Tatuaje’s Pete Johnson forges a special relationship with the Garcia family to realize his dream
By Stephen A. Ross
From his earliest days of working in premium tobacco retail, Pete Johnson wanted to create his own cigar line. A talented bass guitarist, Johnson moved to Los Angeles from Gardiner, Maine, when he was 18 to pursue a music career. Clearly, the creative urge has always run strong in the now 46-year-old. However, like so many others who moved to LA to pursue careers in the entertainment business, there were few opportunities, and Johnson had to find work outside of music to make ends meet. In 1993, he took a job working on Sundays at one of California’s oldest premium tobacco shops—Gus’ Smoke Shop. Johnson’s part-time gig opened a whole new world for him.
The Cigar Boom had just begun, and the market was flooded with all sorts of new cigar brands, most of which you wouldn’t give to your worst enemies. Yet, there were some gems that shined amid all the muck. Joya de Nicaragua was just coming back after being excluded from the American market for more than a decade due to the United States’ embargo on Nicaraguan products. Arturo Fuente’s Fuente Fuente OpusX debuted. The Padron family was at last making Miami’s most popular cigar available for national distribution, exposing one of Miami’s best-kept secrets to the rest of the country. It was an exciting time for anyone who loved cigars.
“Smoking some of those cigars was life-changing for me,” says Johnson, who 23 years later is now the owner of Tatuaje, a company that includes the Tatuaje and L’Atelier cigar brands, which have had their own profound influence on the industry. “Joya de Nicaragua was back on the market, and people were excited that they could smoke Nicaraguan cigars again. When I tried a Padron for the first time, I was amazed because it didn’t taste like anything else I had smoked up to that point. Rolando Reyes Sr. with Puros Indios and Cuba Aliados was making some unique cigars in Honduras that I loved. Then Carlito [Carlos Fuente Jr.] released OpusX from the Dominican Republic, and it grabbed my attention. All those cigars were so different. They made you take notice and realize how great a cigar could be.”
And they also inspired Johnson to think about what sort of cigar he would like to have if he were to create his own brand. After a short time working at Gus’, Johnson realized that he was better at cigars than he was at playing music. His desire to be a professional musician faded and was replaced by his interest in retail tobacco. Six months after starting to work at Gus’, his job became full time, and he assumed responsibility for stocking cigars for the humidor. He then moved to The Big Easy tobacco shop, also in LA, where he became general manager. After that, Johnson became director of retail for the Grand Havana Room. Yet even from the earliest stages of his involvement in tobacco, Johnson thought about creating his own brand, one that would allow him to share his love and express what he found interesting about cigars with others.
“I actually tried to do my own cigar as early as 1995, but there wasn’t anyone who could make it back then,” Johnson remembers. “It wasn’t until 2003, when I met Pepin [Jose ‘Pepin’ Garcia] that I found someone who could make the type of cigars I wanted to make.”
Pepin had recently come to the U.S. from Cuba and was working with Tropical Tobacco creating private-label blends for the company. Tropical sent Johnson some samples, none of which he liked. Tropical then arranged a face-to-face meeting between Johnson and Pepin in April 2003. Pepin made yet another blend for Johnson, which he also rejected. Though neither one spoke the other’s language, they figured out how to talk to each other, and they reached an understanding. It was a moment that would change both of their lives.
I have so many brands because I don’t want them all
to be Tatuaje Brown Labels. I make cigars because I love
the way they speak to me. The fact that other people
enjoy them is the bonus.
- Pete Johnson
“I described to him what I loved about cigars, especially the Cuban brands from the mid-1990s,” Johnson explains. “Those cigars were pretty darn good. I went into my private collection and pulled one out and gave it to him. He lit it up, tasted it and told me it would be very easy for him to make a cigar like that for me. He did it right in front of me. A month later, we were in production.”
And one of the most talked-about cigar brands in recent memory was born, though it would take three years before the brand gained traction in the American market. Part of the slow growth of Tatuaje was based on price—at $8 to $13 in 2003, it was one of the more expensive cigars on the market. The cigars were given a small brown band and packed in simple wooden cabinet boxes, so there was no aesthetic flash to gain attention inside retailer humidors. Then there was the whole difficulty pronouncing the name (tah-too-wah-hey), which means “tattoo” in Spanish. Retailers and consumers mangled the word. And of course, in the conservative cigar world, the concept of a tattoo-inspired brand invited skepticism. Many folks wondered what this tattooed American kid was thinking, trying to market his own cigars with such a crazy name. And yet, most of those who tried the cigar brought it into their stores. Consistent 90-plus ratings and placement on Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars of the Year listings drove more consumers to retailers asking for Tatuaje.
“I think that Tatuaje Brown Label gave something different to people and changed their perceptions of what a cigar could be,” Johnson explains. “I wasn’t trying to create anything that was already on the market. It was just my opinion of what I thought a good cigar was, and it was Pepin’s style of blending that caught on with smokers. It changed everybody’s opinion, and I think it made everybody else up their game. I really believe that it showcased Nicaraguan tobacco so beautifully that it brought people back to ask for it again and again.”
The 2006 IPCPR show was something of Tatuaje’s coming out party. The brand had experienced slow growth to that point, but when the show opened Johnson was surprised at the number of retailers waiting at his booth to place orders.
“I got to the booth that first day and I couldn’t move, and it lasted throughout the show,” he explains. “We were sold out by the beginning of the last day. It’s gratifying to see people get into what I do. When I got into this I was looking at it as a hobby. I figured I might get an extra paycheck a year that I could use to buy some wine or something. I was making the cigars to smoke for myself. I didn’t understand that it was going to turn into a business.”
