HOSTOS FERNANDEZ INTERVIEW TABACALERA LA ISLA
Cigar Press – For a lot of people you may be a new name in the industry, but those who work in it know that you have been behind the scenes your whole life. Can you tell us a little more about your background?
Hostos Fernandez – I’m mostly known in the industry but definitely not by the end consumers. Quesada was a big family. People knew me from that, but people are starting to know me a little better by following me online, whether they are reading about the factory or following our Instagram account (@tabacaleralaisla). But to get more to the point about my background, I worked at Quesada since I was fifteen years old. I used to work there in the summers. I just began to learn about all of the different areas in the factory. I agree with the idea, the mindset that Monolo (Manuel Quesada) has, that in order to really learn something you have to go through every department, in our case, to really see how the process worked. So I started young. I started in the tobacco area to learn about tobaccos, seeing and touching it. After I graduated high-school I really started working there part time. I was working at the factory in the mornings, then at noon I would go to college. After I graduated college, I just stayed at the factory and began working full time. I didn’t get a master’s degree. I like to say my master’s degree is in tobacco.
CP – What did you study in school?
HF – I received my degree in Business Administration.
CP – How long did you work at Quesada?
HF – You could say I was there for about twenty years. In my last few years at Quesada I was involved with everybody and everything I could help with. Besides the factory, I was also dealing with the reps, sales and customers as well. I did meet a lot more people that way as well. My last few years I was doing all sorts of different things, from blending, to packaging, to production. I was dealing with the private label customers. So let’s say you came to me and wanted to do a cigar line back then, I was the one who knew the details to that cigar line because I was the one creating the project with the customers. That entailed blends, how the cigars needed to look, shapes of the cigars then in the shipping department from the color range we agreed on. How they need to be banded, go in the box or bundle, cello or no cello. I also dealt with the boxes as well. At Quesada they do have their own box factory. I spent about two years at the box factory learning about making cigar boxes. So in the end of my time at Quesada, I was doing a lot that had to do with everything from the beginning of the product to the end of the product.
CP – It’s a big step leaving a company like Quesada and venturing off on your own.
HF – A lot of people want to know more about why I left. Really, I just wanted to take a different route and approach to the industry. . I left Quesada for no secret reasons; I just wanted to do my own thing and see a different side of the business. I appreciate everything from my time working there and I did learn most of what I know about making cigars there.
CP –Tabacalera La Isla didn’t happen right away, however.
HF – No. Thankfully when I left Quesada, I was lucky enough to have lot of offers on the table and Cigar Rings is the one that was the best option at that moment. I know them very well and had worked with them for over ten years while I was at Quesada. It’s interesting to me because it was a way for me to learn another side of the industry. The interesting part of Cigar Rings, which I’m really glad I did, is that I learned a lot about the packaging side of things. Everything from bands, labels, carton boxes or whatever. Cigar Rings works for almost everyone in the cigar industry, so I was able to learn a lot more from new factories I didn’t have experience or access to.
CP – I can only imagine how exciting that must be for you to visit all these places now.
HF – Very exciting and an amazing learning experience. With Cigar Rings, besides all the companies in the Dominican Republic, I would go to Nicaragua three or four times a year. I visited everybody that we made bands for. I would go to their factories and get to see all their tobaccos and how they do things in a way that I wasn’t able to access before. It was a great learning experience. Every time that I went to a factory it would hit me, that is what I’m passionate about. I like being in a cigar factory with people and tobacco all around me.
CP – So you left Cigar Rings, then Covid.
HF – I had talked to people about work and they said, “Look, Hostos we love you, but sit tight, as you know we’re closed. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we don’t know what’s going on.” It was completely understandable that it was impossible for anyone to be hiring anyone during that time. During the first few months of lockdown, I was sitting on my balcony a lot just thinking and smoking cigars. There was nothing else for me to do. So I’d go out, smoke cigars and kept thinking and asking myself, what am I going to do? I have always tried to be on top about what’s happening in the industry and I kept hearing the same thing. There is a mini boom right now. Everybody is buying cigars and needs cigars now. A lot of people are buying more cigars, which no one expected with the pandemic to be honest with you. Thankfully it was the other way around. Then I asked myself, why can’t I get some of these loose crumbs of cigars that were needed and see if I can get something going. My father-in-law, Francisco Veloso (Kiko), who is also an important part of La Isla and works together with us here. Would, as a kind of joke, ask me every few months for years “Why don’t you open your own place? It would be interesting.” I always just shrugged it off as a joke since I was busy with all the current work I had during that time. So that kept coming back into my mind. One night I sat down with my wife, Oriana and I told her that I had this crazy idea and to hear me out. If I’m nuts then tell me I’m nuts. I told her about the factory and everything. She was very supportive and suggested to keep digging and to keep doing my due diligence to see if I could make it happen. If it’s something that could work, it would be your own place and you can enjoy what you’re doing at the same time. What could be better than that? she said.
