General Cigar Dominican Republic Blogger Trip 2011
This is going to be a huge post. I was going to spread it out over a few days, but I decided to just post the whole thing and let you guys rummage through it. I will put another link to the pictures at the bottom of the post, but here is another one in case you’d like to follow along.
As many of you know I was lucky enough to be one of the bloggers that General Cigar invited on a 4 day trip to cover their operations in Santiago, Dominican Republic. The way this trip went down was kind of random in the most organized way possible. Basically, Victoria McKee, our PR contact with General Cigar, contacted us and let us know that we were all invited on a grand tour of the General Cigar organization in Dominican Republic. This trip would include the rolling, warehousing, box manufacturing, growing, and even machine operations. She also noted that we would be accompanied by key personnel from each of the General related brands. Very cool, and of course we all jumped on it not really knowing what to expect. The crew included: Anthony of Cigar Brief, Barry Stein of A Cigar Smoker, Ben Lee of Nice Tight Ash, Bryan Glynn from Cigar Obsession, Craig Vanderslice from Cigar Craig, Dan Reeve from Cigar Explorer, David Jones from Tiki Bar, Doc from Stogie Fresh, Justin Yoch from Ash Report, Patrick from Cigar Examiner, Patrick from Stogie Guys, Skip Martin from Hava Cigar Shop/Cromagnon, Stephen Boyajian from The Cigar Network and Tony Blake from 365 Cigars. Jerry Cruz from Stogie Review was also slotted to join us, but had to cancel last minute due to a work emergency.
Not really knowing what to expect I set fourth on my journey. A car service picked me up at my house at 5:45am. Why is that important? Cause they weren’t supposed to be there until 6:45am. The driver insisted on waiting in the car, but I felt terrible so I showered and got dressed as fast as I could only to arrive at the airport about two and a half hours early. My first stop was Dallas where I met up with Skip and enjoyed a nice lunch, as well as some interesting conversation. If any of you have ever had the pleasure of meeting Skip you know exactly what I’m talking about. First, he managed to upset an American Airlines flight attendant in line to buy tootsie rolls based on his experiences with the company. Extremely amusing. Then we ate lunch at a pizza bar where we enjoyed some great conversation with our waitress before heading to Miami. Skip’s awesome. Spend some time with him, you’ll love it.
Skip and I were the last ones to fly into Miami so we were greeted with all the family blog faces as well as Abe Flores from Pinar Del Rio who just happened to be on our same flight, Yuri Guillen from Team La Gloria, Michael Giannini from La Gloria Cubana, and Rick Rodriguez from CAO. We packed the plane and headed off.
Once we landed in DR it was evident that the humidity was going to eat me alive. Just the walk from the plane to the airport had me sweating. I’m used to heat, it gets hot as hell in El Paso, but the humidity was something else. We rarely see more than 20% here in the desert. Anyways, to make a long story short, we got our luggage and packed into the van. Driving in the DR is freaken insane. There really is no lanes, no structure, no nothing. That being said, about 5 minutes into our trip from the airport, just as Michael Giannini was telling us how crazy the driving is, we witnessed two kids on motorcycles get PLOWED by an SUV. One kid actually ended up under the wheel of the vehicle before the SUV sped away. Nuts! This all happened about 15 feet away from my window on the van. Welcome to the DR!
After unloading at the hotel we headed poolside for BBQ, drinks, and cigars. Barry and the famous Benji Menendez were already there waiting for us. The rest of the night went on, drink after drink and cigar after cigar. We stayed up a little later than we probably should have considering we didn’t get to the hotel until about 10pm and had to be up around 6:30 am the next morning.
