Alex Svenson: How did you get started in the business?
Rick Rodriguez: Cigars have always been a part of my family. My grandparents were both Cuban cigar rollers and they came to Tampa from Cuba in 1954. Once they got to Tampa, they both got jobs as rollers at one of the larger cigar factories. So you could say that tobacco is in my blood. Despite my family’s Cuban roots, I unfortunately never learned to speak Spanish. Like many families living in Tampa at that time, my family found that it was difficult to get by without speaking English, so we never spoke Spanish at home. Once I got into this business, I really wish I’d learned to speak Spanish.
I started enjoying cigars when I was in my 20s, so I’d burned cigars for almost 30 years when I joined General Cigar. I started in January of 2000. I had been in sales my whole career, but never in the cigar business before that. General Cigar’s then VP of sales recruited me, and I joined General Cigar as a sales rep covering central and north Florida. I did that from 2000 to 2005.
AS: What happened in 2005?
RR: In 2005, I was approached by Edgar Cullman, Sr. about an opportunity he specifically developed for me. He knew about my heritage, about my grandparents being Cuban cigar rollers, and he knew that I’d been smoking cigars for decades. So he offered me the opportunity to train in tobacco cultivation and processing, learning from seed to box. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity.
AS: Tell us about your training? What did you learn and who did you learn from?
RR: I spent six full months in intensive training…three in the Dominican Republic and three in Honduras. I thought I knew about cigars before, but once I got to the fields and the factory, I realized that I really didn’t know much at all about the art of cigar making. That and I realized that in order to survive for those six months, I had to have a few key Spanish words up my sleeve. So I learned how to say beer, room service and bathroom. And I was on my way.
I started in the Dominican Republic, in the factory in Santiago. The first week, I worked in the conditioning rooms, where the tobacco is received from the farms, where the first fermentation happens. I was really lucky throughout the training, to have access to some of the best guys, the best experts in the tobacco world – Daniel Nunez, Jhonys Diaz, Yuri Guillen and Francisco Hernandez, who’s also known as Don Quico. I spent a week in each area of the factory, learning everything from stripping, selection/sorting/grading, rolling, aging, quality control and final inspection. Then, I spent several weeks with Don Quico, a Dominican-born agronomist who works for us. He’s brilliant. He has a master’s from Texas A&M and he taught me about the science behind the seed, and he taught me all about processing long filler and binder tobacco.
From these guys, I learned an incredible amount about tobacco and cigar making. And I also learned that I would never be a good cigar roller. This was proven to me on my last day of training in the DR. Daniel Nunez, who was the president at the time, asked me for one of my handmade cigars, because he wanted to smoke it at lunch with all the factory managers that had been training me for the last three months. He went down the line to each manager and asked how I did in their area. I got all greats, across the board. When he got to the last manager, the person who helped to train me in rolling and bunching, she was very quiet. Daniel looked at me, shook his head and said, “That’s not good.” Watching Daniel, this legendary tobacco man, try to smoke my cigar, was priceless and very scary. I could tell right away that the draw was too tight and I’m sure he saw the horrified look on my face and the manager’s face sitting right next to me. I couldn’t even make any eye contact with Daniel, so I spent the rest of that lunch staring down at my plate. The next day, Daniel and I had a great meeting about all I had learned. He was extremely happy with my progress, despite the fact that I was not going to become a star roller in Santiago.
Next, it was off to Honduras. I received similar training, but the Hondurans did things a little differently. That’s the beauty of this company - these two factories were always allowed to go about making cigars in the way that the people of that country were accustomed to making them. This was not a cookie cutter approach and it still isn’t. To this day, the people I meet are surprised that we really stick to tradition as much as we do. There were a lot of great people that worked to train me in Honduras, especially Edwin Guevara, Ramon Bueso and Agustin Garcia. These guys are some of the most knowledgeable cigar minds in the business today.
When I got back from training in the factories, things kicked into full gear. This is when I started learning the art of blending a cigar from the great master Benji Menendez. Training under Benji, who is a legend in the business, a name that even my grandparents would have known, this is an honor that I can’t really put into words. Imagine loving something you do, and then having the ability to learn from the number one guy. This is what I was able to do for five years. Think of someone like your favorite musician or chef and imagine being trained by this person for five years and the knowledge that you’d gain. From Benji, I learned not only about tobacco but also about life in general. I’ll carry these lessons for the rest of my life.
AS: What did Benji Menendez teach you?
RR: Through Benji, I learned how to blend by first learning how to break a cigar down. He taught me how to identify the flavor or flavors I liked from a particular tobacco, and how to pick out the flavor or flavors I didn’t like. Then he taught me how to enhance the flavors I liked and how to get rid of the flavors I didn’t like, when it came time to make a blend. He taught me a lot about marrying the fillers to the wrapper, and how to pick the right wrapper for a particular blend. These were amazing lessons to have learned.
If there’s a lesson that helps me most today, it’s what Benji taught me about how to work with the guys in the factory. We are dealing with the Latin culture, and it’s sometimes hard to break in especially when the only Spanish words you know are beer, room service and bathroom. Benji taught me how to get the guys in the factory to trust me and believe in me. Without that, in your mind you can envision a great cigar, but if the factory is not behind you then it’s not going to happen. Benji once said to me, I can teach anybody about tobacco, but I can’t teach everybody about people. The fact that he took time to teach me this important lesson is one of the highest honors I’ve ever had in my life.
AS: What happened after your training with Benji?
