This is my favorite cigar that you make. It’s my number one go-to cigar ever since you gave me one of these. It has that sweetness that I like and I immediately, this is my go-to. I got to have a bundle of these at all times. Alvaro always hooks me up with some out of the office and we make sure we keep the Boveda crowd happy.
RG: So, appreciate it.
OV: I’m glad you like it.
RG: Yeah. I love this cigar. Well I really, really want to talk about your journey because you have probably one of the most epic journeys in the cigar industry. Now, everyone can probably say that about themselves, but I love your story going from bus driver to cigar maker in the span of 20 years. And that story that’s there is so interesting. And really, where we’re at now isn’t where you started. Is this your hometown?
OV: Yeah. I’m born here in the capital city, in Tegucigalpa. And I moved to Danli 20 years ago.
RG: 20 years ago you moved to Danli, which is where the operation is now.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: What brought you to Danli in the first place? Why did you say, “I’m going to leave the capital, and I’m going to Danli”?
Meeting Rocky Patel
OV: You know, that’s part of the history. I am here in Tegucigalpa. I study in the university for tourism. And I’m working for a tourist company in that time. And I met Rocky, Rocky Patel in that years. You know, my job in that company is to stay in the office making reservations of hotels, resorts, rent cars, so I pick the phone, and making that reservations.
RG: Is that basically like a travel agent?
RG: You were helping people, was it mainly your clients from here, or clients from other countries coming in?
OV: For another countries. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
OV: Yeah. And one day I am in the office. The company has drivers. So, you can rent a car with driver or no driver. So, somebody calls the office and needs a guy driving the bus for four people. And I pick up the guys in the airport. And the four guys are Rocky Patel, Nimish, cousin of Rocky, Erik Espinosa, and another guy in the cigar business.
RG: Four big hitters, right there.
RG: You got a car full of cigar makers and influencers.
OV: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: So, what kind of day was it? Was it a sunny day, warm day? Was is it just the typical weather?
OV: Man, it’s a beautiful day. He’s staying for five days in the capital city. So basically this guy wants somebody who knows restaurants, bars, casinos.
RG: And you’re the guy.
OV: I am the guy.
RG: That knows all that.
RG: So, you’re their host.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: So, what were they having you do? What was the first thing that Rocky Patel asked you to do?
OV: You know, in that time, I had no any idea who Rocky is, if I’m honest with you. Because here is Honduras, now it’s more people smoking cigars, more culture about cigars. But in that time I don’t smoke cigars. And when I picked up the guys in the airport, they started smoking cigar in the bus. I am like, “What happened? This guy is smoking a cigar.” And that’s my first experience. And it smelled good. And I go to the hotel. And that’s my first experience see a cigar.
RG: So Rocky and Erik, Nimish.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: Who was all in the car again?
OV: It’s another guy. I think he own a big company of cigar. He already sold right now. But he’s another big guy.
RG: So four guys get in your car, they light up cigars. Where do they ask you to take them?
OV: First, to the hotel. Later, it’s good restaurants here in the capital city. And then casinos and a party.
RG: Okay. So they were out on the town ready to party, you understand the lay of the land where they were at?
RG: Did they invite you to the dinner or anything like that?
OV: Yeah. Actually Rocky.
RG: Tell me about that first dinner then. I mean that’s got to be interesting. You don’t know these guys.
Smoking a Cigar for the First Time
OV: The first time, I picked up the guys, I brought them to the hotel. That’s like three o’clock jn the afternoon. And Rocky says, “Man, I want to take a little bit break, and I want a seafood restaurant. And you can go in with us, 7:00 pm.” So I bring the guys to the restaurant, and Rocky says, “Come and go have a dinner with us.” And later go to the casino, and later go in to the club, and finish the party 5:00 am in the morning. That day is the first day I smoked a cigar and started drinking at the bar. And I drove the bus back to the hotel at 5:00 am in the morning.
RG: 5:00 am in the morning, and how did your first cigar experience go? Tell me who handed it to you? Who got you to smoke it?
OV: Rocky gave me a cigar. And it’s a total different experience for me. But I was drinking scotch in that time, and the flavor was totally something new for me. So I take a sip of the scotch and later smoking a cigar, and he explained to me, “You no inhale the cigar, so it stays in the mouth, and later get out and you have all flavors. And you can smoke and pass from your nose.” So you have all peppers and flavors and all that kind of the stuff. And I really like it. It’s like wow, this is different experience.
RG: So Rocky handed you the cigar, you take it. Did he teach you how to light it or anything like that? Did he give you any notes?
OV: The guys have a cutter and lighter. So I cut the cigar and put lighter and start smoking.
RG: And you immediately were like, “Okay, I can get behind this”?
OV: So, that’s the first experience.
RG: So, after that, you guys end the night at 5:00 am. What’s the next day look like? Are you guys back at it bright and early?
Making a Go In the Cigar Biz: Fake It, ’til You Make It
OV: So, it’s a big hangover the next day. But I picked up the guys like 12:00, for lunch. And then come back to the hotel, relax. And the night, another party. So, later, it’s more friendly, more party like this. It’s for four days. And that’s in, I think, September. And then Rocky tells me he’s bring groups from United States to Danli, Honduras. And I say, “Okay, I can helping you with that.” Because I like the party and the smoking cigars and all the stuff. So, by February, I’m driving the bus. But to be honest with you, I never drove a bus before.
