It’s a title for which there are many contenders, but Glen Case just might be “The Hardest Working Guy in the Business”! Having launched Kristoff Cigars 14 years ago, Case still spends a great deal of his time on the road, meeting retailers and consumers and promoting his brand through a combination of energy and enthusiasm. His 18 years in the corporate world of high finance provided him with a solid business foundation but also led him to seek a career that would be more fulfilling, personally and professionally.
Case’s enjoyment of cigars pulled him toward the cigar industry, where his wife Teri was already an established and respected manufacturer’s representative. They were a successful team, but Case soon realized he had a higher calling. We recently caught up with him during a break in his busy schedule to ask him about his entry into the business and how Kristoff is positioned in today’s competitive market.
What led you to discontinue repping and decide to start your own cigar brand?
Glen Case: Approximately six months after I started repping, we received a call from one of the manufacturers who said, “You’ve done a great job, but you’re fired.” You see, as a new manufacturer, you always start off with brokers because it’s 100 percent commission and there are no fixed expenses. In other words, you only need to pay the broker if [the cigars] sell; otherwise, there are no additional expenses.
My wife was used to building brands, then losing them, then finding new brands to replace the ones she lost. I quickly realized I could not function that way. That’s when I decided to start my own cigar brand.
What were you seeking to create? What did you feel the industry was lacking that you could offer?
I’m not sure there was something specific I was looking to create. To be honest, for me, it was an organic process. It wasn’t until about a year after I started that I came out with my first Kristoff.
Blending is an art, not a science. For the first year, I struggled to develop my blending skills. Again, it wasn’t until I came out with the first Kristoff (Original Criollo) that I started to find my groove and created the look for Kristoff that you know today.
I wasn’t necessarily looking to fill a “gap” in the market; I just knew what I liked. For me, it was all about the smoothness and flavor without the bite, bitterness and aftertaste of other cigars I’ve smoked.
I blend cigars based on what I like to smoke. Fortunately, there are a lot of other cigar enthusiasts that have a similar palate to mine.
How did you find a factory? What was your journey to getting your cigars produced?
Ironically, early on, while I was looking to buy or build a factory, I met Rolando Villamil. Rolando was a veteran in the industry who sought us out to broker his cigars in the Midwest. Upon meeting with him, I respectively declined to represent his cigars, but I explained to him I was interested in coming out with my own brand. It was then that he suggested I come to visit his factory in the Dominican [Republic] and told me if I liked what I saw, he would be happy to produce my cigars. Of course, I took him up on the offer, and the rest is history!
What and who were your influences?
As I mentioned, I wasn’t looking to create anything specific. I started researching old-world Cuban traditions as it relates to manufacturing, look and flavor. I would say those were significant influences as well as my own personal tastes and what I enjoy to smoke.
How did you contribute to the blending process? Did you have an idea as to which types of leaf you wanted to utilize, or did you have a blender create samples from which you would pick what pleased your palate?
I’m very active in the blending process and, of course, I make the final decision. I absolutely have an idea of what tobaccos I’m looking to use. For me, it’s about providing the market with a variety of blends that will satisfy most cigar smokers’ desires and expectations. Those preferences relate to both strength and flavor and profiles.
Your presentation of a pigtail cap, uncut foot and packed-in loose tobacco leaf was one of the first. What inspired you to present your cigars that way?
I’m obsessed with Cuban traditions. The pigtail (a slight variation) and the uncut foot are both traditional Cuban rolling techniques that date back to a century ago.
After 14 years, is the format still viable? Does it seem a bit dated? Other than the Galerones Series, which we’ll touch on a bit later, have you considered updating the look of the line, or do you feel that identification with that look works to solidify Kristoff’s place in the market?
That’s a great question! We have a distinct look and feel to our brand, which has become our signature, in particular, our rough-cut cedar boxes, loose tobacco, the pigtail and uncut foot. I like to refer to our presentation as “rustic elegance.”
That being said, we introduced a new design to our box labels, bands and shelf talkers. The new design introduces a new font type, gold/silver foil lettering and a UV coating. The new design gives a much richer and refined presentation. We invested a significant amount of money in reprinting, and it has been well-received. We are working through old packaging, so you’ll still see a mix of new and old on the shelf.
It seems that Galerones did not catch on the way the original Kristoff cigars have. What happened with that series? Was it too much of a departure from the look and identity of Kristoff? Or was it the blends, price point or packaging?
You’re right, the Galerones did not catch on. Galerones was an experiment to introduce a very different look for Kristoff. We tested an extreme departure from our traditional look with black lacquer piano-finish boxes, gold foil cliche and extremely elegant cigar bands. In addition, we introduced it at a higher price point. It was too extreme of a departure for the Kristoff brand, which people did not relate to. Ironically, we reintroduced three of the four blends in our traditional packaging (San Andres, Connecticut and Habano) and sales increased by 400 percent. It was a great learning experience. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
In trying to get a handle on your various series, it appears you have, in addition to three bundle lines, the It’s a Boy/It’s a Girl series and the Kristania line, 13 “pigtail” cigars, which seem to make up the core of the brand. Those lines are mainly distinguished by wrapper and strength. Where does Brittania fit in, not so much in terms of strength, (it’s milder?) but in having its own subname rather than wrapper leaf designation, which distinguishes it from the other blends?
