Battleground Cigars salutes American history through its premium cigar lines
By Stephen A. Ross
Michael Tarnowicz was 13 years old when his father came to him at the beginning of the summer and told him that he was now old enough to learn how to work. Employment opportunities for most young teenagers are usually limited, but because Tarnowicz grew up in the Connecticut River Valley, there was always work picking tobacco for anyone willing to take on the backbreaking task. Tarnowicz’s father woke him early in the morning, packed him a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and two frozen sodas and drove him down the street where a bus owned by the Culbro Corporation picked him up at 6 a.m. and took him to General Cigar’s Bloomfield shade tobacco fields.
That summer, he discovered two passions in his life that would ultimately lead him into the cigar industry and create Battleground Cigars, which Tarnowicz runs with his wife, Karen, and their two children, Andrew and Victoria.
“I loved it almost from the very beginning,” the nearly 60-year-old Tarnowicz recalls. “It was piecework, and I could make as much money as I wanted depending on how hard and fast I worked. You had to pick at least 70 bents—the distance between poles in the rows—and you got something like 50 cents a bent. My partner and I were the fastest pickers in the valley, and daily competitions between us and pickers from Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Jamaica made the day fly by. It was a lot of fun, and I learned about the importance of hard work. And I loved tobacco. There’s nothing like a shed that has tobacco curing in it. The smell is heavenly. I also began appreciating tobacco’s importance to Connecticut and its history.”
Those summer lessons have served Tarnowicz well. At Springfield College in Massachusetts, his work ethic and natural athletic ability earned him All-American honors in javelin. After graduating, he worked as a physical education teacher for a little while before moving into the corporate world in 1979. By 1996, he was ready for a change and retired from his United Technologies purchasing manager position for the challenge of becoming an entrepreneur.
Searching for his next career move, Tarnowicz remembered his first job working in the Connecticut tobacco fields, which, because of its piecework nature, also included lessons in entrepreneurship. The Cigar Boom was in full swing, and opening a cigar shop made a lot of sense to him. Perhaps leaving his comfortable job was ultimately a blessing because he could now work toward building his own business. He found a good location in Hazardville, Connecticut. The building was perfect for the history-conscious Tarnowicz—nearly 150 years old, it had served as a pharmacy and soda shop, and its second story housed a private club where firefighters from the local fire department met to smoke cigars.
Tarnowicz opened Connecticut Valley Tobacconist in 1996, and it wasn’t long before the store took on a decidedly historical feel. He hung an 1862 Colt musket inside the shop. A customer donated a framed photograph of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to also hang on the wall. Yet another customer, a gunsmith, restored another of Tarnowicz’s Colt muskets in exchange for cigars. That second Colt firearm also became a store decoration.
There was also Tarnowicz’s interest in Connecticut’s rich tobacco heritage. He decorated other parts of the store with prints of old photos depicting tobacco farming in the Connecticut River Valley, which he had gotten from a local museum. Proud of his state’s tobacco history, Tarnowicz shares his knowledge with anyone who will listen.
“The first cigar factory in the United States opened in Suffield, Connecticut, in 1810,” he relates. “We represented the state of Connecticut at the 17-day Big E fair [Eastern States Exposition] in September, and people couldn’t believe that there was tobacco grown in Connecticut. We had some broadleaf stalks hanging, and people wondered if they were banana leaves. Connecticut’s tobacco history is largely forgotten.”
Left to right: Ashley, Andrew, Michael,
Victoria and Karen Tarnowicz
Tarnowicz’s respect and interest in local and American history, particularly the Civil War era, became a big draw for area cigar smokers. It also stirred Tarnowicz’s interest in creating a cigar that paid homage to that history. When he became interested in making his own cigar, it seemed only natural that it would be inspired by a local historic
site that had a Civil War connection.
Growing up, Tarnowicz played sports on baseball diamonds and football fields in an area called Powder Hollow in Hazardville. The area took its name from a series of gun powder mills owned by Colonel Augustus G. Hazard, which were located along the Scantic River. The Hazard Powder Company operated approximately 100 mills and, at its height during the Civil War, ran nonstop to produce as much as 12,500 pounds of powder a day. Historians estimate that Hazard Powder Company provided the Union army with 40 percent of the gun powder it used during the war.
