Arturo Fuente is a brand of cigar, founded by Arturo Fuente, Sr. in 1912 in West Tampa, Florida. Following a catastrophic fire in 1924, the brand ceased production for 22 years, reemerging in 1946 on a limited, local basis. Ownership was transferred to Arturo's younger son, Carlos Fuente, Sr. in 1958. Following the 1960 United States embargo of Cuba, the Fuente brand began a period of slow and steady growth, emerging as one of the most critically acclaimed makers of hand-rolled premium cigars outside of Cuba. As of 2010 the company was producing 30 million cigars per annum from its factory in the Dominican Republic.
The Arturo Fuente cigar brand was born in 1912 in West Tampa, Florida. It was in that year that the brand was launched by a 24-year-old Cuban émigré named Arturo Fuente (November 8, 1887 – February 11, 1973) as A. Fuente & Co. Fuente had come to the United States in 1902, leaving his hometown of Güines, Cuba in the aftermath of the Spanish–American War.
The original factory used by the company was a three story wooden building, one of nearly 200 cigar-making facilities in the city of Tampa alone. All of these manufacturers would import tobacco from nearby Cuba for production into finished cigars.
The company was incorporated in 1924, by which time A. Fuente & Co. had grown to the point that it employed 500 workers. However late in 1924 disaster struck the company and their building burned to the ground. Production of the brand was halted; it would not be until 1946, 22 years later, that production of the brand resumed.
By the end of World War II Arturo Fuente had finally recovered from the catastrophic losses suffered in 1924 fire and the Great Depression had abated, making a return to cigar manufacturing again conceivable. Fuente relaunched his brand "in the garage," so to speak—adding a few rolling tables to the 160 square foot back porch of his home in Ybor City, Florida.
Production was a family affair at the time of the 1946 restart, with Arturo and his wife rolling full-time, joined by a few other hired torcedores. Arturo's sons—Carlos and Arturo, Jr.—were soon drafted into the enterprise, sweeping the floors and helping with the rolling after school.
Carlos Fuente, Sr., the son of Arturo, contracted polio as a boy of 12 but was fortunate in recovering well enough to walk normally, unlike many victims of the disease. He dropped out of school before graduating high school and was married at age 18. Because the cigar business struggled during the 1940s and 1950s, Carlos, Sr. took a job as a baker to help make ends meet, while his wife worked full-time in another factory while both moonlighted at Fuente.
Transfer of ownership
Arturo Fuente, Sr. had originally envisioned passing the small family cigar business on to his eldest son, Arturo, Junior, but it was his younger son Carlos that spent the most time working in the firm, so it was to him that it was offered in 1958. Carlos Fuente, Sr. bought the business from his father for exactly $1—purchasing $1,161 in assets and zero debt. At the time the company made only a few thousand cigars a year.
Carlos, Sr. was ambitious and sought to expand the business, first seeking to establish new accounts in other parts of Florida before setting his sights on New York City. Fuente initially targeted a Hispanic market for its product. Growth was slow since cigar smokers of the era were brand loyal and not prone to the sampling of new products.
The United States embargo against Cuba would change all that.
After the embargo
Up until the 1962 embargo, cigars were typically made in the United States of Cuban tobacco. Following the embargo, access to Cuban tobacco was abruptly terminated, forcing every cigar maker to change the blends that they used. Carlos Fuente, Sr. later recalled:
"In the old days, people were very brand true. Brand loyal. ... I feel the embargo put everybody level. People had to shop around to find a different taste that they liked."
Fuente shopped for new sources of tobacco, buying leaf from new regions like Puerto Rico and Colombia. Blending skills were then employed in an effort to create a flavor appealing to smokers who had developed an affection for classic Havano flavors.
Rising labor costs made continued American production uneconomical. In addition, the company had increasing difficulty in finding qualified cigar rollers in Florida. Efforts were made to establish the brand's production in Mexico and Puerto Rico, but quality from these factories was deemed insufficient.
In the 1970s contacts were made between Carlos Fuente, Sr. and a representative of the blossoming Nicaraguan cigar industry and the company soon moved its production to Estelí in the Northwestern part of that Central American country. However, disaster again struck in 1979 when the Fuente factory was burned to the ground during the Nicaraguan Revolution.
With Nicaragua a total loss, Carlos Fuente, Sr. mortgaged his house to raise capital and his son Carlos, Jr. added whatever money he had available and the family moved to the Dominican Republic to begin anew. Carlos Fuente, Sr. later recalled the decision to build inventory as decisive:
"When I first started in the Dominican, all our profit, we stuck it back. All our profit was always invested in tobacco. And aged tobacco is the most important thing that you can have. We always had a lot of aged tobacco. And as we started aging more and more, we started doing better."
The company scored its first success of its "Dominican Period" in the middle 1980s with the launch of the medium-bodied Hemingways line — an attempt to break new ground in the market through the use of special shapes.
At the end of the 1980s the company began to grow its own tobacco on a substantial scale for the first time, investing in roads and curing barns. The company even took on the challenge of growing its own wrapper leaf—the most difficult and risky component of a cigar to produce.