By Greg Girard
Jorge Armenteros doesn’t want you to call him professor. It’s more than enough for him, he says, to be giving back to the industry he wants to preserve. As proprietor of two A Little Taste of Cuba stores—in Princeton, New Jersey, and New Hope, Pennsylvania—Armenteros’ modesty, however, masks the impact he’s already had on the premium tobacco industry. That’s not to say he isn’t correct, though. “Professor” doesn’t quite do it. Dean of Tobacco seems a much better fit. What else can we call the founder, researcher, curriculum developer, administrator, proctor and all-around champion of Tobacconist University?
Tobacconist University’s (TU) beginning had a much more practical purpose, namely to help Armenteros’ employees provide a better experience for his customers—a knowledge foundation that Armenteros had to learn as well when first coming into the business.
“I opened up [in 1995] and I realized I don’t know anything,” Armenteros admits while sitting comfortably on a leather couch in his Princeton shop. “No matter how much I smoked, I wasn’t an expert. How do you look at all these products, with the bands and everything else, and then how do you process it all? There was no formalized way to do it.”
But before you can teach others, you must teach yourself, so Armenteros went on an educational expedition to Cuba. “I walked into the Partagas factory and met the director general of Cuba Tobacco, and he became a godfather to me. He helped me get educated, giving me access and providing me with documents.” Armenteros returned to the States and within a year had opened his second store.
Things were going well. He was young, 22 at the time, and feeling good about his understanding of cigars from seed to smoke—and the Cigar Boom was in full swing. But the challenges of providing knowledgeable service to his customers remained as he tried to maintain 18-hour days, splitting his time between the two stores. “You’re so dumb at that age, at least I was,” Armenteros says. “Sometimes I would pass out on the floor of the store. And it’s hard enough to train [employees] on registers and how you want the shop to be maintained and merchandising and service. I thought, ‘How am I going to have time to teach them about these products too?’”
Indeed, there was nothing available that Armenteros felt could help him. That’s when he turned to all the information he had collected during his time in Cuba and came up with the first iteration of TU. “I called it Cuban Cigar University. I had all this educational stuff with me, so I developed a curriculum from it,” he explains. “At the time, the Internet was emerging and I was finding a lot of misinformation and things that just didn’t help the consumer enjoy the product more, so I had a system by 2003 where my employees were trained through this program.”
Armenteros soon recognized the program could have broader ramifications for the industry. “I was naive,” he admits, when discussing his ambitious plans to share TU with other tobacconists. “I thought, ‘I have it all, I just have to put it on the Net and make it available for everyone.’ Well, four years later, I was 50 pounds heavier, I hadn’t left my office, I had no social skills … I was like Howard Hughes. I was just working around the clock trying to figure out how to set up an accreditation system.”
That meant developing a code of ethics, filling in gaps within the curriculum that were just as important to the tobacconist as understanding fermentation—like accessories and pipe tobacco—and being careful not to “pontificate on taste.”
“I just wanted to teach facts, because everyone is different,” Armenteros explains. “Tobacconists are such rabid individualists. You have to be a little bit insane to do this, right? You have to be so passionate that you’re willing to not be paralyzed by the challenges, so to pontificate to a tobacconist is not going to work. So I’ve been very proud that we’ll never tell you how to sell. I just wanted to teach facts.”
Now, some 12 years later and with four certification tracks to choose from, TU’s entire curriculum is available for free online (and in hardcover) and encompasses every facet of the premium tobacco industry—from the origins of the tobacco leaf to the manufacture and design of the cigar to debunking cigar myths. There are videos, a glossary of terms, even a tasting college that helps you hone your own palate when enjoying a cigar.
Armenteros readily admits there are tobacconists who may not need or want to be certified in order to educate their customers and employees, with decades of experience outweighing the need for the formality of accreditation. Yet to date, TU has more than 1,300 certified and apprenticed tobacconists within the program. “So clearly there is a segment that wants credibility, that wants to learn, that wants to be professional, and that’s why we’re doing this,” he says.
The point is for this credibility to translate seamlessly into better service, particularly in an industry that is still finding its way. “The overwhelming benefit is confidence,” says Walter Gorski, vice president of Georgetown Tobacco. “All the particular ‘nuts and bolts’ benefits add up to an increased level of confidence.”
Gorski, a veteran of the industry for nearly three decades and a certified tobacconist, recently had several employees take the exam.
