The Canadian company with Nicaraguan roots
By Greg Girard
It seems rather appropriate that an idea was born atop Mombacho volcano. Indeed, Mombacho, whose name means “mother of our land,” gave birth some 20,000 years ago to Lake Nicaragua’s more than 300 islets that dot the landscape below its peak. The lake, in turn, gave birth to Granada, Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city, which rests in historic splendor along its northwestern shores. Yes, rather appropriate, then, that Markus Raty and Cameron Heaps, two Canadian buddies on a backpacking trip in 2006, found themselves 4,400 feet above a culture and people that had captivated them, agreeing on their own creation. It was the first Mombacho moment.
The birth of Mombacho Cigars is not one steeped in generational history. Raty readily admits he and Heaps don’t have the cigar pedigree—“it’s not in our bloodlines”—that we’ve become accustomed to in this industry. Neither had much cigar exposure growing up, nor could they rely on past generations immersed in tobacco. Instead, it was a chance meeting with a family who lived across from their Spanish-speaking school that led them into the world of premium cigars. The family made cigars in their large colonial home, living in the back of the house and rolling and selling in the front.
“We ended up spending the better part of a week with this family, and they regaled us with their Nicaraguan history,” says Raty. “The patriarch of the family spoke pretty good English, and he had been in the cigar business for a couple of generations. So over the course of those moments, these cigars were basically the vehicles for bringing a couple of Canadian friends and this beautiful Nicaraguan family together.”
Recognizing how profound those moments were for them, Raty and Heaps climbed Mombacho volcano as a way to cap off their stay but also to reflect on their experiences. By the time they descended, they were determined to bring those feelings back with them to Toronto, and they knew just how to do it.
It started with Raty and Heaps sharing the bundles of cigars they had brought back with them with friends. The smell and the taste instantly brought back those memories. “We just wanted to bring back a piece of Nicaragua to share with our buddies,” explains Raty.
“It wasn’t structured. It was just, ‘Let’s bring the boys over and tell them about the trip.’ It’s one of the historical trappings of cigars, right? Bringing people together.”
But for two guys who have an innate entrepreneurial spirit (Heaps in the brewing business as owner of Steam Whistle Brewing, now one of the largest microbreweries in Canada, and Raty from his late father), it wasn’t much of a leap when they started thinking they could create more of those cigar moments.
“That’s just the way we’re wired, especially Cam,” says Raty. “We were roommates at the time and we were sitting in our hot tub, enjoying the last of our cigars, and we just started brainstorming. ‘OK, what do we do next? What’s the vision here?’”
To fulfill the vision, though, they would have to invest not only money but time. Heaps provided the majority of the financial backing, and Raty, who was between jobs at the time, took on the challenge of learning an industry. “I spent half of a year reading everything I could about the industry. Every element of it, and I still didn’t know much. I didn’t pretend to become a cigar guy. I did start smoking a lot to try and understand, but I knew my limitations.”
The challenges, as can be imagined, for novices of the premium cigar industry to start a cigar company were extensive. Not only would they have to understand tobacco and establish a manufacturer for the cigars in a foreign country, but they would also need to navigate the health laws within Canada, which are more onerous than those in the United States. Even so, Raty had a plan even if the humidor took up half of his bedroom and his base of operations was the trunk of his car.
“Toronto is an extremely dynamic city—cosmopolitan,” explains Raty. “You can find pretty much anything you want there, including good cigar shops. But there’s not much of a cigar culture because you can’t smoke in shops. But I was always being invited to all kinds of wine tastings and scotch tastings, and we thought, we could do that. We could become enough of a cigar expert and start providing that knowledge.”
So he began by hosting cigar herfs, first to his base of contacts and then slowly tapping into the larger Toronto market. Like with any startup, though, there were bumps in the road.
“There were so many moments of pure scramble,” Raty says with a laugh. “Like when we got our first batch of packaging. We’re wondering why the lids are going U-shaped. I’m from Finnish descent, so my parents had a sauna. We’re putting the boxes in the sauna under a bunch of encyclopedias and cranking up the humidity trying to flatten the f***ers out. So we had to learn about wood kilning and the maintenance behind tropical woods in Canada—the coldest, driest place in the world.”
Trial by firing withstanding, they started to gain some traction in Toronto with a marketing plan that targeted strategic partners to enhance the brand identity of the cigars. They began collaborating and co-branding with Moet Hennessy, Ferrari, Lamborghini and other luxury brands at events. They partnered with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Blue Jays. They rented out an art deco airplane hangar for their blowout launch party in 2008, with a 20-piece swing band and enough residual hype to last for years.
“We understood consumer behavior, so we weren’t just shooting blind,” explains Raty. “And we had the brewery as a template for how to craft the order of operations for a successful business. We’re still small. I’m still selling these cigars by myself, but we’re seeing steady growth.” Growth that now finds Mombacho in eight countries and about 300 stores worldwide. They’ve also established a factory in Granada, Casa Favilli, a refurbished colonial home and a historical heritage site with the idea to expand the Mombacho experience through the culture where the tobacco is cultivated.
“Our vision is to create the world’s most memorable cigar,” he says. “We expect our brand to transcend the industry. It’s not just a cigar; it’s a luxury good, a premium good. When people want to buy a special gift, whether they are a cigar smoker or not, well, they might consider a bottle of cognac, but they might consider a box of Mombachos as well.”
The Mombacho moment
Raty isn’t so blindly altruistic that he doesn’t recognize, in the end, Mombacho Cigars is a business, and they’ve worked hard to build that luxury brand. But he’s also quick to point out Mombacho Cigars has a purpose beyond the bottom line. And it goes back to his initial visit with Heaps and a climb up a dormant volcano.
“The people impacted us so greatly, and they changed our lives because of how generous they were,” he says. “As a company, the tobacco is great in Nicaragua. But you know, the more cigars we sell, the more jobs we can create. The more people that visit Casa Favilli, the more that helps the Nicaraguan economy. So that drives my personal passion.
“For me, cigars are a way to slow down time. The ultimate therapy. To be cherished. And I think that reflects in our business practice as well. We try and think about everything we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
The Italian poet Cesare Pavese said, “We do not remember days, we remember moments,” and Mombacho Cigars wants to share at least one of those moments with you.