Jose Mendez & Company and Altadis U.S.A. work closely together to continue innovation
By Stephen A. Ross
The Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana, Dominican Republic, has a big appetite. Employing close to 5,000 people, Tabacalera de Garcia is one of the largest, if not the largest, cigar making facilities in the world. It includes a premium handmade cigar division that crafts much-loved classics such as Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and H. Upmann for its sister company, Altadis U.S.A., as well as a machine-made cigar factory that runs nonstop for much of the year, cranking out brands such as Backwoods. Producing tens of millions of cigars each year, Tabacalera de Garcia is in constant demand for tobacco from around the world. To feed the cigar making behemoth, Altadis U.S.A.’s tobacco buyers scour the globe sourcing the best tobaccos available to craft their award-winning brands. Yet Tabacalera de Garcia’s biggest leaf provider, Jose Mendez & Company, is not very far away at all, located just outside Santiago in Moca—about a three-hour drive from La Romana.
The Jose Mendez & Company facility is just as impressive in scale as Tabacalera de Garcia. There are 12 huge warehouses that are filled to capacity with countless pilones of fermenting tobacco and bales of aging leaf at the complex. In addition to the warehouse and processing buildings, there are greenhouses and experimental fields where new seeds and innovative growing techniques are under constant development, testing and review. Owned by the Maruschke-Mendez family, Jose Mendez & Company annually cultivates 2,500 acres of tobacco—piloto Cubano, San Vicente, Olor, Criollo ’98, Corojo ’99, Havana 2000 and Pilotico, among others—on its own farms or through contracts with other Dominican farmers. The company has been providing most of the Dominican leaf that Altadis U.S.A. uses for its cigars for more than 50 years, and a very close relationship has developed between Jose Mendez & Company and Altadis U.S.A.
The relationship between the two companies is one that began indirectly in the late 1800s when Santiago Ramos, a Spanish immigrant who owned a general store in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, accepted tobacco as payment for the goods he sold to local farmers. He then sold the tobacco to brokers who then sold it to the Havana-based cigar factories. Eventually, Ramos’ business grew to the point where he began selling tobacco directly to the factories in Havana. Ramos’ daughter Juana married Domingo Mendez, another Spanish immigrant, who assumed control of the family business after Ramos’ death. Some years later Mendez moved the family to Havana, where he established a cigarette factory.
That cigarette factory became the largest one in Cuba, with the best-selling brand on the Cuban market, but like so many other Cuban tobacco families, the Mendez family lost it all when the Cuban government nationalized the tobacco industry shortly after the Cuban Revolution. In 1962, Mendez’s oldest son, Jose “Don Pepe” Mendez, moved his family to the Dominican Republic and started buying and selling Dominican tobacco, becoming a major provider of Dominican tobacco for Imperial Brands (formerly Imperial Tobacco Group), which is now Altadis U.S.A.’s parent company.
In 1971, Siegfried Maruschke joined the company and married Jose’s daughter, Mercedes. Siegfried and Mercedes head Jose Mendez & Company today. Their son, Siegfried Jr., or Fito, joined the company in 1994 after successfully completing studies as an industrial engineer and is now the company’s director of tobacco, representing the family’s fifth generation in the tobacco business.
One of the hallmarks of Jose Mendez & Company has been its willingness to not only grow tobacco in the traditional way but also seek new ways of growing, fertilizing, curing, fermenting and aging tobacco. The company is researching and implementing natural methods of insect and disease control, by attracting and reproducing beneficial insects and organisms that will repel or prey on insects and organisms that are harmful to tobacco. There’s also a drive to improve organic fertilizing techniques.
“We are committed to producing tobacco with less impact on the environment,” says Fito, who is in his mid-40s and already possesses more than two decades of experience with his family’s company. “We hope to have a 100 percent organic crop one day. It’s a long way from now, but we are progressing toward it.”
And then there are the constant efforts of creating new tobaccos and improving already existing ones. The cigar consumers’ quest for the latest and greatest cigar drives the tobacco growers’ efforts in providing completely new tobaccos or rescuing older and forgotten tobaccos to bring to market. Jose Mendez & Company employs a team of agronomists, headed by Fito and his father, with specialties in different aspects of tobacco growing who travel to their farms and monitor every field and its crop, every barn and the thousands of tobacco leaves curing inside.
“We are growing by far the biggest amount of tobacco in the Dominican Republic, and we believe we are on top of the development of new approaches in the industry,” Fito continues. “You’re going to see many new projects that are developing between us and Altadis U.S.A. We are very interested in giving the manufacturers new products to bring to the market and blend into their cigars so that they can give consumers something new to try.”
