Setting foot in J.C. Newman’s El Reloj factory is like traveling back in time. The Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa was once home to 150 cigar factories, and the J.C. Newman factory stands proudly today as the lone holdout, a remnant of a nearly forgotten era.
Vincente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish immigrant from Cuba, first recognized that Tampa’s humid climate, its ready access to the Gulf of Mexico, and its railroad made it an ideal place to produce cigars. In 1865, Ybor moved his cigar factory to a part of Tampa that now bears his name, Ybor City. By 1896, Ybor City was dotted with cigar factories and became the de facto capital of the cigar industry. Unfortunately, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cuban Trade Embargo, competition from low wage countries, and taxation led cigar manufacturers to leave in droves. In 2009, the makers of Hav-A-Tampa cigars moved out of Ybor City leaving only the Newman’s and a small band of local cigar boutiques as the last remaining vestiges of the city’s proud past.
Julius Caeser Newman, the family patriarch and grandfather of current owner/operators Eric and Bobby Newman, founded J.C. Newman cigars in 1895. J.C. Newman is the country’s oldest premium cigar business, and the El Reloj factory hasn’t changed much in the last century. From its predominantly female work force to its original floors, large windows, and machinery and manufacturing processes dating back as far as 1910, the factory provides a glimpse into Ybor City’s glorious past. While this may give you a warm nostalgic feeling, the Newman’s aren’t operating a museum. Although new and modern machinery may aid in faster production, the vintage machines and the tried and true methods have lent to the manufacturing of cigars that have stood, and continue to stand the test of time.
The existence of the El Reloj factory is in peril these days. Having survived existential threats from cheap labor in Latin and Central America, the most serious challenge to the Newman’s originates far closer to home. With creeping taxation and the looming specter of sweeping new regulations recently proposed by the Food and Drug Administration, keeping the venerable and historic El Reloj factory operating may not be feasible for much longer. Eric Newman laments the potential loss by saying, “cigars are to Tampa what wine is to Napa and automobiles are to Michigan.” All hope is not lost though, as Eric and Bobby Newman have vowed not to go down without a tough fight in the struggle to keep El Reloj’s doors open.