With the Garcia family as the exclusive manufacturer of Tatuaje, it’s a business that’s grown tremendously for both Johnson and the Garcias. The Garcia family opened a new factory in Esteli in 2006 and established their own farms in Nicaragua. The expanded production capability and access to the tremendous tobaccos that Pepin and his family are now growing has allowed Johnson to do what he loves best—explore the extent of his creativity and continue to bring interesting and different flavor expressions to consumers.
“I have so many brands because I don’t want them all to be Tatuaje Brown Labels,” Johnson says. “I make cigars because I love the way they speak to me. The fact that other people enjoy them is the bonus. You can’t get into a business like this and think you’re going to make cigars just to sell. Every cigar you make should be for you to smoke yourself, and hopefully someone else is going to like it too. I want to eat different foods throughout the day. Red Label is different from Brown Label. It’s like the difference between a pizza and a steak.”
Today, Tatuaje cigars include a robust portfolio of 20 regular-production and limited-edition brands, such as the original Brown Label (known as Seleccion de Cazador, the Brown Label line remains Tatuaje’s top-selling brand), Havana VI (known as Red Label), Cabaiguan, La Riqueza, El Triunfador and many others (for a full listing of Tatuaje brands and sizes, see the “Tatuaje Brands at a Glance” sidebar on page 32). Despite the varieties of cigars in the Tatuaje line, it’s still primarily known for the original Seleccion de Cazador made in Miami, and often new releases are compared to it instead of being enjoyed in their own right.
“Every time I came out with a cigar, some people have said it didn’t taste like a Tatuaje Brown Label,” Johnson explains. “If I had wanted it to be a Brown Label, I would have put a brown band on it. I realized that I needed a whole other product line that was different from Tatuaje to eliminate preconceived notions of what the cigar would be like. L’Atelier gives me that freedom.”
Johnson established L’Atelier in 2012 with his brother K.C. and friends Dan Welsh and Sean “Casper” Johnson (no relation). Translated from French, L’Atelier means “the workshop,” and the name refers to the company’s role as a separate experimental laboratory for bringing out cigars that aren’t constrained by public expectations. Like Tatuaje, L’Atelier cigars are made exclusively by the Garcia family, but all comparisons end there.
“L’Atelier is a way for me to get away from Tatuaje and not be such the focus of the brand,” Pete Johnson explains. “It’s part of the umbrella Tatuaje organization, but it’s its own company, and the bonus for me is that it adds more voices to the conversation when it comes to creating new cigars. L’Atelier doesn’t cut into Tatuaje. I’ve never seen that, and they are two different brands. We focus on doing different things in that brand.”
Having K.C., Sean Johnson and Welsh involved in L’Atelier provides multiple viewpoints when it comes to product development. It also allows Pete Johnson to spend more time at the factory in Nicaragua playing with tobacco and bringing out new blends.
“Dan and K.C. are doing a lot of the in-store visits now,” Johnson explains. “It takes a lot of pressure off me and Andy [Anderson, Johnson’s colleague at Tatuaje who manages the office]. It also helps me maintain my focus on making our brands better. I was to the point that Tatuaje had grown to the max. I kind of needed help. Tatuaje is me inside of a box racking my brain trying to figure things out myself. L’Atelier is the workshop. It’s the focus group for outside
of Tatuaje that helps me play a little bit, but there are three other people who have an equal part of making decisions. There was a point that I was afraid that I was losing focus. They helped me get back into being more focused.”
L’Atelier’s eponymous first release featured an Ecuadorean-grown Sancti Spiritus wrapper. Sancti Spiritus is a tobacco hybrid made from Criollo and Pelo de Oro Cuban seeds. Johnson believes that it was the first time the rich and flavorful leaf was used as a wrapper, showing the experimental spirit of L’Atelier. Since 2012, every L’Atelier release includes some Sancti Spiritus tobacco in the blend. The L’Atelier portfolio has grown to 10 brands and has gained quite a few fans across the country since its debut (for a complete listing of L’Atelier cigars, see the “L’Atelier Blends at a Glance” sidebar on page 37).
“In 2012, L’Atelier’s first year was small, and Tatuaje was still growing,” Johnson shares. “From 2013 to now, L’Atelier is one-sixth of Tatuaje, and we’re still having good years. Between the two brands, we produce about 3 million cigars a year, and we find new retailers around the world all the time. Everybody wants the original Brown Label made in Miami, and I can’t open more accounts that only want that line; that’s why all the other brands, including L’Atelier, evolved. We’re able to spread the wealth with the Seleccion de Cazador Miami to all our accounts, as well as offer many other great cigars that people want.”
There are currently about 800 retailers who regularly order Tatuaje and L’Atelier cigars. Some of those retailers have been with Johnson since 2003, while others have only started carrying the products within the last few years. Yet Johnson insists every retailer is important to the success of his companies.
“Partnership is very important to us,” he says. “We hope that our relationship with every retailer is a partnership. That’s how our brand has grown—with retailers who want to work together with us and don’t just want to sell cigars. I want our products to be in stores that care about them. I hope that every store that has our products cares about them as much as we do. The Spanish have a word for it—simpatico. It means getting along nicely together, or being on the same wavelength. That’s how I like to do business. I enjoy working with people who are just as passionate about cigars as I am. That’s what makes it so much fun.”
The simpatico philosophy is one that Johnson also enjoys with the Garcia family. His success is their success and vice versa. “I don’t know if I would have had the same success if I worked with anyone else,” Johnson concludes. “The relationship with Pepin and his family is a big thing for me. I’m the lucky guy who met him first. What made it so strong is that we both took chances on each other. I know that I’m in one of the best factories in the world, and they let me treat it as if it were my own. When we met, we didn’t speak the same language but we knew we could count on each other. It was simpatico.”