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From NASA to Navetta: an Interview with Omar de Frias of Fratello Cigars

By: John Moralis

I had the pleasure to sit with Omar de Frias, owner of Fratello cigars, and get an inside look at the man behind the brand. Going to great lengths to ensure every single facet of his company is well-planned, Omar de Frias carefully measures each decision and how it will impact his overall business. “We married a consumer business strategy with a retailer-driven business strategy. You’ve got to get the product on the shelves and tell the story behind the brand,” de Frias said, and his story may be the most unique in the cigar industry. Raised in the Dominican Republic, Mr. de Frias has always been fascinated with cigars. “I grew up next to a retail shop in Santa Domingo, and I was fascinated with the smell, with the personification of the industry. There was so much glamour with the big cars and nice suits.” 

Remembering the first cigar he was ever given — it was from a cigar roller in a shop who was explaining his artwork — de Frias recalls the roller stating, “this is the true gentleman’s club right here,” as he was handed a cigar.

This also happened to be the first cigar de Frias ever enjoyed. “I thought it was the best cigar I ever had, but it was also the only cigar I ever had. I probably coughed my brains out, because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” It was in that moment he truly fell in love with cigars.       

Prior to his career with cigars, towering at 6’9” tall, de Frias played professional basketball in the Dominican Republic. Problems with his knees sidelined his aspirations of taking his career to the next level, so he changed his course. “I traded my NBA dream for an MBA,” he joked.  

He shifted his focus from sports to business, graduating from the University of Puerto Rico with an MBA. Shortly thereafter, de Frias was recruited by NASA, where he worked for well over a decade. 

While employed by the nation’s space agency, de Frias developed a plan to launch his cigar company. He spent countless hours traveling to factories in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras. He sampled a number of blends and put a lot of thought into his brand, which includes the unmistakable slanted red band. Fratello officially launched at the IPCPR trade show in 2013 where the brand hit the ground running. It gained attention from some of the oldest and best-known cigar shops in the country, including the legendary New York-based Nat Sherman.  

Since Fratello’s initial success, it has released four lines of cigars including its newest offering, Navetta — a blend de Frias has been working on for three years. 

“I spent many, many years at NASA as the cigar guy. When we had a successful mission, I would bring in a box of OpusX, Padrón, or an amazing boutique that I wanted to share.” 

Fratello Navetta was designed to capture the elation de Frias and the NASA family experienced after a job well-done. The cigar itself was a personal endeavor for de Frias, because he wanted to create a blend he could see himself enjoying during any celebration. “This is a cigar I will enjoy at my daughter’s wedding. I’ve already set aside a few boxes,” de Frias remarked. Like all of Fratello’s cigars, Navetta’s branding stands out, but it possesses small details that pay tribute to NASA. The box resembles a thermal protection system (TPS) tile, complete with a numbering system. “Just like the TPS protects the orbiter on re-entry, this box protects cigars in shipping.”

As far as Fratello’s future is concerned, de Frias says the wheels are always turning and some new blends are in the works, but nothing is set in stone. The ultimate goal is for his cigars to be in every shop in the United States. He understands that building a brand can be an uphill climb but said, “When someone walks into a humidor, I want them to think Fuente, Padrón, Ashton, and Fratello.” He admits this is a challenge, but one he’s prepared to face and believes focusing on great cigars, unique branding, and customer satisfaction will ultimately make his company thrive.