After enjoying breakfast, a new Cromagnon prototype (Thanks Skip, it was Delish!) and realizing that the humidity was actually causing the lenses on my camera to fog up, we headed to a Tax-Free work zone in central Santiago which housed the General Cigar facility as well as quite a few other factories (I can’t remember exactly which ones, and could be way off but I want to say Fuente, Quesada, and even Cigar Rings were part of this zone). Once at the factory we headed straight to the training room to get the inside scoop on the company and meet some of the key personnel behind the brand Jhonny Diaz, Edmundo Garcia, and Francisco Rodriguez. It was insane learning just how big this operation was. General cigar operations span 2,792,362 meters combined and houses over 2,125 employees in the Dominican Republic alone. Granted, the Honduran and Nicaraguan operations under the General brand are smaller, the sheer size of the company blew me away. One neat tidbit was the initiatives that General Cigar actually offers it’s employees. Outside of paying more than just about any other mass organized factory in Santiago, here are a few of the things General Cigar offers each of it’s employees:
General Cigar believes that education is the key to a better future in the Dominican Republic and Honduras. The company allocates hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to support programs that increase literacy among employees and residents of the D.R. and Honduras, while also providing scholarships for its employees and providing complete funding for schools in both countries.
General Cigar began its “Literacy Initiative” in 2004, and today, this program remains one of the company’s most unique corporate social responsibility endeavors. General Cigar underwrites the program, provides instructors and holds classes within its Dominican and Honduran facilities. Under this campaign, company employees, as well as citizens who live in urban and rural areas surrounding the company’s farms and factories are taught to read and write based on curriculum mandated by the Dominican and Honduran governments. Students who pass the course receive a diploma that is formally presented during an annual graduation ceremony, the most important event held by General Cigar in a given year. To date, more than 600 Dominicans and Hondurans have advanced under this program.
General Cigar is also very proud of its “Continuing Education” program which continues to offer a range of professional development courses designed to provide employees with additional skills and training relevant to jobs within the company. More than 4,000 employees have prospered under this program which boasts more than 50 unique areas of training, each developed in cooperation with technical education institutions in both countries.
Another component of the company’s commitment to education is General Cigar’s support of post-secondary education for its employees. In a given year, approximately 30 employees are able to attend college or pursue advanced technical training, directly due to financial assistance from the company. As a result of this program, General Cigar currently employs more than 64 college graduates, with 16 of these employees holding master’s degrees. In fact, all of General Cigar’s upper and middle management employees hold college degrees. This investment continues to make General Cigar one of the Dominican Republic and Honduras’ most professionally and technically-advanced companies.
Under the “School Sponsorship” endeavor which was created in 1997, more than 2,500 students have benefitted from General Cigar’s support, which helps to broaden the scope of learning and ensure a better future for the children. Through this initiative, General Cigar provides broad-based financial support to four economically-challenged Dominican schools. The company underwrites infrastructure costs, while also providing students with school supplies and sporting goods. General Cigar has also utilized this program to bring technology to remote urban areas by appointing the schools with modern computers.
General Cigar also dedicates considerable resources toward creating a better quality of life for its staff. Health insurance, dental exams and blood pressure screenings are available for employees of both countries. In addition, the company provides transportation, including new bicycles to employees and conducts intramural baseball and soccer leagues within their Dominican and Honduran facilities.
For those employees who need assistance in paying for home repairs, General Cigar has a dedicated fund which allows employees to secure no-interest financing for home improvement projects. Over the last 27 years, this program has dramatically improved the quality of life for many employees and their families.
Just as General Cigar is passionately committed to advancing tobacco cultivation, the company uses its vast resources to contribute to the health of the Dominican and Honduran people. General Cigar purchases citrus fruits, vegetables, dairy products, livestock and fish which are then sold at below wholesale prices to company employees. Providing nutritious and affordable food is another way that General Cigar contributes to the well-being of its employees.
General Cigar also maintains a “Natural Disaster” fund allowing the company to readily provide its employees and people in the Dominican Republic and Honduras with food, clean drinking water, necessities such as diapers and medical supplies as well as home repairs and shelter.
Protecting the environment and preventing pollution are two additional areas of focus for General Cigar’s corporate social responsibility programs. Perhaps the only cigar manufacturer to have its own reforestation program, General Cigar replenishes cedar and mahogany trees to replace those that are depleted in making their handsome cigar boxes. Each farm in the Dominican Republic and Honduras participates in the reforestation activities which are now part of the company’s standard agricultural operations. To date, more than 35,000 trees have been replanted.
