As we await with trepidation the mayhem the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) threatens to unleash upon the cigar industry, most people remain confident that years from now there will still be a thriving cigar market in the United States. Which companies survive to provide those cigars, of course, is a much-debated topic, but at the very least, we assume the big companies that have deep pockets will survive, as will the smaller companies led by smart, nimble, talented entrepreneurs who can read signals, adjust offerings, and thrive in changing conditions.
One such person who fits that second category is Yunior Lopez, CEO of Lord of the Cigars, importer of premium cigars, headquartered in Miami. On one hand, Lopez brings a personal story that, while remarkable, is shared in part by many in the industry: He was born in Cuba and escaped with his family by boat when he was a child, growing up in America and becoming a cigar man. On the other hand, a different part of his life situates Lopez among the world’s musical elite, for he is an acclaimed chamber violist and skilled conductor. Indeed, Lopez figures among the most versatile musicians of his generation. That he would be, at the young age of 28, simultaneously giving the world the gift of elevated music and luxury, premium cigars is a remarkable achievement.
Lopez’s involvement in cigars is for him a passion, something he had wanted to do ever since he was young, although he nearly walked away from the industry in 2015, even before the FDA turmoil. He had one foot out the door when a certain high-performance luxury car brand from Italy came calling and changed everything. (We’ll give you a hint: It rhymes with shamborghini.) Today, like so many other importers, he’s completely invested in the cause and is trying to prepare for whatever governmental scenarios unfold.
As a reminder, last year the FDA announced new rules aimed at effectively extinguishing any tobacco products introduced to market since Feb. 15, 2007. The red tape and costs imposed by the new rules put a target on the backs of a great many small-batch “boutique” gourmet cigar companies, which have proliferated since 2007. Had the FDA decreed merely that product introductions would be subject to new rules from now into the future, the industry could more easily adjust. But the retroactive twist in the ruling is especially damaging. As Lopez puts it, “If they just said, ‘Hey, we’re starting this new law today. Everyone who came before it is exempt, but going forward you have to abide by these new rules,’ that would be much better. Why 2007? What happened after that date that’s such a big problem?”
“All this FDA trouble shows you the ignorance behind it,” Lopez continues. “Yes, there’s tobacco involved, but you can’t put a guy who smokes a cigar every so often in the same category as someone who smokes a pack or two of cigarettes every day. How did cigars get slammed for all the fatalities cigarettes have caused? And now marijuana is getting more accepted, so it just makes you wonder. There are always special interest groups out there pushing these things. When these laws come about, you have to examine who exactly is going to benefit.” It is in the face of this uncertainty that Lopez continues to press his business plan, hoping (with the rest of the small-batch cigar industry) that sanity will prevail before a diabolical and arbitrary government rule is allowed to do its worst. Lopez has overcome long odds before.
Because he was so young, Lopez carries few firsthand memories of his passage from Cuba but instead ties together the recollections he does retain with family stories and photographs. “My parents and I, we escaped by boat, but we didn’t make it,” Lopez explains. “We got stuck halfway to Florida when a U.S. Navy ship came by and picked us up. So who knows what would have happened had they not found us?”
Lopez says the Navy ship couldn’t deliver the family to the United States and couldn’t return them to Cuba, either. “So they took us to Guantanamo,” he continues. “The law provided that if a Cuban sets foot on American soil they are granted asylum. So we were granted asylum, and we waited seven months for our paperwork, and once we got that, we were flown to Miami. From there we went to Los Angeles, where we had family.”
The Lopezes stayed in LA until Yunior was 7, when his father, a construction worker, saw potential prosperity in the desert where the older Las Vegas casinos were coming down to make room for today’s more elaborate towers. Despite these moves, three constants in Lopez’s life remained: family, cigars, and music. The last is in his blood; Lopez’s aunt, Anaís Abreu, is one of Cuba’s most famous singers and one of the world’s leaders in bolero. Soon the young Lopez discovered his own musical ability, but he laughs when asked if he was a child prodigy, because he never picked up a viola until he was 11 years old—six to eight years later than most of his contemporaries began playing.
“I originally wanted to play cello,” Lopez jokes, “but when you ride a bike to school ….”
To say he was a natural would be an understatement. He made his conducting debut at age 15, was playing with the Las Vegas Philharmonic at 17, and performed his residency at Carnegie Hall at 18. When he was 20, Lopez was appointed conductor of the Academy Symphony Orchestra at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada.