CP – Factory of the Island. It’s a great name!
HF – It sort of conveys the vibe I want to portray and something that I am, very relaxed in doing things the right way. If I need to take an extra week in order to do something right then I’m going to take a week to get it right. Making our customers happy in the easiest way possible is our main goal. Oriana and I are at the beach every chance we get so it has that beach island style to it. We love how the name and logo came out to show this.
CP – Did you reach out to any of your friends in the industry to get their thoughts?
HF – I started calling all of my close friends. I wanted them to be part of the process of what I was thinking. It wasn’t to reach out and get an order. I was basically trying to see if anyone told me that I was out of my fucking mind to do this. Nobody said that. They all thought it was a great idea and told me to do it. So that gave me some energy. I have to be honest… I get this question all the time: how am I doing and how is the factory going? I always answer: “I’m scared shitless but I’m having the greatest time of my life.” It’s tough. I mean opening a cigar factory in the Dominican Republic in the middle of a pandemic is not easy. It’s a very big undertaking. We built the factory in three months. Even though we “officially” opened in January 2021 at the start of December 2020 we were good to go, and we were already rolling cigars. But man, it’s been a great experience.
CP – What are you trying to achieve with cigars from your factory?
HF – There are a couple of things that we are trying to do with the cigars that we are blending here. On a personal side of things, which my opinion doesn’t matter because I’m not the one buying all of the cigars I make, but I have always smoked stronger cigars. I don’t smoke mild cigars anymore. Medium is the lowest that I go. Businesswise, stronger cigars are selling more than milder cigars these days, you guys know this. People who smoke mild cigars are more of the classic smoker, the older generation who have been smoking that type of cigar for years, or the new generation of smokers who come in and start off with milder blends. Even though people start with mild cigars they usually go up and up in strength as they go. But I don’t want to take away that mild cigars are still a huge part of the market and If someone wants a mild cigar, of course, we’ll make it. But the way we are approaching this is more full flavored cigars, medium strength at the least.
CP – Are you making a brand for yourself?
HF – I’m not making my own brand at the moment. I had to make a decision when I started. Do I want to concentrate on the factory? Do I want to concentrate on a brand? Or do I want to concentrate on both? I decided to concentrate on the factory and the customers. That’s what we are investing in and creating. Right now, we are just starting out doing private labels. So, people can come to us and say they want a cigar, and we’ll do everything to create the product. In the future, when more orders start coming in and the factory starts flowing and everything is moving along nicely – then we might start to think about doing our own brand. Besides just creating a brand you also have to spend a lot of money for it and travel a lot. If I’m going to be traveling two or three times a week, who is going to be taking care of the factory here? So, the factory and customers are our main focus.
CP – You only have so many hands.
HF – Plus going back to what I said earlier, I’m a factory guy. We have a lot to do here still. Being that we’re in a mini boom right now, you can’t find cigar teams right now. Finding cigar makers in Santiago is tough at the moment. I’m not talking about finding fifty teams of cigar makers, I’m trying to find four or five teams at a time and even that’s tough. Right now, we’re in the process of making cigars, but we also have to be on top of every area of the factory. We have a main supervisor working with us and helping. Every factory needs a main supervisor on the floor. He’s my tobacco guy as well. He does bunching, he’s also a roller, he helps with the blends, he knows how to smoke, he knows how to classify tobacco, he knows the whole process. But that doesn’t mean you can leave and let them do the work…this is a team sport here; everyone has their thing to do, and you always have to try to be on top of everything. This is a great example of why it would be so difficult to have my own brand at the moment. My little office is barely used because you have to be on the factory floor most of the time getting shit done.
CP – How many different blends have you been working with now at the factory?
HF – We’ve done ten to fifteen things that we like. We made about 100 cigars of each, just to see how they’re aging, how they’re progressing. We already have a couple orders thank God. . None of the current blends we have done have been for a future possible brand…they are all options for our customers. I don’t want to keep anything for myself at the moment just to have.
CP – Where in Santiago is your factory located?
HF – In the Industrial Park Zona Franca Gurabo, near Camp David. One of the decisions that I made was to open a cigar factory inside of a Free Zone. If you really want to try to make a big, legit cigar company you really need to be in the Free Zone. All of the big suppliers of tobacco, cigar bands, boxes are in the Free Zones. I would be selling my customers more expensive cigars than they are used to if we weren’t here. I’m selling to everybody; from big companies to small. There are a couple of cigar companies that make cigars exclusively in Nicaragua and they were always looking for a factory in the Dominican. They saw what I was doing and thought it may be a good idea for us to work together. If I’m able to make a cigar for a hot brand or known company, big or small, then people might think, wow, there is something interesting going on at La Isla. Smaller companies, more so, who don’t have their own factory have also either started working with us or shown much interest in doing so. It was more expensive and complicated for us to create the company this way, but it was necessary for the long run.
