Bryan Ott: Robert, even though Philadelphia is a long way from Cuba, the cigar business is in your blood. Can you tell us how you got your start in the industry?
Robert Levin: My Father owned a cigar store in Philadelphia. Due to health issues, he needed help running the business. This was in 1970. At the time, I thought I would only be there temporarily, but it’s been 45 years now. Over time, I grew to love cigars and the cigar industry.
BO: The year 1985 was a slower time for cigars, what gave you the motivation and vision to create Ashton Cigars, one of the greatest cigar brands in recent memory?
RL: In 1985 the cigar industry was not growing, but I had been in it for awhile and I felt like I knew what consumers wanted. Ashton started off very slowly. At the first trade show we exhibited, we only took two orders.
BO: Ashton Cigars is an American success story born in the heart of Philadelphia. Of all your Ashton successes, what has been your proudest moment?
RL: My proudest moment is watching my children flourish in the business. Sathya is running our operations now on a day-to-day basis. It’s up to Sathya to take our business to the next level.
BO: Sathya, you were just a young man when Ashton was booming in the early 90’s, when did you know you would follow your father into the cigar business?
Sathya Levin: My parents never put any pressure on me to join the family business. However, while growing up I was always drawn to it. I began working for my Father when I was 13 years old during summer and winter vacations. Back then, I was sweeping the warehouse floor and breaking down boxes. I was certain I would join the family business while attending college.
BO: Was it a difficult decision to make?
SL: No, not at all. After graduating college, I knew it was time for me to join the business on a full-time basis. That was 11 years ago and I haven’t looked back.
BO: As the years go on, the ‘family business’ is a dying breed in the United States, what do you cherish most about working together as a family?
SL: I love being part of a family business. Getting to work alongside my Father on a daily basis is priceless. My Father is a great boss and mentor. The fact that our business started with my Grandfather is a source of passion and motivation for me to always strive for success. Not only am I working for my Father, myself and our company, but I’m also working to help build our family legacy.
BO: In this industry, cigar brands come and go frequently, but Ashton has stood the test of time. What is your recipe for success?
RL: We are obsessed with quality. We don’t come out with a lot of new cigars all the time, but when we do we aim for the finest quality and consistency. We are fortunate to have the Fuente family in the Dominican Republic and the Garcia family in Nicaragua as our partners. Our goal is always to build our brands slowly and for the long haul.
BO: For our customers who may have not had the opportunity to enjoy an Ashton, how would you describe your product portfolio?
RL: Our product portfolio is highly versatile. Ashton is manufactured in the Dominican Republic by the Fuente family. Renowned for smooth, creamy cigars with Connecticut wrappers, Ashton also has some full-bodied cigars in the mix such as Ashton VSG, Ashton ESG and the newly-released, Ashton Symmetry. In addition to the Ashton brand, we also have La Aroma de Cuba and San Cristobal which are manufactured in Nicaragua by Jose “Pepin” Garcia. La Aroma de Cuba is a Cuban-heritage brand renowned for rich, spicy cigars at fantastic prices. San Cristobal is our boutique brand known for great blends, beautiful presentation and small batch production.
BO: It’s getting harder and harder to find a place to enjoy a premium cigar. Can you tell us about your latest venture Ashton Cigar Bar?
SL: Ashton Cigar Bar opened in 2013. The concept was to create a hip, upscale, modern cigar bar with an atmosphere that’s welcoming to everybody. It’s located in downtown Philadelphia, specializing in premium cigars, whiskey, cocktails and customer service. Our staff is very attentive and our customized air purification system keeps the air fresh, crisp and clean at all times. Next time you’re in Philly, make sure you stop by and check it out!
BO: Robert, as Chairman of the Cigar Right of America you spend a lot of time to make sure generations to come will be able to carry on the torch, what is your cigar outlook from the legislative aspect?
RL: The biggest problem our industry faces today is FDA regulation and the only real solution is a legislative exemption for “premium” cigars. However, this is much easier said than done. Our opposition is not only the anti-tobacco organizations and the cigarette companies, but also the mass market cigar companies who do not want to see separation between different categories of cigars. Nevertheless, the CRA’s lobbying effort has been effective and we are working for an exemption.
BO: Is there anything our customers can do to help aide in the fight?
RL: The CRA is the only organization fighting to protect premium cigars. If you enjoy cigars then you should join the CRA. It only costs $35 per year and you get two free cigars when you join. Also, you should contact your elected officials in Congress and tell them you want premium cigars exempt from FDA regulation. We have a bill in the House and Senate that they should sign onto.
BO: On a lighter note, the industry seems to be thriving, a mini boom if you will. What is your outlook on the future of Ashton?
SL: I am very excited and optimistic about the future of Ashton. As we continue to grow each year, our brands continue to gain strength. Our recipe is building long-term equity in our brands with quality as the main ingredient. When we come out with a new cigar, not only must the quality be exceptional, but it also must occupy a unique space within our portfolio. We devote a lot of time and energy to new product development. Rather than flooding the market with excess product, we aim to come out with quality brands that can stand the test of time. Ultimately, our goal is to offer consumers a well-rounded portfolio of the finest premium cigars in the world.