RG: You’ve never driven a bus before?
OV: No. Because that bus is big. Man, it’s like 25 people. You can fit 25 to 30 people in the bus.
OV: And I don’t want to stay in the office, man. And my boss tell me, “Hey, you can drive a bus?” And say, “Yeah, sure. This is not a problem.”
RG: And you just go with it.
OV: I say, “I can driving a small car, I can drive a big car.” So, I start by going to the airport and then driving to Danli, Honduras, it’s like one hour thirty minutes from Tegucigalpa. And Rocky has a big house for the groups, and a pool and everything. And at that time, the service is from the company I work for, the tourist company.
RG: Sure. So, you’re not working for Rocky at this point?
RG: You were just literally being the liaison in the hired company, that he’s like, “I need guys from the airport to my house.”
OV: Yeah. That’s it. And it started the first day—go to the house, relaxing, have a barbecue, and drinking and smoking a cigar.
RG: And are you participating just with the clients, as well? Are you there? Or you just drop them off and leave?
OV: Actually, yeah. Because Rocky is very friendly. And Rocky say, “Come to the table and take a cigar.” And I started listen what the people said, and listen about the cigars’ culture. They’re saying, “I like strong. I like medium. I like this.” I listen to what everybody says. I start smoking more light cigar, like Connecticut. And later my palate changes a little bit and a little bit more—strong and more strong. And I change my palate for more strong cigars.
OV: I think I stayed three years like that. Seven months a year for Rocky. Because Rocky bring groups February, March, April and May, four months. And later he bring September, October and November. So it’s seven months a year. So I bring the groups and I working and helping in the Rocky house. Everything is fine—water, drinks, the food is on time. So I helping in that way, too.
Learning the Cigar Business
OV: So, Rocky looked to me, “The guy no need help here.” But I helping everybody, and I like it. And my first experience when I moved to Danli, it’s a small town. But when I start with the groups, cigar tours, and I see the farm and I see fermentation of the tobacco, and I see how making the boxes and I see how making the cigars. And too many people are involved in this process. And my impression is like “Wow, man, this is amazing. This is art.” It’s too many people.
RG: Takes a lot.
OV: Yeah. So I start talking with the guys in charge of different sections. Like the farmer, so I talk to the farmer. Fermentation, I talk to the guy in charge of the fermentation. And too many questions I have in my mind.
RG: You’re learning as you’re going and you have all these questions.
OV: Just too much. And I learning and learning, and asking this and this and this. So imagine, I’m working nine years like that. And every day you’re learning something about the tobacco. And today I’m learning.
RG: You’re still learning.
OV: Yeah, still learning.
RG: That’s amazing.
RG: So, when you first came to Danli, describe the area that you were living in and how it was different than you living in the capital.
OV: Actually when I work with Rocky, I living in the house Rocky rented for the groups.
RG: So was that the first place you lived when you were in Danli?
OV: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s the first place I lived with the groups. And it’s totally different. It’s more farm, more relaxing, less traffic. I like farm. That’s a little bit not too fun, but it’s more relaxed. It’s more…
RG: More of country living?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Describing the House of Rocky Patel
RG: So what’s the scenery like? Paint the picture of the scenery. Is it up in the mountains? Is it down in the valley? What’s the house situation? Is there stuff around it?
OV: So, the house of Rocky, it’s at the top of the hill. It’s around seven acres. It’s no neighbors. It’s a bit of a relaxed house. No internet, but reception in the cellphones. No TVs. Just relax, enjoy your cigar at the top on the hill, beautiful weather, good food, good cigars, good drinks. So it’s good.
RG: So you’re overlooking all the valleys and were there tobacco fields where you could see them? Or was this just basically the house in a scenic mountain scene?
OV: No, just the house. Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it’s not the city. It’s 10 minutes before the city.
RG: Okay. Before Danli?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Before Danli.
RG: Got it.
OV: Yeah. That’s the house.
RG: So it’s a little more rural, little more country living, quiet, peaceful.
OV: Very quiet. Except for one fucking rooster. It starts sing 5:00 am in the morning. But the rest is fine.
RG: So you’re getting up at 5:00 am whether you like it or not, because that rooster is going to crow.
RG: So, you’re living in the capital, Teguc, and now the transition to Danli. And at this point, you’re no longer working for the travel agency? Has Rocky decided to hire you? And have you decided to work for him? And is that why you’re coming to Danli?
OV: That’s three years later.
RG: Okay. So you come to Danli while working for the travel agency?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: And was that your whole plan, is to just work for the travel agency?
Learning About Oscar Valladares’s Life in Tourism
OV: You know, in that time, when I tell you in the story, I am at the office. But when I take the first group to Danli with Rocky, and I am still in the university for Master in tourism, my boss give me a job for tour guide. So, I travel in all Central America, including Mexico and Honduras, like tour guide. So, my job in that time is bring groups to, for example, a resort in Guatemala, a resort in El Salvador, another resort in Nicaragua, with groups like 70 people, 80 people. So in that time, my job is enjoy it. Meet a lot of people, like medical brigades, missionary people. So, I traveling for whole country and all Central America, including Panama.
RG: And this is what you went to school for, or you’re going to school for?
OV: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: So you’re setting out on a career that you think, “This is my job. This is what I’m doing.” And you’re still working out of the capital at this point?
OV: Yeah. But I meet too many people with different ideas, different cultures, different business people, study people, people helping another people. So, that experience is amazing. People from Italy, Germany, Spain, people from Mexico, people from United States, local people. So, my picture is a lot, a lot of people.
