A husband and wife team pursue the American dream, one shop at a time
By Stephen A. Ross
In the Middle Ages, alchemists tried to find ways to transform base metals into gold. While those alchemists were unsuccessful, modern-day cigar makers might be called alchemists in their own right. They take base elements such as Corojo, Criollo, Mata Fina and piloto Cubano tobaccos and blend them together to create cigars that seem to magically create memorable moments and forge lifelong friendships. Anyone who attends the annual IPCPR show and walks the aisles to meet the cigar makers and see their products can attest to the creative vitality and intense passion that define the premium cigar industry and the hardworking men and women who make premium cigars their livelihoods.
To be sure, there is a profit motive behind all the ingenuity—making cigars costs money, a lot of money—but one gets the sense that most cigar makers view any profits gained from their labors as a secondary reward to their primary pursuit of sharing their love of tobacco and their family heritage with the rest of the world. That’s certainly true of Azarias “Z” Mustafa Cordoba and Emille Mustafa, the husband and wife team behind Cordoba & Morales Cigars.
Azarias immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1994. His family came from the legendary Cuban tobacco region of Vuelta Abajo, Pinar del Rio, and his grandmother Celestina Cordoba Morales grew tobacco and made cigars until her death in 1989 at the age of 83. Azarias had a very close relationship with his grandmother, and he fondly remembers her whenever he smokes a cigar. Azarias became a golf pro at Disney Resorts in Orlando, Florida, and he used family connections with American Caribbean Cigars in Esteli, Nicaragua, to have a few cigars made to his specifications.
“It all took off from there,” Azarias explains. “In 2011, I thought it would be cool to have my own cigars that I could enjoy while I played golf. I named them the Front 9 and the 19th Hole. People started asking me about them, and I started selling the cigars to them. We sold them in two-packs that included a ball marker with our logo on it at the Disney World resort. The next thing you know I was selling boxes of the cigars to them. It was a dream come true. I love cigars. When I go to the farm and the factory to continue learning about tobacco and cigars and how they’re made, it becomes something beautiful that I can share with the rest of the world.”
And the rest of the world—or at least those who like smoking cigars while playing golf—was paying attention. Many of the people buying those boxes of cigars were tourists who came to Orlando to play golf at Disney Resorts and to enjoy Orlando’s other attractions. Those tourists took their cigars home with them and shared them with friends who then began asking their local retailers about the cigars. Just like that, Cordoba & Morales Cigar Company was born.
The business has grown to the point where Azarias and Emille have given up their day jobs in order to fully pursue their passion. The couple manages to log an estimated 65,000 miles every year on their personal car to visit retailers across the country. Currently, there are approximately 125 Cordoba & Morales retailers across the country.
“We visit the retailers, take their orders, and then come home and ship the cigars,” Emille says of the family’s grass-roots sales and marketing approach. “You get more than cigars when you decide to bring Cordoba & Morales cigars into your store; you get us. Azarias learned to make cigars from his grandmother, and he attends events and rolls cigars for your customers. It’s all about building relationships with our retailers and their customers.”
Cordoba & Morales’ approach has been successful if judged merely by the number of cigar lines the company now produces. The cigar lineup has grown to include nine lines—Front 9, 19th Hole, Family Reserve, Puro Pinar, Clave Cubana, Clave Cubana Etiqueta Blanca, Platino, Finca Santa Fe and Grand Salomone (see “Cordoba & Morales Cigars at a Glance” sidebar for detailed information regarding blends and sizes).
“Our primary goal is to create long and pleasurable friendships with our retailers and consumers that will last a lifetime,” Azarias explains. “I love every cigar and respect every cigar maker, but I think we have really unique blends. There are a lot of good cigars, but we think we have something special being a family business that considers our retailers as extended family. Our real family is very small, so we expand through the brothers and sisters of the leaf that we meet on the road—both retailers and consumers. We love the people we meet in the cigar industry, and it’s great to be able to pursue this American dream.”
And of course, thanks to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) plans to regulate the premium cigar industry, Cordoba & Morales could be an American dream that’s about to be turned into a nightmare. Azarias states that his family company makes “tiny look huge.” He says there is no way that Cordoba & Morales could begin to think about shelling out the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will evidently be necessary to undergo the FDA’s substantial equivalency tests if the bureaucracy’s plans remain unchanged.
“We’re just a very small family business that is paying our taxes and doing everything by the books, but it could all be taken from us just like that,” Emille explains. “It would not be a viable option for us to continue on under the FDA regulations as they are now written. We will stay until we know exactly what the rules will be, but if it’s going to be a lot of money, that would be the end of us. The FDA is stomping on our American dream.”
Like untold hundreds of thousands of other people working in the premium cigar industry, Azarias and Emille will nurture their love affair with cigars and pray for a reprieve that will allow them to remain in business and explore their ingenuity and passion. They hope that years from now they’ll be able to continue to chase their dream and log thousands of miles on their car each year, extending the Cordoba & Morales family one cigar at a time and proving themselves to be modern-day alchemists of the leaf.
“Our primary goal is to create long and pleasurable friendships with our retailers and consumers that will last a lifetime.”