“I love world music,” he says. “I love anything that mixes styles of music from different countries, like Afro-Cuban jazz, for example. Spanish singers, Brazilian rhythms. These bring out the individual in the artist.”
A scholarship to The Royal Conservatory, and a paid gig as a musician for the same institution while he was still a student, meant that Lopez was able to graduate free of debt. This gave him more options after he finished school, and he ended up doing a lot of touring and recording. “But,” says Lopez, “I also wanted to have my own life.” Despite every outward sign pointing him toward a life immersed in music, other loves beckoned.
Before he had even finished his schooling, Lopez was already making plans to start his own cigar brand. “It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I used to host poker games for my friends, and even though I wasn’t smoking at the time, I was loading up my humidor for them to enjoy.” Cigars had been such a constant presence in his life that the young musician yearned to be a player in that field as well.
Lopez founded Don Lopez Cigars in Miami in 2013 and soon achieved moderate success. He became frustrated, however, because the factory making his cigars was inconsistent in terms of quality, and he found himself throwing away too much product. But soon enough he met his current business partner, Lester Alvarez, who is president and founder of Lord of the Cigars Corp.
“Lester was looking for new business, getting people to import bundles,” Lopez says. “His cousin owned a factory in Estelí [Nicaragua], and soon they were making my cigars, and I was very happy with them. I bought from them for about a year, and then they invited me into the operation. They needed someone who spoke English, and they had little business experience in the markets. I started scouting other small brands for us to manufacture or import to grow our portfolio, and the operation started to expand.”
The company’s most successful cigar line is Horacio. Its agreeable, velvety, dark chocolate tones and impeccable construction make Horacio a popular cigar label in Europe. Yet despite good reviews, the Horacio line has yet to find a large following in the crowded American market—Lopez’s territory. Frustrated because he felt his brands weren’t growing fast enough, Lopez says by February 2015 he was ready to walk away. He didn’t like Miami, so he moved back to Las Vegas and started the Las Vegas Young Artists Orchestra, where he still serves as artistic and music director. Lopez also wasn’t thrilled with the general state of the cigar industry, where large online suppliers were undercutting brick-and-mortar store prices, making it even more difficult for his products to gain traction. Lopez realized that to bring a new taste to the American consciousness he needed educated shopkeepers to make the introduction.
“Everybody who tried Horacios loved them instantly, but the boxes weren’t moving fast enough, and we had a lot of clients who couldn’t pay on time,” Lopez says. “I had basically turned into a bill collector. That’s when I said I was done. I wanted to focus on my orchestra.”
And then fate intervened: A new door suddenly opened.
One brand that Lopez had created under the Don Lopez label was El Toro, which means “the bull” in Spanish. Lopez was selling only 20 to 40 boxes of El Toro each month, and even though he eventually sold completely out of the cigars, he left the website up. That’s when Lamborghini Latinoamérica came calling. Lamborghini, of course, famously has a bull on its emblem.
“At first I thought it was one of my friends messing with me. But it was real,” Lopez says. “They wanted to expand their brand into other luxury items, one of them being cigars. They wanted to name their cigar El Toro but realized I owned the name, so they got in touch with me. As it turns out, they didn’t want to work with a big factory. They preferred to work with a small company that would give them time and be devoted to their product. We experimented with a variety of blends and came up with six for them to sample, and they picked the one they liked best.
“Right now it’s really the cigar bundles we are importing to the States that are giving us the lion’s share of our revenue. Some months we move as many 70,000 cigars in affordable, high-quality bundles”—just not Horacios.
Lopez is a natural optimist, but he confesses to one misgiving: “If Horacio does take off in the United States the way it should, I’m concerned about being able to meet demand.” Many a businessman would love to face such a problem. Certainly, the quality of Horacio cigars makes them a candidate for viral popularity. “When people try the Horacios, they get hooked,” says Lopez. “Considering quality and price together, we can compete with anyone. [A Horacio typically retails for $7 to $11, depending on the cigar’s size and the merchant.] We do everything at the Tabacalera Hernandez Cantillo factory, where they have 32 rollers, but we only use the top four. And every cigar gets tested, so with any of our products, you are going to get a great smoke. Our blends are all unique, and we deliver all the way around.”
Horacio cigars, and the whole Lord of the Cigars lineup, are available at cigarluxury.com.
Check out a review of a Horacio here.