RG: It’s big.
OV: Yeah, it’s big.
RG: It’s big. You got a lot of things going on.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: So then, what pushed you to go to Danli?
OV: When I work for Rocky. It’s like Rocky tell me, “Hey, I know you working really good. I want you work for me full time.”
RG: Because he just saw your experience. And every time he came here he was using your travel agency to book it?
RG: And you were always the guy he had taking his clients from the airport to Danli?
RG: So it was about three years where you were still doing the travel agency thing and you were still Rocky’s guy to transport everyone?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: Then what was the conversation like with Rocky to be like, “Okay, I need you full time”? What did that look like? How did he ask you and why did he ask you?
Saying “No” to Rocky Patel’s First Job Offer
OV: I don’t know. But I’m very involved with the groups and talking, and I make sure the groups have a good time, everything is on time, all service. And Rocky said, “Man, I want you helping me more. So I want you working full time for me.” And I say, okay, explain to me a little bit more, because I drive the bus or what? So Rocky say, “No man, I want you helping the groups. And you can start working in the packaging department and learning more.” And my first answer is no.
RG: You said no right away?
RG: Why? Why did you say no?
OV: I had a lot of respect for this business. And I am like, if I work here in quality control and you have more people, I know, with more experience. People have 20 years, 40 years experience. And I say I want to stay only one place. And now I traveling for all Central America, Latin America, actually I am a tourist too, learning a lot for different countries, different cultures. And I say no.
RG: Why? Because you didn’t want to give up that freedom of traveling around?
RG: So you wanted to keep being a nomad, traveling around?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.
RG: And your family was still in the capital?
OV: In the capital.
RG: So you’d always have a central spot?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: And now he’s asking you go to Danli?
OV: Move to Danli.
RG: And you say no.
OV: I say no.
RG: Just because you don’t want to give up what you went to school for? Or what?
OV: No. In that time, I was very young and I’m like, no, I want to travel more, I want to make more experiences, I want to helping. Because when I traveling, I am with missionary people, making houses for the poor people. So, I helping in that, too. It’s too many emotions for me in that time. But six month later, my wife is pregnant.
RG: So you didn’t have any kids at this point?
RG: So you could live this nomad lifestyle where being able to be in different countries wasn’t a big deal?
RG: So now six months later your wife has a kid.
RG:: You have your first boy or girl?
Finding the Balance Between Running Cigar Tours and Working Quality Control for Rocky Patel Cigars
OV: My girl is from Danli. So, I talk to Rocky again. And I say, okay, tell me a little bit more how is the job. So he say, “You can start with the groups seven months a year, the rest of the year you’re working in the quality control in the packaging department.” So, I start working in the packaging department. I move to Danli, and working there. And I start learning. Smoking more cigars, see how blending, how fermenting tobacco. But for three years what I see seven months a year is tobacco, tobacco, tobacco, tobacco, tobacco, and talk to the people, have a lot of experience and learning.
OV: So, it’s basic how I learning. But no stop there. I working in the packaging department and two years later, I see Rocky in the magazines, good reviews, a lot of different brands in the market. So I talk to Rocky and I say, “Rocky, if you’re making a good cigars, why you not selling in Honduras the cigars?” And he’s like, “Oscar, you know the minimum salary in Honduras is low, and my cigar is $8 to $10. So where is the market?” And I say, give me the distribution and I can making happen. So, I’m driving the bus for the groups, I’m working at the quality control and then I open my first company distributing cigars in Honduras. Man, the first year is really, really bad. I lost money.
RG: Really? Why did you lose money?
OV: There’s no cigar stores.
RG: So there’s no cigar stores like we have in America?
Getting Rocky Patel Cigars in Tourist Destinations
OV: No. And then you have other stores selling cigars but no have the good conditions. So it’s dry. People say, “No, I don’t want to smoke that cigar, it’s dry, the wrapper is cracky.” So, I lost money in one year. And then I say something happen right here. I need to fix this. I start making events. So I rent a big space and I bring 50 people. Everything free drinks, food and cigars.
OV: So, my idea in that time is show the people the making the cigar. What is the different leaf, touching the leaf, smell the tobacco, see what’s going on when you making a cigar. It’s only a cigar and find it right now, you see the final product right now. But I want the people see behind, how many people, how you blending, a lot of stuff. So, that helping to me because I bring the newspaper, magazine. So, in that time, smoke cigar is fashion. Everybody, “Oh, wow. I see the guy in the news, I see the guy in the newspaper smoking a cigar.”
OV: And then I made 80 small humidors. And I put three different cigars. One mild, one medium and one strong. And I put in the best hotels, best restaurants and the night clubs. So, the only problem I have, in the restaurants, I teaching the people in the restaurants, the people give the service to you explain what is mild, what is medium, what is a strong cigar. And I say, some customer who comes in here and asking to you for my cigar. These are my cigars with Connecticut, blah blah blah, explain the blend. And La Corojo is a medium body, and Maduro is a full body, so I explain. The problem is every two months it’s a new people in the restaurant. So I need teaching again and again and again.
OV: So I say man, I can lost too much time like. So, in the back in the humidor, so I put S in Spanish is Suave, so it’s like mild, I put M, Medium, and I put F, F is Fuerte, so it’s a strong. So I put three small letters. And I say now you’re the best seller. So you’re an expert in cigars. People asking to you for mild it’s right here. Medium, right here, strong is right here. Man, my sales that year increased like crazy.
