Luis Sanchez:
La Tradicion Cubana

Luis Sanchez gained much more than a new career when he started his own cigar company in 1995: a link to his Cuban memories and heritage.

By Seth Schwartz

Halcyon memories of the homeland are part of what Luis Sanchez has wrestled with since emigrating from Cuba in 1970. Like the majority of Cubans who left, Sanchez - who was 10 years old at the time - had developed an abiding devotion to family and country and equal amounts of animosity for Fidel Castro. Raised in an area close to Old Havana, he lived on the second floor of an apartment building with his grandparents down the hall, and a number of other family members in the same building. When the savory smells of pork-beans and rice wafted through the door, it was time for dinner.

“Having everyone together was a great feeling,” says Sanchez, whose great grandparents came to Cuba from Spain in the late 1800s. Playing baseball in the street and going to soccer games with his grandfather, who often had a sizeable smoke between his lips, were some of the pictures etched in his memories.

His grandmother, Juana, and mother, Emelia, were his teachers at school.

While Sanchez wasn’t quite able to comprehend the country’s politics at the time, the implications of his father, Luis Sr., applying for emigration were clear. “My dad and mom were fired from their jobs and it was illegal to even celebrate Christmas,” he says.

Before a male could leave the country, he would have to work three-to-five years for the state. Luis Sanchez Sr., who graduated from Havana University and worked for IBM, spent three years cutting sugar cane in Camaguey and was allowed family visits once every few months.

When the government granted the family permission to depart, a group of army personnel came to the house to check their belongings, making certain they didn’t take any possessions with them. Included in that were his mother’s wedding ring and bracelet. A couple days before leaving, the soldiers returned and then sealed the door of the home.

“You couldn’t take any money with you, but the Cuban peso wasn’t worth anything anyhow,” says Sanchez. “The last memory I have is of my grandparents waving goodbye at the end of a long hallway. It’s still difficult for me.”

Landing in Madrid, Spain, with just an extra pair of clothes, they waited two days before a woman took them in. Uncle Joaquin Sanchez sent money from New York to help pay for room and board. A Spanish law dictates that if any job is open it goes to a native citizen over an immigrant, making it difficult to obtain work.

Coming to Queens, New York in 1973, Sanchez found a comfort zone with his uncle and cousins.

While in high school, he began dating his future wife, Lourdes, who lived across the street from his uncle. Graduating from City College with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering in 1983, he married, took a job with Spantax Airlines and Patek Philippe Watch Company. As the rest of the family migrated to Miami, he and his wife eventually joined them in 1991.

“There was no question about moving here; I feel closer to home,” says Sanchez of his Miami home. “I wanted my kids to have some of the experiences I had with my grandparents.”

For a few years, the idea of a cigar business began to germinate, and in 1995 he jumped in. Meticulous attention to detail, fortunate timing, helping hands, and astute business sense propelled La Tradicion Cubana’s growth from its inception.

La Tradicion Cubana operates a rolling facility in Miami’s Little Havana (top left),
as well as a main factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic (top right).
Both employ traditional Cuban techniques.

Downtown Miami’s Flagler St., was the site of his first shop. Hiring six rollers, who brought a minimum of 30 years experience, Sanchez started his on-the-job apprenticeship, processing nuances of information from veterans in the trade. As the only cigar factory in the area, he received a steady flow of traffic as people in the business community stopped in to pick up a few sticks.

Word of mouth carried weight, and positive reviews were a boost to sales; things began to take off. A year later, he had 30 rollers. But at the height of the cigar boom, tobacco was difficult to find.

Going to see Ernesto Carrillo, whose family is from Pinar del Rio in the western province of Cuba, Sanchez explained that his Aunt Justa Borrego and Carrillo’s father were childhood friends from the 1930s and had worked together planting seeds on the farm. A common ground and lasting friendship was cemented.

“Ernesto was a big help,” says Sanchez. “He gave guidance. At that time it was very difficult to get tobacco; there wasn’t much available. He sold me a lot of Dominican material and we were able to continue operations as normal.”

Buoyed by favorable online reviews, Sanchez’s La Tradicion Cubana series, LTC Figurado Series, and Sabor Cubano gained a considerable following within two years. But even with 30 rollers they couldn’t keep up with demand.

Arriving on the storied S.W. Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) in the heart of Little Havana in 1999 was a metaphor. Sanchez and LTC thrived where others dropped out of the business.

“It was close to a ghost town,” Sanchez recalls. “Many factories that had opened during the boom were gone.”

Sanchez added the Las Memories Cubana line in 2002, and then the American Born Cubans in 2005. The following year he expanded operations with a two-story factory in the Dominican Republic, where he unveiled JML 1902, a cigar line in honor of his grandfather.