The Brittania blend is named after my daughter, Brittany. It is [a] mild- to medium-bodied cigar, which is one of my go-to blends. The wrapper is a Honduran Connecticut Shade-grown wrapper, which is amazing in flavor.
Is the GC Signature series its own line or is it a variation on, but part of, the Kristoff lineup?
The GC Signature is my favorite maduro blend out of eight different maduros that I make, so I put my initials on it. It’s a four-country blend: Brazilian, Honduran, Dominican and Nicaraguan. It’s absolutely part of the Kristoff lineup.
Kristania: less expensive, no pigtail, larger box count. It makes sense to have a more budget-priced line. So why bundles?
The Kristania line is our premium, value-priced cigar. We make it in two different blends: a Brazilian maduro and a natural Habano criollo wrapper. It has been one of our best-selling blends, given the extremely full, smooth flavor and affordable price. For a bundle-priced cigar, that’s where our Premium and Cuban Selection Blends come in.
Your Corojo Limitada is very close to being a Nicaraguan puro. Any plans to have an all Nicaraguan cigar or make a cigar in Nicaragua, possibly in collaboration with another manufacturer?
You’re correct, our Corojo Limitada is a near puro blend. However, for me it’s about balance. Any puro blend tends to be a bit one-dimensional in my opinion, which is why I use tobacco from different countries in each blend. In terms of collaborating with other manufacturers, I’ll never say never. I know I’ve been blessed working with our factory, and frankly, we buy tobacco from some of the best manufacturers and processors in the industry today.
Does it seem at times that there are too many extensions?
We currently have 19 different blends in our portfolio, ranging from mild to full-bodied. I believe we have something for just about everyone; however, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity for additional blends. That being said, I don’t think we have too many blends. We will occasionally hear we have too many blends, yet at the same time, we frequently get asked, “What’s new?” I think the industry can be finicky at times.
Other than the GC Signature, which I assume to be your personal blend, what’s your favorite Kristoff series? Are there other manufacturers’ cigars you enjoy on occasion?
The GC Signature happens to be my favorite maduro blend I make, hence the name. In terms of my favorite blend, it’s like asking, “Who’s my favorite child?” (laughs). I blend them all, so I like them all for different reasons. I do have some I go to more than others, such as my Sumatra, Corojo Limitada, Brittania and San Andres, to name a few.
And I absolutely smoke other manufacturers’ cigars. There are so many good cigars out there; it would be a shame not to smoke them. Besides, I think it makes good business sense to know what your competition is doing.
When you brought in Jarrid Trudeau as national sales manager, was the brand growing beyond where you could do everything by yourself? Has having him concentrate on sales and the sales team freed you to get out and promote the brand in person to a greater extent?
Jarrid was our first in-house sales [employee]. As we transitioned into an in-house sales team in the rest of the country, it made sense to move him into the [vice president of sales] position. By doing so, we’ve been able to have a focus on sales and market development without sacrificing the time and attention needed to manage other aspects of the business such as marketing, advertising, product development, production, financial management and planning.
With Jarrid managing the sales team, it’s actually allowed me to travel less and focus more time on infrastructure and the things I just mentioned. Of course, I still travel quite a bit, just not as much as I used to.
This year you reintroduced Vengeance. What were the reasons for bringing this series back? How does it differ from the original iteration?
Actually, this is the fourth generation of Vengeance. The first Vengeance dates back to my brokering days when we were repping for Rocky [Patel]. I worked with Rocky and Jesus Fuego to blend the original Vengeance and then discontinued it when I started making our own cigars. The current Vengeance is here to stay. This is the first blend I made using a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper, and it’s outstanding! The blend is significantly different from the original, which was a Brazilian maduro wrapper and a different binder and filler.
Where do you go from here?
We will continue focusing on growth, both nationally and internationally. We are working on new sizes in the Pistoff: a Corona called the “Lil” Pistoff Kristoff as well as an 8.5 x 60 called the “Extremely” Pistoff Kristoff.
We are also working on a special, limited product cigar called the JT Signature, named after Jarrid. Stay tuned for more details in the future.
Lastly, do you still consider Kristoff to be an ultra-boutique line of cigars? Do you feel you’ve entered the mainstream in terms of brand recognition and acceptance?
I can honestly say that we are not ultra-boutique. We are an established brand sold throughout the U.S. market, and we are currently in 32 other countries.
For more info, visit kristoff.com.
Story originally appeared in Tobacconist Magazine.