RG: So you gave them a formula that they could easily relate to the customer on?
RG: Because you have too much staff turnover, that training them personally was being too time consuming.
OV: Yeah. And in one specific area in Honduras, is Roatán. It’s in the Caribbean. Beautiful island. And I put in every resort, every hotel. When Rocky see my numbers the end of the year, he’s like, “What are you doing, man?” I say, what happened? Something wrong? He said, “No, you’re selling a lot of cigars. You’re selling more cigars than my distributor in all Latin America.”
RG: Wow. Just in Honduras?
OV: Just in Honduras. And Rocky say, “Now you’re my distributor for all Latin America and the Caribbean.” And I’m like, okay. I take it. So, I open Mexico in that time. Open Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, in the Caribbean I have Saint Martin, Aruba, Argentina, Venezuela. So I open a couple countries in that time. I’m selling a lot of cigars.
RG: So just to clarify, when you say “my girl” you meant your wife is from Danli, right?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: And so your family just moved with you here right away?
RG: And were they staying at Rocky’s house? Or were staying at a different house?
OV: No, different house. I had my own house.
RG: Okay. Got you. So you explained that you first off said no to Rocky right away to his initial offer. You came back because your wife was pregnant and you did want to move back to her hometown of Danli.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: But you also hesitated on your experience in the cigar industry. So as soon as you started working for Rocky and with his people and in his factory, how did you navigate not stepping on the coworkers’ toes? These people have years of experience. How did you navigate with them and grow but not over influence and come in with too much confidence?
OV: Yeah. I have a lot of respect for this industry. It’s many, many years. But I have that, it’s like passion. But I have this feeling I need have more information every time. Because I don’t want go to the factory rejecting cigars, and the people tell me, “Why you rejecting?” I can show why. So, that’s what I need, more information and more information, it’s because I asking a lot of question for the people in the farm and the fermentation and the making cigars. And I have a lot of great friends who have all the experience. So I try to have the whole information with me with everything. So when I work in the quality control and I rejecting cigars, because I am like Rocky’s eyes. So I need have the product correctly.
RG: In order to be in quality control, you obviously have to know what the cigar is supposed to taste like. So you’re coming in with a bunch of questions, you’re talking to the people who have worked there and been there and now you’re tasked with the responsibility of saying is this cigar going to pass or is it going to fail?
RG: So you’re either rejecting them or accepting them. And that’s your first job with Rocky. So that’s intimidating.
OV: Oh yeah. For sure.
RG: And did any of your co-worker get offended by your rejection? Or were you-
OV: Oh yeah. For sure.
RG: And how would you navigate that with them? Would you say just we need to change this or that? Or did you have idea of what give advice to them? Or were relying on them to do that?
Rejecting a Cigar, Oscar Valladares Tells You Why
OV: No, yeah. I rejecting, I say, “No, that cigar you can’t put in the box.” That cigar is too bumpy or that cigar is this. So, it’s rejecting, and put in a good cigar. And it’s smoking a cigar. You need learning and say okay, this is bad because of this. So, that’s my mentality is, okay, I can rejecting a cigar, but I want to tell you why.
RG: Okay. So you did have enough experience to say I’m rejecting this but here’s why.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: And then they would listen to you and say okay. And they’d be able to correct from there?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
RG: So do you think because you came into with a fresh perspective, you had no preconceived notions, that you were able to really navigate all these different avenues that make a great cigar, thus made you qualified for quality control?
OV: Yeah. And also I use, because I have a supervisors right now working in my factory. But the guys, it’s people working for me, for example, on the production floor, I have supervisors checking cigars. But that supervisors were making cigars before. So, they start rolling cigars, and later I said, that guy is really good. So I stand up, from the table, now you are supervisor. Why? Because I talk to my people, my supervisors, I say, man, I want you rate the cigars, but it’s not only your job, your real job is teaching the people why it’s bad and teaching him how to make it better.
OV: So, for example, I have a guy making—bunching—and the cigar is bad. So, I warn my supervisor, open the cigar with him, and tell him, that cigar is bad because this and this. And you put the materials in that way, it’s not correct, And I show you how you need to put material in the cigar. And he put the material in the cigar and later say, that’s how you need to make the cigar. So I don’t want you to give me more problems or more headaches. I want you fix the problem and teach the people, in that time the people making more money, no rejecting too many cigars, and everybody’s happy.
OV: Happy cigar, happy people, so, that’s it.
RG: Exactly, that’s a good, good qualifier.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: So, did Rocky have to prove your position as quality control? Because I would assume that’s a very important role at a cigar factory, and that’s probably something that Rocky has a hand in, right? He’s trying to say, “This is what I want the cigar to taste like.” So did you spend a lot of time with Rocky and did he train you to the point where, okay, now… What was kind of the pivotal point where he was like, “Okay, now you can do this. You’ve got this”?
OV: Yeah, but in that position I have with Rocky, he has another person, too, with a lot of experience. So, I am very close to that person.
RG: Okay, so Rocky’s already kind of trained somebody that he trusts in quality control, you kind of worked underneath him.
OV: Yeah, with another person.
RG: And now both of you are helping with quality control.
OV: Exactly, yeah, that’s right.
RG: How many quality control people were at the factory?