“Before the certification exam, the staff members taking the test repeatedly asked me questions about the experience,” he says. “They had all been studying The Tobacconist Handbook. Each of them possessed a deep level of product knowledge that was derived from a love of our culture. I told them to not worry. They did not want to just pass; they wanted to be stellar in front of their peers and Jorge. They were—all of them. That affirmation was a huge boost to the morale and the collective confidence of the staff. Benefits to the business naturally follow.”
Gorski believes the mission of TU has even more relevance today as the industry landscape continues to evolve.
“The bar has been lowered for participation in many aspects of this business,” Gorski offers. “Factories have made it very easy for anyone with the means to become a cigar manufacturer. Anyone with an Internet connection is now a cigar expert. New stores are opening at a rate that would suggest an increase in demand.
“These overcrowded fields will eventually be sorted out by the success or failure of these enterprises. Dedication, passion and creativity will be rewarded with longevity. Until that time comes, Tobacconist University provides a means to judge if a person is at least paying attention to their profession.”
That philosophy reverberates within the manufacturing side of the business as well. “When you’re looking for partners to represent your product in stores around the country, when you see that people at a particular store have taken the time to invest in their education—that speaks volumes about their character and how they approach their profession. Obviously those are the people you want to have selling your product,” says Michael Herklots, vice president of retail and brand development for Nat Sherman.
Herklots became a Certified Master Tobacconist (CMT) in 2006. When he initially talked to Armenteros about certification he thought he could quickly take the test and move on. “I remember when I first learned about it, I said to Jorge, ‘Let me take the test. I’ve been doing this a long time. I don’t need to take your course.’” Armenteros would have none of it. “He said, ‘That’s not the way it works.’ So I took the course and took the test and I’ve got to tell you, if I hadn’t taken the course I would have failed miserably. There were things I never would have learned had I not respected the process.”
Herklots sees several benefits to TU, but he emphasizes the need to legitimize the industry as a whole. “We as an industry need to take ourselves a little more seriously, and we have to step up and do something that sets us apart,” he says. “Having an accreditation like this does that. So whether it’s for our own internal industry recognition or if it’s something that’s a little more external that we can point to in a very rudimentary way to non-industry folks, I think that it just adds value to the overall industry as a whole. And it supports the notion that being a tobacconist is not just a hobby, it’s a career.”
An idea Armenteros hopes TU continues moving toward. He recognizes TU must go beyond creating a legitimate foundation of knowledge for the tobacco industry and must now find ways to provide tobacconists with added value that will help them increase business—as Armenteros puts it, “influencing consumers and driving them toward certified tobacconists.”
One way is through TU’s Certified Consumer Tobacconist (CCT) program, which allows certified tobacconists to conduct their own educational seminars with consumers in their shops, thus creating a more intimate relationship between retailer and consumer and developing that “added value” so essential for small businesses.
TU has also developed its R&D line of cigars that are sold exclusively by certified tobacconists. “It’s the only cigar in the world where you have to pass a test to sell,” Armenteros says with a smile. “We also believe that it’s a competitive advantage. It’s an opportunity for retailers to do their own tasting seminars and then they have the lab content, which consumers can access as well.”
R&D cigars are broken down into components, allowing consumers to smoke each component individually, and then the entire cigar, to get a stronger understanding of how cigars are made and the different layers of taste. Consumers can then visit the R&D lab online for in-depth explanations of the flavors and process that went into making the cigar. The R&D line recently produced its second cigar, a wrapper using Connecticut Broadleaf seed grown in Pennsylvania and created at the AJ Fernandez factory in Nicaragua.
“R&D is very literal. It’s not sexy at all,” Armenteros explains. “Our tagline is ‘Educating Your Mind and Palate.’ Nobody’s getting naked at the thought of that, but when you educate your customer, you’re going to have a loyal customer.”
Altruism is typically the last trait to find in our consumer-driven society, but the motivation behind TU stems from a true desire to improve the professionalism and the quality of service within the luxury tobacco industry.
“If I can help certified tobacconists compete better and succeed more, I’ll do it,” Armenteros says. “Whatever layer of credibility we can add. My real ambition is to create as much leverage as possible for these tobacconists to succeed. And the only way to do that in this educational, substantive environment is to be factual and true.”
The TU exam and certification are free for all IPCPR retail members and cost $1,000 for nonmembers. For information on certification, visit tobacconistuniversity.org.