RR: After training with Benji, I was approached by Michael Giannini to be a part of a team that he was putting together, called Team La Gloria. We set out to bring excitement to the brand. And we did just that. We created the Artesanos series together. Michael empowered me to develop my own cigar and blend, while he focused on the marketing aspects. Together, we brought La Gloria Cubana Artesanos de Tabaqueros to market, followed by Artesanos de Obelisco, and Serie N. For Serie N, we did our first Skype event not realizing at that time how long it would take us to go from coast to coast to talk to 30 retailers and light up 30 cigars. At the end of that event, Michael and I had a heart to heart. Ed McKenna had recently taken over marketing responsibilities for CAO, and he needed someone to help him develop new blends and expand CAO in new ways. Michael gave me his blessing to move over to CAO, where I would be in charge of developing new cigars for them. At that point, in Michael’s book, I guess you could say I was a “made guy.”
AS: What happened when you moved to CAO?
RR: I moved over to CAO on March of 2011 and started working with Ed McKenna. Before that, Michael Giannini “got” me. To be able to start working with Ed who “got” me from the get-go, well that was another lucky break. Both of us didn’t realize that we’d struck gold. We did soon enough. We were lucky to be working on a brand that had such a great connection to its fans. At first, we had our work cut out for us. Ed and I had to make sure that CAO fans knew that we were committed to keeping true to CAO and that we were going to continue to keep the original blends the same, and we were also going to continue to be innovative with new products. This was not easy in the beginning, but once we proved to people that we were going to stay true to CAO, things started coming together.
Our first new product was CAO OSA Sol, which we debuted at IPCPR last year. The beauty of this cigar is that I already knew the wrapper that I wanted to use. I found it about two years beforehand. So I took what I learned from Benji and started to work on my blend, starting from the wrapper and blending around it. We were met with a great response on OSA. It’s a big seller in the US, it’s on fire in Europe, and it brought so many new fans to CAO. I take pride in knowing when someone comes up to me and tells me they have never smoked a cigar like OSA, I know I’ve done the right thing. I didn’t want to take the easy route, by recreating something already done by CAO, and neither did Ed.
We made a conscious decision to go out on a limb, thanks in no small part to Dan Carr (president of General Cigar) who gave me and the team access to any tobacco and any resources that we needed. Dan didn’t hold us back. He even allowed us to work across factories, to put the best team together to make OSA happen. With Dan’s support and with Jhonys Diaz (vice president of operations) backing us and allowing us to work with the best of the best from each of our three factories, we came out with a blend that we’re extremely proud of. And that fact that fans of CAO love the cigar as much as we do, well that’s the icing on the cake.
We’re launching two new OSA Sol cigars this fall; Lot 46 and Lot T which we’ve already sampled at events across the U.S. The feedback has been great so far, so I’m looking forward to getting these cigars out in the market, and to getting out there to talk about them.
AS: So you blend for CAO? Is that all you do?
RR: My role is an interesting one, and it can be hard to define sometimes. Just like many of the Scotch companies have a master distiller who works with a team to develop the taste of his whisky, and then goes out on the road to talk about it with consumers; I do the same for CAO. I also work with Ed to come up with new ideas about blends, packaging, and events. If you ask me what I like best about my job, it’s a tossup. I love blending and working in the factories and collaborating with a great team, just as much as I love going out on the road to share how the blend came to be, with retailers and cigar lovers.
AS: What else have you done for CAO?
RR: After the launch of OSA, I had finalized three new blends. I loved them all, for different reasons. If I had to pick, it would be like asking me which is my favorite child. I couldn’t do it. And the people on my team were not able to help me decide. So Ed and I came up with the idea to take this to the fans of CAO. Since they supported us, we wanted to give them the say in picking the next new blend, so we came up with the “Last Stick Standing.” This gave me a great opportunity to get out in the market, and really talk one on one with the fans to hear about what they were looking for. Believe me, if I didn’t have thick skin, I would never have made it. But I’ve learned a lot from talking to fans of the brand, and I’ll continue to do this.
I’m excited to see which blend ultimately wins and I can’t wait to get out there to talk to CAO fans once we bring it out. We’re going to launch the new blend in October.
AS: What’s next for CAO? What’s coming out at IPCPR this year?
RR: We’re going to launch a new cigar in four sizes at IPCPR, called Concert. With Concert, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to bring out a new cigar using different ring gauges, all with the same length. So Concert will have a 5.5”x46, a 5.5”x50 and 5.5”x54 and a 5.5x60. I believe that 5.5" is a great length to match almost any ring gauge because the flavors and the body really stay consistent this way. That’s something that’s really important to me.
I started thinking about the blend right after I moved over to CAO in March of 2011, wondering how I could honor the company for giving me the opportunity to blend for CAO. Knowing that CAO began in Nashville, and when you think about Nashville, you automatically think of music, we started thinking that this would be a great way to stay true to CAO’s roots. We called the new brand Concert because we wanted it to be about enjoying the cigar and enjoying whichever type of music you like. When you think of listening to music, at a concert, or even in your own backyard, it’s a great time to sit back, enjoy a great cigar, and enjoy the people you’re with. That’s what Concert is about. It’s about matching your love for music and your love for cigars. It’s also about the “concert” of flavor and body that makes a cigar great. It’s doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. We made the packaging really cool, too. Again, keeping true to what CAO has always been. A great brand that connects with its fans and that brings them great cigars with great presentation.
AS: Can you tell us about anything else that’s coming up in the future?
RR: Looking ahead, I am working on new blends for 2013 that expand on the tradition of innovation at CAO – whether that will be via new tobaccos, blends, or even packaging. So CAO fans can continue to expect many more new things from us but I can’t say more than that right now.