Ensuring Consistency in Premium Cigars, Humidity’s Role
OV: Wow, it’s a lot of quality control people in different departments. So, for example, in the packaging department, you have the guy, the boss for the packaging department, and also you have seven supervisors depending on the size of the factory, or depends how many cigar you’re packaging, plus another people, like Rocky people, in the factory. And I see the whole process, when the cigar’s coming naked, if the cigar have the good humidity, the cigar have a good color, because have the standard of the colors for you put 20 cigars in the box and look the same.
OV: So, you have a standard of colors, you have a standard of quality in construction, it’s not bumpy, it’s beautiful wrapper, and then you need to check out the labels. If the label is correct size, behind here and here, the cello, the whole information on the box. And later that cigar is ready for put in the boxes. But it was put in the boxes with the cellophane, you checking again every single cigar is not broken, so it’s a lot of quality control before put in the box and shipping.
RG: And did you do all of the quality control eventually through your time with nine years with Rocky? Did you kind of just move throughout all the different quality control areas?
OV: Yeah, I check out everything. So, go in the morning, check it out what you package, how many cigars you packaging, how we put the labels, if the labels is right, even the boxes, the packaging, when put in the shipping. So, everything.
RG: Amazing. So, with the cigar distribution that you had and the success that you were seeing, Rocky now wants you to distribute all of South America. You set that up. What kind of fears did you have about growing that business?
OV: It’s no hard time, but it’s something not scary, because I’m not scared.
RG: You weren’t scared?
OV: No, but it’s a lot of people tell me, “No, you no can make it.”
RG: Okay, so you had to beat the odds.
OV: Yeah, so the people tell me, “No, you no can make it”, because Latin America market is a tough market. Taxes is high, the culture of the people to smoking cigar is crazy. But if you tell me I cannot make it, I can show you I can make it. So people tell me, “You crazy.” I say, I show you. And that give me the energy for I say I want to make it, man, if I make it in Honduras, I can make it in every single country.
OV: So, I use my model. Okay, I’m going there, I’m making events. I show the people what are the cigars, and I can explain what is the leaf, Seco, Viso, Ligero. What blend is this? What region? What are the characteristics of the cigar? And I think that the energy pushing to me for that is when the people tell me I no can make it. So, I say, man, I want to show you, yeah, I see you later, you tell me again.
RG: You’re going to dig your heels in and keep going.
OV: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: And you had good success with the training, because essentially you’re teaching the consumer what to value.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.
RG: I mean, that’s a beautiful thing and you come with all the experience, so they’re learning from your passion, and you’re able to train them and say this is a great cigar and here’s why.
Meeting Cuba’s Greatest Tobacco Farmer, Alejandro Robaina
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and just see, Rocky, how successful is in that time, and now, too, and I am like, I can make it. I can sell the cigars. And later, Rocky is selling in Latin America, but Cuban cigar call me and say, “I want you to take my distribution in Honduras.”
RG: So, now you’ve got to sell Cuban cigars?
OV: Yeah, it’s Cuban cigars, and I’m like, okay, I make it. So, that’s a great experience for me because before taking the distribution, I traveled into Cuba. I traveled to Cuba and I visited Pinar del Río. But I said at that time, I have a lot of experience with Rocky, like tour guide and the tobacco and all the stuff. I said, I don’t want to go to Cuba and take normal tours. I want to take a lot of time. And I want to visit the farms. I want to talk to the farmer. I want to talk to the guy making cigars.
OV: So, personal. It’s not like, oh, I pay for the tour and people show me, “This is a box, this is a cigar, this is the blend, blah, blah, blah.” No. I want a feeling from the guy who’s making the cigar. Why? And tell me, what is your experience? What do you think you can making better? That kind of questions. And one of my experiences for the rest of my life is when I visit Alejandro Robaina in Cuba.
OV: Man, that’s a beautiful experience of my life because I visited him on a Sunday. Just him and two of my friends. And he take almost six hours of his time and I and I stayed in his house in San Luis. San Luis is close to Pinar del Río. And I know he’s tired, everybody visits him and all this stuff. And I’m going there and I say, “Mr. Robaina, I’m here only for smoking a cigar and talking. That’s it. Bring a bottle of rum, couple shots, and talking. Relaxed.”
OV: Nothing like an interview, no. And I started talking with him. And he showed me—because him, in the backyard—he’s growing tobacco. In his house. And he showed me a lot of presents from different part of the world, beautiful lighters, beautiful cutters, pictures. In that way, it’s more like a personal thing. It’s like, I share my passion, I share with him what I like, and he show me what he make and all the stuff.
RG: You’re connecting.
OV: Yeah. And stayed with him, smoking a cigar.I brought a cigar from Rocky’s factory and he give me a cigar he make from him. And later he say,s “Oscar, come on, I want to show you my farm and my curing barns, in my backyard.” And he was walking slowly, and he put his arm to me, and I started walking with him, and he show me the tobacco, this plant, the seed, showing the curing barns. And I say, “Mr. Alejandro, how old were you when you smoked your first cigar?” He said, “Oscar, I have 11 years old when I smoke my first cigar.”
OV: And he had 85, 87 at that time, I don’t remember exactly. And I say, “Are you happy with what you make? He say, “Yeah, Oscar, I really happy. I live with the tobacco all my life. Tobacco is in my blood, it’s everywhere.” I say, “Man, I respect all that you tell me.” And he said, “Come on.” Walking in the field. So, I walking in the fields, I walk with him. When I come back, he started touching the leaf like that, and small channel, so you have tobacco here, tobacco here, but in the middle you have channels when you put the water.