Developing new tobaccos requires a lot of time and a lot of trial and error. It’s an effort that must be monitored year in and year out through many seasons to develop tobacco with the right flavor characteristics that’s resistant to diseases and can be cultivated in yields large enough to make it profitable for farmers to want to plant it. Many seed strains are developed and then discarded when they don’t meet the criteria that they were designed for, yet when the correct formula is found and a new tobacco can be developed, it’s almost like an alchemist conjuring gold from base metals.
“It’s the most important work we do because it contributes to the future of the industry, keeps the market dynamic and spurs the interest of cigar consumers,” Fito says. “It is a continuous drive to be using the traditional methods but trying to look for ways to develop new flavors and sensations into a product that isn’t flavored. You can implement distinct methods for planting, fertilizing, growing and curing. Also you can grow tobacco in regions with different climate and soil conditions. The end result is to produce tobaccos of new flavors with unique and distinctive characteristics.”
One of Jose Mendez & Company’s latest new tobaccos isn’t new at all but is being used for the first time in almost 40 years. A few years ago, Tabacalera de Garcia’s Grupo de Maestros—a select group of cigar experts who guide the factory’s new brand development—discussed with Jose Mendez & Company their wish for a tobacco that was both strong and sweet that they would like to have for special limited-edition cigars. Fito and his father considered the request and settled on reintroducing a tobacco called Pilotico to the Dominican Republic.
While tobacco is generally high-maintenance, Pilotico is even more so. It’s an old seed that was abandoned in the late 1970s because it was very susceptible to disease and only produces 12 leaves per stalk, versus 18 leaves per plant of the tobaccos that replaced it. It was more trouble for its smaller yield, and by 1980, Pilotico was no longer being grown in the Dominican Republic. While Jose Mendez & Company recognized the difficulties of bringing the tobacco back, the potential benefits that the leaf provides were too many to ignore.
“We have a seed bank, and through that Altadis U.S.A. was interested in growing it again,” Fito explains. “It’s not new. It’s very flavorful and has a perfect balance between strength and sweetness. Nobody dared to plant it because of its low yield, but it is a terrific filler tobacco because of that combination of strength and sweetness. Even in the best growing conditions, it produces a very low yield because it is a small plant. Every year there is something new. It is challenging to bring something new to the market. It’s very well-rounded, and the tobacco is always evolving.”
Jose Mendez & Company planted the first crop of Pilotico in 2012. Each year, they’ve expanded the production of this seed and are building up inventory so that it can be considered for use in more cigars. Up to this point, however, it’s been used only once—for Montecristo’s 80th Anniversary cigar that Altadis U.S.A. released last year.
“We thought it was important to put it into our limited-edition Montecristo 80th Anniversary,” says Yasemin Ozoncul, Altadis U.S.A.’s marketing manager of premium cigars. “It was a great success with the Montecristo 80th Anniversary. It was their success, and they have worked on it for years. We know we can sustain it and use it in the future with other brands, but for now we use it in a very specific way and it is limited. The U.S. market is very competitive and is always demanding something new. Pilotico was something new for us because it had been dormant for many years.”
“We have to wait to see it in other products,” Fito says. “It’s aging right now. Pilotico is something for the future because it has such rich flavors and low yield. It is special because of that. We have the patience to grow it and process it correctly. We don’t have to accelerate its slow and delicate fermenting and aging processes. We have to work for the future. This is the way we have to prove it year after year. We have done it this way for 54 years. Tobacco is a matter of patience. Anyone who tries to bypass the tobacco’s aging process is heading to failure. Tobacco appreciates time. The more you age tobacco, especially a strong tobacco like Pilotico, the better it becomes, so we don’t want to rush it to the market.”
The mutual trust and long and successful relationship says something of the bond that has developed between the Maruschke-Mendez family and Altadis U.S.A. and its parent company, Imperial Brands, since 1962. It’s clear that there is a lot of admiration and respect between the two companies.
“We work closely with each other, and Jose Mendez is not just a vendor but they are a part of our family,” Ozoncul continues. “Siegfried is a member of the Grupo de Maestros, and he works closely with us. What they can deliver to us is not just the quality of their tobacco but also the experience and commitment of their employees. We’re lucky to be able to have that. We are very transparent with each other. They are the experts. We listen to what they tell us so that we don’t jeopardize our brands or their name. We trust them and they trust us. It’s a perfect partnership.”
It’s a partnership that will continue to strive to bring new or reintroduce old ideas to the market. Ever the industrial engineer, Fito is excited about what the future holds for tobacco agronomy and cigar consumers.
“Our customers’ success is our success,” he concludes. “We respect the tradition, but by using different seeds or techniques that we have gathered through the years we believe we can come up with new and exciting tobaccos. Cigars might be old products, but we have the opportunity to refresh their personality and give them a new face. We take pride in and love what we do, and that’s a privilege. Today we are talking about Pilotico, and tomorrow about it may be something else. We want to develop new products and new sensations for adult cigar smokers. It’s the quest for coming up with new approaches and ideas that makes it fun and keeps it from ever becoming boring.”