CP – How big is the factory itself?
HF – Fourteen hundred square feet. It’s huge for what we needed to start with. That was the other mindset. I didn’t want to rent a small space and then be blessed with growth to then have to think about moving to a bigger space. We have enough space to put 50 tables of cigar makers here. We only have five at the moment and we’re working on adding 5 more tables. We are still very small, but we have the space to grow. I’ve always wanted to start off doing everything correctly with the mindset of growth. I didn’t want to drive myself crazy with space not being big enough to get things done in a bigger capacity if needed. If we can ever fill this current space to capacity, we will not be complaining about anything
CP – When can people start to experience cigars from your factory?
HF – We are making cigars that will hopefully ship out mid-July. Of course, the toughest part of this business is that you have to age cigars once you make them. You can’t ship product out the door right away. It’s a beautiful process but time consuming as well. It’s really tough for me to say when our cigars are going to be in the market since they aren’t my brands. I respect the customer’s privacy so I can’t say a word about what I’m making and when it will be released until I’m given permission. When I announce something it’ll be because that person said I could. I don’t want to make anyone mad by jumping the gun on their product. But once I get the ok I’ll promote on my social media or whatever else. It helps me too.
CP – What are your minimum orders in order for people to work with you?
HF – We are building a bespoke in-house computer program here so things are as clear as possible. We are building it from the ground up to be able to control all aspects of the factory from the start of the process to the end of it. We also handle an important part of the process which is our costs of producing great quality cigars. If someone needs a cigar at a certain price, I can put tobaccos and everything else into the program, even from my phone and boom I get a cost right here. Minimums though, is at least 5000 cigars to start off. With that I can price them out in a way that works for both the customer and myself.
CP – What’s your experience with the farming aspect of the business?
HF – I’ve always been asked about the tobacco farms. I never dealt directly with the farms themselves. I know and understand the process, but it was never really my thing. We like procuring good, processed tobacco and creating great things with it in the factory.
CP – Will you be processing your own tobacco at Tabacalera La Isla?
HF – I am not doing fermentation or processing in general, none of that. I buy the tobacco ready to go, then I classify it to what we believe is the correct way. If you get a bale of ligero it doesn’t mean that it’s all going to be ligero. You’ll find some viso or others. So, we sort it all out and prepare it accordingly to make cigars with. We work with the best suppliers of tobacco the country has to offer and trust them because they have been doing this for years.
CP – People must be just as excited to work with you as you are them.
HF – The more the people who know you the easier it can be. I’m thankful for, and one of the reasons I started the factory is because I was lucky enough to already have a foot in the door of the cigar industry. We’re all friends, we’ve worked together for years and developed a trust between each other. I’m working very hard not to lose that. I’ve always been told by people I’ve worked with, and I’m very thankful they think that way, is that I’m easy to work with and that’s what I’m trying to promote here at Tabacalera La Isla as well. But people have known me through Quesada and Cigar Rings only, so it’s very important for me to maintain that trust by making great cigars and getting them done correctly at our own place. I’m risking everything here, so we are not playing around either. Our main goal is to make great products here….at the end of the day it’s all we can do to grow; I even sold my car and got a cheaper one just to put more money into the factory. It’s a car, who gives a shit, I just need this company to work and make high quality products. Thankfully I’m at an age where I can pivot if something doesn’t work. I’m also completely content to be the guy behind the scenes. I don’t care about just being the new “cigar guy” in the biz and having the spotlight on me… much less call myself a “Master Blender” …that connotation is reserved for few people in this biz and I don’t consider myself even close to them… so I respect the hell out of using that description. I want the cigar company called Tabacalera La Isla to be the one in the spotlight. My main focus at the moment is with our customers and making them happy for deciding to work with us. If we can make a lot of cigars behind the scenes while our customers are happy and they feel we took care of maintaining the quality of the brands that they have worked so hard for then we will be happy with the work we are doing. Making cigars is what makes us happy, and we want to make them as much as possible while never forgetting about our style of working. Which is doing the work the right way while also making the process as smooth as we can with no complications, no corporate suits bothering us and deciding things as a team. You come down here to work with us we’ll make blends together, smoke a lot of cigars, drink a lot coffee and make things happen and if we have some extra time on our hands….. maybe to go to the beach and see the beauty that our little Isla provides while smoking a great cigar.