General Cigar is also pleased to have been recognized for being in compliance with “ISO 14001” standards which acknowledge the company’s commitment to conducting its business in the utmost environmentally-friendly manner.
In addition to its Dominican and Honduran charitable initiatives, General Cigar supports various charities in the United States, to benefit literacy initiatives, support members of the U.S. armed forces and their families, and provide funding for medical research and disease prevention.
With the recent addition of CAO to the General Cigar family, the company now has a dedicated cigar making facility in Nicaragua. They have already begun exploring the possibility of replicating and expanding their corporate social responsibility programs in that country.
The presentation alone blew me away. I guess I just never really took the time to step back and really think about what goes into the cigars we all love. After the presentation we took a really quick tour of the factory before arriving in a room where they stack, and separate stored tobacco. The room houses two huge tables, each containing about 15 different types of tobacco leafs, labeled, waiting for us. It was then that they told us that they were going to have us create our own blend! It was slightly daunting at first, but the more we played around with mixing tobacco, the more I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. Benji Menendez, Rick Rodriguez, and the guy who helped me Michael Giannini were all there to lend us a hand. Sampling each tobacco made it VERY easy to formulate a blend in my head, but every time we rolled them together we were hit with the realization just how hard blending is. I can personally say that my first 5 or 6 blends were absolutely terrible. Finally, crazy nicotine highs later, we left the room with what we all thought was the final blend of our cigars.
We kicked back and enjoyed a feast of a lunch at the training room before heading back out to tour the General Cigar Warehouse. Holy crap it was huge! I wasn’t expecting that much tobacco. Francisco made mention of having 50 year old tobacco stored there and a building total value of over millions of dollars worth of product each bunched, labeled, packed, and piled in these handmade mesh bags weighing hundreds of pounds each, and running anywhere between $2,000 to $9,000 a pop.
After the tour we headed out, had dinner and probably more drinks then we should have at an amazing Italian restaurant before heading back to the hotel room for another late night of drinks by the pool. I swear we were all running about 2 – 3 hours of sleep each night.
After a quick breakfast and some calls to hotel rooms to wake up some of the guys, we packed back on the bus and headed to Licery El Medio, which was a suburb of Santiago. This area housed another factory ran by General Cigar. This factory only had about 400 employees and handled mainly the long filler portion of the operation. One interesting fact about this factory was that it was once owned by Capote before being taken over by General cigar. General could very easily move these operations into the main factory in Santiago, but due to the poverty and low income area of the location of the factory General Cigar decided to keep it where it was so that they didn’t have to displace any of the current employees who counted on that job as their only means of surviving.
This is where we met Don Quico. Don Quico is an agricultural engineer who is basically in charge of the tobacco from soil to factory storing. He spoke with us giving insight on just about every area in tobacco growing. I had no idea that it took a total of between 30 – 90 days total for the farming of each tobacco plant depending on the type of leaf, and the priming. Most priming happens about 20 days apart. Another interesting note that a few of us picked up on was when he mentioned that most of the flavor of the tobacco is located in the outer edges of the leaf. Also, Ligero always needs to be placed in the center of a cigar when it is being bunched to ensure proper burn. A few of use kept that in mind if we used ligero in any of our personal blends.
After a quick tour of the long filler factory we were taken another 20 minutes away from the city to take a tour of the actual farms where they raise the tobacco. The first leg of the tour showed a smaller section of the farm with large silos where they grow all the shade grown tobacco. The second leg took us through the sun grown facility. That facility houses a MASSIVE above-ground irrigation system. We got to see first hand the machine and man work that went into planting each of the seeds. As we headed further into the farm we came to a huge gazebo that overlooked the entire farm. This gazebo was something straight out of the movies. It had a bar, kitchen, restrooms, power generator, and even a large man made lake. I could spend an entire vacation here. We joined up for dinner and drinks here with General Cigar’s President Dan Carr.