“Tobacco has life. Tobacco has feelings. So, every time, you need to give love to the tobacco.”
OV: And he say, “Oscar, what is your idea?” I say, “No, I work in the cigar factory, but one day I want to have my own brand, I want to have my brand. I want to make cigars.” And he say, “I want to tell you something and you need to remember for the rest of your life. Tobacco has life. Tobacco has feelings. So, every time, you need to give love to the tobacco. So, touching the tobacco when it’s in the farm. When it’s in the curing barns, touching the tobacco. When it’s in fermenting, touching and smelling. Talk to the tobacco. The tobacco is too generous. If you give love to the tobacco, you have love back.”
OV: In that time I am like, wow, that’s real. If you are making something with love, you really enjoy it, and that’s amazing, and when he tell me that, I am like, wow. Sometime I am here in my farm, and I talking with the leaf and all the stuff. My worker is looking to me like, “That guy is crazy, man, what he talking…” But I learned a lot on that trip. He show me a lot of stuff and he shared his stories—how he started and all the stuff. So, it’s a great experience for me, and I learned a lot on that trip.
RG: Okay, so, 2012, Leaf and Bean by Oscar, what came next after that. I mean, how many years did it take for you to go and make another cigar?
OV: Take four years.
RG: So, 2016.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: And what was the cigar that you released?
OV: I released The Oscar.
RG: So, what we’re smoking now?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And every step of my operation, I learning. So, I learning how fermenting, I learning how packaging, I learning how making cigars, I learning how blending cigar.s And then I say, okay, now is the time for the factory to have their own brand.
Making of the Limited-Edition Cigar, Oscar Valladares 2012
RG: So, technically, the factory really didn’t have a brand yet. What about the 2012, was that…
OV: That I making only in 2012, it’s a limited edition, and I making 2,012 boxes.
RG: So, what’s on the market now wasn’t in existence at this time?
RG: Okay, so, really it was you made the 2012, you made the Leaf and Bean, and now it’s like, okay, how are we going to put Oscar Valladares Cigars on the map?
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RG: With their own blend that wasn’t inspired by the shop and Leaf and Bean?
Choosing Texas as a Cigar Distribution Site
OV: Yeah. And I learning a lot, for every single step of my life. If you use the energy for every single… Because I working at the packaging department, later cigar maker, later fermenting. I say, I traveling for different part of the U.S., promoting the Leaf, and I visit Texas.
RG: That’s where I first met you.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative), I visit Texas and all the stuff, and I see a good opportunity in Texas. A lot of good stores. But a lot of manufacturing, maybe I don’t know, 98%, 99% of the manufacturing is in Florida.
RG: Sure, in Miami, where a lot of the culture is.
OV: Yeah, and a couple guys in Pittsburgh. So, I say, you know, I want to open my operation in Texas. So, everybody’s like, what kind of operation? I want to have my own distribution. So, a lot of people tell me I’m crazy.
RG: Digging those heels in.
OV: You’re not going to make it. And I say, I show you. So, I open my distribution center in Houston. And my warehouse, it’s 900 square foot. And that’s a risk for the company, move to Houston and start have their own brand. So, their own brand is The Oscar and I released it in 2016, with no reps.
RG: No reps?
Presenting at IPCPR, No Cigar Reps, No Samples
OV: No reps. I bring Alvaro from Honduras to Houston, and another guy, Carlos, he’s Honduran, too, in Houston. And I say, guys, a lot of people say no can make it, but now we show the people, we can make it. So, 2016, IPCPR, I present the product in IPCPR. Three sizes, box of 11 cigars, and say, start now. So, that’s amazing because no samplers, and Alvaro can explain to you, it’s a really hard time. Call the stores, by phone, and say, man, that’s The Oscar.
OV: That’s the cigar you need in your store. Believe me, that’s a great cigar. A lot of people is like, “I no have samplers, there is no samplers.”
RG: No samples?
OV: No samples.
RG: So, they don’t even know what the cigar tastes like, and yet they need to buy it from you and put it in the store?
OV: Yeah. Some people like, “Are you crazy? I no put any cigar if I no like it.”
RG: It sounds kind of crazy.
OV: Yeah, and put the phone like beep, beep, beep. I like, okay. So, call another call, and another call, and a lot of guys, “Oh, you the guy making The Leaf by Oscar”, I say, yeah. Okay. I say the guys, I don’t need you buy three boxes, 30 boxes, 40 boxes, I don’t need that, I need one box. You buy one box from us.
RG: That’s the plan, start with one.
OV: Yeah, one box. People try it, people like it, can buy it. If it’s not, not. It’s a total different experience. Why? Because it’s a new market for me, I have experience in Latin America. But I have the energy. I have the feeling. I say I can make a good cigar, not scary. I can put next to the good cigars on the market, and I won’t disappoint. And the people, yeah, no disappoint. It’s crazy, but this happened because I have the support, Byron, Hector, they all people in the factory have the same dream, Alvaro, Carlos, the same dream, everybody in the same boat.
OV: And say, make this happen. It’s no jokes. It’s like, okay, I can make it. And I show you how I make it. And it start like that, by phone, no samplers, people like, “I don’t want to put your cigar in my store because there’s no samplers”, I said, don’t worry, it’s a good cigar. If you don’t sell it, I send it to you , and you send it to me the cigar back. No cost. It started like that and open 249 accounts from 2016 by phone to December.