Powder Hollow and some of the Hazard Powder Company buildings are located less than a mile from Connecticut Valley Tobacconist. Establishing Battleground Cigars in 2000, the Tarnowicz family dubbed its first cigar “Old Powder Keg.”
“It was obvious,” Tarnowicz explains. “I am in the heart of the richest growing area in Connecticut, which is world-renowned for its tobacco, and then there are some historic local figures. It all came together, and we decided that we would make a powder keg.”
Using authentic Connecticut tobacco in its blend, the original Old Powder Keg was as strong as the name would suggest. It remains one of Battleground Cigars’ strongest offerings and set the groundwork for the company to grow by fusing historical interest with excellent tobacco to produce premium cigars.
Battleground’s formula seems to work. Since its inception in 2000, Battleground Cigars now offers nine lines, including Old Powder Keg Colonel, Old Powder Keg Maduro, Old Powder Keg Fire, Lincoln, Battleground, Mysterioso and The Widow’s Son (see page 20 for information regarding these lines). The cigars are made in two factories in Honduras and one factory in the Dominican Republic.
“We’re a boutique cigar company that honors the beautiful history of Connecticut and the U.S.,” Tarnowicz explains. “We wanted to create a premium cigar using authentic Connecticut tobacco, and the company has evolved from there to bring different smoking experiences to cigar smokers. Our cigars use Connecticut Shade, Connecticut Broadleaf, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Brazilian and Dominican tobaccos. We have bourbon-infused cigars and cigars made from Louisiana Perique. As a small company, we’ve made partnerships with some excellent manufacturers to make cigars that ought to satisfy a wide range of smokers.”
That evolution has come through visiting premium cigar retailers and talking to them and their customers about what they want in a cigar. It came through attending the IPCPR, NATO and other trade shows to spot industry trends and adapt the company to meet those needs. Fifteen years after starting the brand, Battleground Cigars has grown thanks to the Tarnowicz family’s willingness to listen to its customers.
“Listening to our customers has allowed us to expand the line to fill their needs,” Karen says. “We’re not just one note anymore. We provide a lot of different options. We designed our lines to appeal to the popular majority. Right now, the more powerful cigars are popular, so we have more of those in our lineup.”
The willingness to listen and craft products that might fill those customer needs might convince a retailer to order some of Battleground Cigars’ offerings but, as retailers themselves, the Tarnowiczes recognize that they must support their brand with outstanding customer service if Battleground is to grow. With the addition of Andrew and Victoria to the family business, Battleground has doubled its ability to strengthen relationships with its retailers.
“We’ve taken a slow approach, and a lot of our early success was due to word-of-mouth advertising among retailers,” Tarnowicz says. “We’re advertising in publications now, and we have regional reps for most of the country now. People are learning about our cigars and they’re giving them a try. They like the story behind them and, more importantly, they like the cigars and their price points, which are generally less than $8. They also like that we’re committed to doing business with only premium tobacco retailers.”
Battleground’s cigars are not available at convenience stores or gas stations. They’re price-protected and not sold to discounters. The family travels to help launch Battleground with in-store events at any shop that wants to carry the brand. It also generously donates cigars that a retailer can hand out to customers to help spread the word about Battleground to his or her customers. And there’s Battleground’s commitment to excellence. If there’s ever any problem with any of the cigars, retailers are encouraged to contact the Tarnowiczes, and they’ll figure out a way to make it right.
“That might not mean a lot to the retailer, but it means a lot to us,” Victoria says. “We’re proud of our company and our cigars, and we want to share our pride with our customers.”
Speak with the Tarnowicz family for a short time and the word “pride” pops up again and again. They use it to describe their feelings about their country, their state, their industry and their company. Most importantly, they even use it when they talk about one another. Battleground Cigars is an authentic family business that’s authentically American. What’s not to be proud of?