We enjoyed a huge dinner here as well as way too many drinks once again. I was lucky enough to sit next to Stephen on the way back so I could see the train wreck of a night unfold. We got back to the hotel to find the pool had been closed (probably due to our prior late nights). Victoria immediately jumped on the phone and within minutes had cases of beer, bottles of rum and scotch, as well as a full bar staff waiting for us. 2 bottles of Johnny Walker later Stephen stumbled to bed. Dan Reeve and Skip actually had a bet. Not as to IF he would throw up, but whether or not he would throw up in public or not. I spent most of that evening secretly sending tweets from Skip’s ipad, and listening to Dan Reeve, Ben Lee, and a drunken David Jones talk about how boring football is.
The next morning I woke up from my 2 hours of sleep and stumbled to breakfast. Surprisingly there was only one person there before me. Any Guesses who it was? Stephen. After being asked why he was there early he went on to tell me how he couldn’t stand to sleep in his vomit ridden room any longer. Turns out he threw up at some point in his slumber and didn’t realize it till he woke up the next morning. Looks like Dan won that bet.
After breakfast we quickly made our way back to the factory. The realization of this being our last day at the factory had already started to set in with a few of us. But today was the day we learned how to bunch, roll, and package our own cigars. First was the bunching. I think all of us thought we were rock stars after that portion. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as we thought it was. Each of us were paired with our own personal helper who trained us how to bunch before setting us out on our own. It took us over an hour to bunch all 20 of our cigars. 10 would be brought home while 10 would be smoked by the General team who would then decide a winner.
After the bunching, we let our cigars sit in molds under the press while we took a quick ride over to the box manufacturing facility. I wasn’t expecting such a huge, expedited operation! Basically blank timber came in and boxes went out. They did everything there from cutting, sanding, painting, manufacturing, pressing, stamping, and glazing the boxes. It was insane. They were even making wooden ashtrays as we took our tour.
We then went back to the factory to try our hands at rolling. This was a humbling experience. I think it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I don’t think very many of us got the hang of it. My cigars looked like they had been made by a 5 year old.
After we rolled our cigars, a few of us had lunch and then headed out to a museum and a few monuments to enjoy our final day in the DR before heading back to the hotel room for a little rest.
That evening we headed up to Camp David for a final farewell party. Drinks and food! We basically digested the remainder of the trip before listening to a speech from Dan Carr. One of the questions on everyone’s mind was “why did they do this for us?”. He answered that question by basically letting us know three things. One, they appreciate us as a valid source of media (which is something I still don’t take seriously), that they wanted to show us what they were doing as a company, and that they wanted our serious thoughts on what they could do better. They also announced the winner of the best blend, and to our surprised it was Stephen. I don’t know how he did it, he was still half drunk while he was rolling his cigars. We spent the remainder of the night there. Before leaving, Bryan Glynn actually took these pictures of us. The first one was a 15 shot mash up of each of the bloggers, followed by a single shot of us along with the people who made the trip possible.
To sum up this trip, it was seriously one of the best, and most educational experiences I ever had. General Cigar really went out of their way to make us feel us feel welcomed, and part of the team. They taught us not only about their day to day operations and what they offer as a company, but how tobacco is grown, harvested, stored, aged, rolled, packaged and consumed. I had no idea the process was so immense and General Cigar has a really efficient way to accomplish it. Victoria McKee was the star of the show. She really did so much for us every step of the way and my sincerest thanks goes out to her. Did it change the way I perceived the company? Greatly. When most people think General cigar they think of this huge money making machine, which isn’t really the case. They give back more than anyone else in the Santiago area. Did it change the way I thought about cigars. Totally. I can now see the amount of work that goes into each one. Did it change the way I feel about General’s cigars? Not at all. I knew they were quality product, and although they don’t come out with many blends that suit my profile, they have always been a huge hit with other cigar smokers.
Again, if you want to see all the pictures click this link: Dominican Republic Trip 2011