RG: Wow, wait. December of what, 2016? When did you start in?
OV: Yeah, 2016.
RG: What month did you start in 2016?
OV: I started in July, at IPCPR.
RG: In July, okay, so, after IPCPR, by December, you have 249 accounts.
OV: Yeah. So, what happened there, it’s a lot of people like, “Are you crazy?” Somebody never answer the phone again, somebody like, “Are you crazy? I don’t want to put that cigar.” A lot of people, “No.” But it’s a cigar magazine testing the cigar, and I am the top 25, number nine cigar in the top 25.
RG: So they got exposure there?
OV: And then it’s like, a lot of people tell me, “No, I don’t want the cigar”; later it’s like, “Oh, I’ll give it a shot. Send it to me the cigar.” And a beautiful experience, and I tell you now, I no making this by myself, I tell with the whole team, everybody have the same mentality, everybody’s aboard in the boat, everybody’s like, okay, make this happen. So, everybody feeling the same energy, the same passion, everybody’s living with the same dream.
Winning Best Honduran Cigar Brand in Germany
OV: And say, if somebody can make it, I can make it. So, everybody in the same boat. And explosion. And I visit Germany in February and I open a couple accounts in Germany. And I’m selling a couple cigars in different countries. By September 2017, I have nomination of the best Honduran brand in Germany. So, I am one of the top five brands. So, for all European market. So, five cigar from Honduras, is Rocky Patel, Alec Bradley, Camacho, CLE, and myself. With The Oscar.
OV: And people vote, and I win the first place in Germany in 2017. I have the trophy for the best Honduran brand. Rocky is so excited, he gave me a big hug, he say, “Oscar, I’m proud of you.” And the ceremony, I am so scared, I am like, wow, it’s too many people in the industry, big names, a lot of people put a lot of passion of this. And I say, man, coming from driving a bus and learning all these things, and now feeling that energy there at the top of the podium and in front of everybody, and say, what I can say, man?
OV: I am never in that position. All my dream is to make good cigars, good history, all the stuff, and, wow, I’m here.
RG: It’s almost like you have to pinch yourself that you even got here.
OV: Yeah, and that happens sometimes. Sometime I wake up in the morning and I say, “That happened?” It’s a dream? I am like this, no, that’s real. The operation and all this and all this energy, that happened because it’s a great team, in the same boat, everybody pushing, every single day. Living with the tobacco. And that’s a great experience, so I win and that night when I was talking I give, thank you for the customer, thank you for the team, thank you for everybody. And that night I say, thank you, Rocky. I am in this business because I work for you and I learned a lot, too, so.
OV: And he’s very, very happy, man, it’s an amazing experience. So, the tobacco gave me a lot of great experience, a lot of emotions. And it’s one of the most beautiful businesses in the world. I don’t know, I think I no can live with no tobacco. It’s every day. Every day you learn something from the people in the factory, doesn’t matter the guy cleaning the factory, the people making the cigars, the guy fermenting, you learning something. And I am very open to that.
Commissioning Fellow Honduran Ciserón Bautista, One of the Most Influential Artists in Latin America, to Make Cigar Art
RG: I want to ask you with art and especially the Ciserón edition and all of your Mayan influence, there’s a lot of art, your box, your boxes all have artistry to them, your cigar bands have artistry to them, this kind of duality between cigars and art, has it always existed?
OV: Man, cigar is art. And you know the art of whatever is painting or sculptures, it’s art, too. But making a cigar is like a sculpture, you make the cigars, you make them pretty. Or you packing the cigars. Packaging the cigar is art, everything in the cigar is art. So, if you mix it together, so you see, the final product. So, with Ciserón, it’s a beautiful project. Ciserón is a very famous artist in Honduras. And put together the product had the same passion, he had the passion for painting, I have passion for cigars. Put together, so it won’t be wrong. It’s something good.
RG: Yeah. So, you’re influenced a lot by the art that you see and that you surround yourself with, and then you want to bring that into your project with a cigar?
OV: Yeah. That’s right.
RG: I want to quote you where you said you don’t have a factory, you have a lab. You’ve talked a lot about that being a space for you to really create a craftsmanship of different flavors, different visual effects, but what to you means factory and what to you means lab?
OV: You know, it’s putting the whole ideas together. You can make the cigars like traditional, or you can mix it with different ideas, with history, put everything together and play. That means it’s with tobacco, with packaging, with history. So, for me, or how you fermenting the tobacco, it’s traditional fermenting, but you can have different. You can make different ideas, different packaging, put all this together. So, a lab is when you’re creating more and more and more every time.
OV: It’s not only, okay, I want to making a cigar, that’s good, it’s creamy, power, this, no. It’s put all your love and all this together, and creating ideas, creating cigars, creating… .Now, in the factory, and I put all this not only in the factory, I put in my life. And I put in the business. So, I have the distribution in Houston now, but I’m making experiments, too.
Playing with Tobacco in His Cigar Lab
OV: Actually, I’m growing tobacco in Honduras, a lot of different tobaccos, different seeds. And I have something new. So, the lab is not only the factory. You can use it in your life or you can use it in a different business or a different position. And I have a lab right now in the farm. So, in the farm of tobacco, I play right now with the seeds. You say, “No, that’s growing only in that areas.” And I surprise you later, so, I have a new tobacco growing in Honduras. Total different.