Returning to Cuba - once in the fall of 2003, and a second time in the summer of 2009 - was bittersweet.

“Seeing and leaving my grandma [after 10 days] is still a killer,” says Sanchez. Juana passed away at age 99 in 2008. “There have been some improvements made, but so much of the place is in ruins. If you want to call someone on the phone you can, but they’re so far behind in every way. I am very fortunate my father was able to get us out when he did.”

Small Details Equal Big Impact
Adherence to the traditional Cuban ways of craftsmanship, a critical eye for detail, and an innate feel for blends are a staple at La Tradicion Cubana. The company’s cigars have seamlessly converted customers into consumers.

Entubado rolling - which is the most difficult, complex, and time-consumer method of bunching cigar filler - is used in the creation of every one of Sanchez’s cigars. Each filler leaf is rolled like a small scroll, which creates a firmly-packed stick and allows the air to travel between the leaves carrying aromatic flavors.

Also utilized is the traditional Cuban triple-cap, which uses two extra pieces of wrapper leaf to close the head, leaving the visual impression of three seams at the head. While the cigar is being wrapped, the “flag” is left hanging off the cigar near the head. A tear-drop shaped piece of wrapper leaf is woven into the flag. The final touch has a cap cut out of the excess leaf with a casquillo and placed on the top of the head with natural vegetable gum to create a perfectly finished appearance.

Ken Wetzell, who sells 27 lines of Sanchez’s cigars in his shop - A Stogie 4U at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco - recognizes and appreciates the quality. “We sell over 50,000 cigars a year and you can count on one hand the times someone complains about an imperfection. The consistency and the draw in each cigar is amazing.

“The LTC line is still our most popular,” says Wetzell, whose mail order business across the country accounts for 25 percent of his sales. “I’d put any of Luis Sanchez’s lines up against any other cigars; they’re that good.

“Once they have one, they’re hooked.”

Aside from his cigars, Sanchez’s integrity and upfront honesty endear him to clients.

“We run our company the old fashioned way; it’s very Cuban,” says Sanchez. “I had this itch inside me and I’ve found it with this. Every day it’s a great feeling being involved in this business. We have rollers in their 70s and 80s who are still with us.”

Thriving in an industry where few survive requires certain characteristics. “Luis is very honest and down to earth,” says Carillo. “He’s one of the guys I really admire in the business. He knows you have to get good tobacco and you can’t cut corners. He’s a smart person who’s worked really hard. He’s in the fields and the factory [often] and takes a special pride in what he does.

“You can’t stay in the business unless you have a quality product. He has a lot of good people working with him. I had a chance to smoke his La Tradicion Cubana after dinner and really enjoyed it. It was a medium strength, but you could feel and taste the profile changes. People want consistency and complexity in their cigars which is why he’s done well.”

As a medium-sized boutique brand, Sanchez established a plan he’s comfortable with. La Tradicion Cubana rolls 10 private label brands, and also blends for about 50 tobacco shops. Sales have increased every year he’s been in operation.

“Money isn’t everything,” he notes. “With the private blends, other shops put their trust in me. We’ve developed great relationships. Sanchez created a program called “From an Idea to a Smoke,” where a customer that wants to get into the business comes in with an idea, and his team helps them develop their concept into blends, bands, and boxes. “I design everything,” Sanchez explains, “and they do the sales.”

Indeed, blending tobacco is a high art which requires a delicate process and palate.

“When we work on new cigars we will produce about 250 with five different blends, let them sit for about three months, and then pick the best one,” says Sanchez.

While his sons, Luis Alberto and Jose Manuel, were involved in the business since their teens, they’ve taken on more active roles in recent years. Luis is head of operations in the United States, and Jose is in charge of all inventory and communications with the factory.

In 2006, Sanchez opened an additional factory in the Dominican Republic town of Tamboril, 10 miles outside of Santiago, where he spends at least one week a month overseeing production.

Oscar Martinez, who has been with Sanchez from day one, runs the Dominican factory and is responsible for all cigar production and box factory. In 2000 they hit the market in Europe and are now in six countries - Germany, Italy, Austria, Russia, Hungary, Ireland, and Australia, which account for 30 percent of their sales.

Currently, Sanchez is re-blending his the American Born Cubans line and working on an entirely new brand, La Confianza, which is due out this summer.

Sanchez seems eminently satisfied with his accomplishments, and genuinely happily with his work.

“When I started, I didn’t think I’d be here,” he admits. “Every day there’s something new and exciting in this business.”

SMOKE 2011, Issue 4


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