RG: Yeah, what is the future like for Oscar Valladares Cigars and what’s going on there? What should we expect?
OV: Creating more. Creating more and give to the consumers. And I want to say, thank you very much for the consumers. Man, I have a lot of support for the people, to the stores, to the consumers. Buy my cigars, enjoy my cigars. It’s a little bit hard. You give something to the consumer to like it. Everybody have a different palate, everybody’s like, “Oh, I like mild, I want medium, I want strong.” And I think, I listen to all this stuff, and I try to put it in the cigars.
OV: But my future is creating more. And more seeds, different tobaccos, different wrappers, different… . I think the market right now is ready for something new. I put the tobacco but I put the art. I put the music, like Superfly, it’s total different concept. Hunting is another culture. So, it’s because I tell you, it’s a lab, so you can play with all this and put together and give to the consumers a final product. Great packaging, great cigars, so.
RG: Make it attractive for them to pick up and then make it quality for them to smoke it.
Innovating with Cigar Wrappers from Copán Tobacco
OV: Yeah. That’s the whole idea.
RG: Now, you also talked about the Copán region a lot, and that’s a great spot for you to be pretty much, are you the only one making tobacco product out of there?
OV: I not say I am the only one, it’s a couple more guys growing tobacco in Copán. But how I’m fermenting is different. Everybody can tell you, “That’s different way, blah, blah, blah”, but that’s true, I’m fermenting totally different, and if you asking to me, I think am the company that growing the most tobacco in Copán is my company.
RG: And you wanted to grow wrapper out of Copán because you said the technique of fermenting that tobacco, it’s thicker, it’s oilier, it takes a different fermentation process. So, have you successfully grown wrapper out of that are yet?
OV: You put me in trouble, man, because the tobacco from Copán, you don’t see wrappers from Copán. You see only fillers.
OV: Because it’s a old school. And you have the tobacco plant in Copán, you take the whole plant for putting in the curing barns. So, in that way, it’s more for fillers. Normally, or Nicaragua, Honduras, you pick the two leaf at the time when the tobacco have 60 days, 65, 70, it depends. So, you take two leaf at the time, so when the tobacco, you pick two leaf, and every seven day, another two leaf, so it’s more be careful with the leaf so you can have more wrappers or binders.
OV: And Copán is more filler, because you take the whole plant. But I’m working for a couple years to have a beautiful wrapper in Copán, because I really love the tobacco. I really love the flavor, and I’m working right now on some wrappers from Copán.
RG: So, stay tuned, because the future might be some wrapper leaf out of Copán.
RG: From Oscar Valladares Cigars.
OV: Mm-hmm (affirmative), that’s right.
Traveling to Honduras for the Oscar Valladares Cigar Experience
RG: Well, thank you so much, Oscar, for being on Box Press, and inviting us to Honduras to share in this great experience. We’re actually going to be experiencing your entire facility through the Oscar Valladares Cigar Experience. I’m super excited and super thankful. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Box Press.
OV: No, man, thank you very much for this interview. I appreciate it. And I want to say, your experience right now is now the start. That’s the first day. So, I have right now cigar adventures, it’s I want to put, a lot of groups coming to Honduras. I’m full now, I no have more space.
RG: So, it’s all full up for 2020?
OV: I can have a couple of space in September, October, but I am full. I want to make and share with my consumers or the people who support me, like cigar stores. I want to share my experience, I want people feeling how I’m making the organic paper, how I’m making the cigar, how I’m fermenting the tobacco, how I’m making the boxes. So, I have my group in couple days, my first group. And I want to make a great experience for the people, a good house, relaxing. Enjoy good cigars, beautiful experience, and the people remember for the rest of their lives.
Connecting with Boveda on Social Media
RG: So, that’s what you can look forward to, more cigar experiences with Oscar Valladares and the whole team. Thank you, again, for being on Box Press, we really appreciate it. Go ahead and subscribe to this channel for more Boveda content and more Box Press interviews right here. Leave comments and questions below. And, again, you can check out Boveda on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and for all your Boveda needs, head over to bovedainc.com, we’ve got you covered.
(Recorded in Winter 2020)
BEST “MY FIRST CIGAR” STORY EVER
If you’re like Oscar Valladares and your boss asks you if you can drive a tourist bus, you say “yes.” Because Oscar is a can-do kinda guy, he thought, “If I can drive a small car, I can drive a big car.”
That “yes” on-ramped him into the world of premium cigars. The passengers on that ride through Danli, Honduras, included Cigar Aficionado Hall of Famer, Rocky Patel, his cousin and Vice President of Operations, Nimish “Nimmy D” Desai and master blender, Erik Espinosa.
One cigar tour led to another, then to distributing Rocky Patel Cigars, then to working quality control for the award-winning cigar company.
From growing and fermenting tobacco to blending leaves and rolling cigars, Oscar took it all in. Always learning. Always questioning. Always recognizing talent.
By 2012, Oscar set his sights on his own Honduran cigar factory. Nine years later, Oscar Valladares Tobacco & Company boasts seven cigar brands. And Oscar preserves the flavor and condition of every cigar by packaging them with Boveda to protect the passion of cigar lovers.
GRAB THE OSCAR AND SETTLE IN WITH OSCAR VALLADARES
Discover where the self-made cigar maker is headed and how jumping on an unknown path can make all the difference. Detours include: