cigar artisan does brisk business in Norwalk
By James Lomuscio, The
Advocate. August 21, 2007.
He sits diligently at a wooden work bench
by the door, his hands busy, his eyes content.
In front of him is the day's work so far
- small bundles of more than 50 Robustos,
Churchills, Coronas and double Coronas.
Alberto Hernandez reaches into a bag to
pull out a moist brown leaf of Nicaraguan
tobacco. He stretches and kneads the pliable
frond, cutting off sections he doesn't need
with a small, half-moon shaped blade called
"I brought this with me from Cuba,"
Hernandez, 65, said at the Cigar Factory
Outlet on Hanford Place in Norwalk, Conn.,
where he's taken center stage. "I've
had it for 10 years."
For smokers who buy boxes of premium cigars
hand-rolled in other countries, Hernandez
has sent up smoke signals. Since he began
his job last month, demand for his product
has been high.
"Unfortunately, we haven't been able
to build up enough inventory because as
soon as he rolls 200 cigars, we sell 150
immediately," Walter Amador, general
manager at Cigar Factory Outlet, said of
the cigars that sell for $7 to $8.50 each.
Sometimes Hernandez rolls 100 cigars a
day, a huge output. But it is second nature
to Hernandez, who grew up in Cabaigaun,
Cuba, a region known for rich soil and quality
"When you live in Cuba, it's very
common when you visit someone's house for
them to hand you some tobacco and say, 'You
roll a couple of cigars while I go make
coffee,' " he said through an interpreter.
For 45 years, Hernandez worked as a roller
at the Partagas factory in Havana, which
he left 14 years ago, and at a factory in
the Dominican Republic, where he remained
until six months ago when he immigrated
to New York City.
It was there that he saw an advertisement
for a cigar roller posted in the Spanish
newspaper La Prensa. Amador took out the
ad at the request of Ronald and Brian Shapiro,
the father-and-son owners of the Cigar Factory
Of the three rollers who replied to the
ad, Hernandez impressed the Shapiros the
most. He was interviewed by representatives
of the Oliva Cigar Family, which provides
Cigar Factory Outlet with bales of the 3-year-old
Nicaraguan tobacco Hernandez uses.
"After they had him interviewed, they
said this was the roller for us," Ronald
A month ago, the Shapiros set up Hernandez,
much like a corporate transferee, in a Norwalk
apartment along a bus route so he can get
"He's all legal and has his Social
Security card," Ronald Shapiro said.
"He has hands of gold. He even built
the bench he works on. I took him to Home
Depot to buy the wood and tools I never
heard of, and he built it in a day."
Why such effort to hire a roller when cigar
smokers can buy boxes of hand-rolled ones
at the store?
"There's a fascination about someone
of his caliber rolling cigars, so it brings
in a lot of additional traffic," Ronald
A director filming a movie in Stamford
recently sent someone in to purchase 75
cigars when he found out about Hernandez,
Hernandez' presence has been a boon to
Club Perfecto, a 125-member cigar club that
meets at the Cigar Factory Outlet to buy
cigars, share drinks and play poker on Thursday
"We're talking about a lifestyle with
cigars," Brian Shapiro said. "People
come in here to relax."
The cigar boom of the mid-1990s has leveled
off, and only serious cigar smokers remain,
Brian Shapiro said.
"It's a quiet boom going on now,"
he said. "Now it's people who appreciate
cigars as a lifestyle."
Cigar club member Richard Gionfrideo of
Greenwich said he smokes there and on his
"It's more for the camaraderie,"
Gionfrideo said as he sits down for a night
of poker. "It's about getting together
with the guys."
Allan Apotheker, an insurance broker from
Fairfield who works in Westchester County,
N.Y., said Norwalk is a good meeting ground.
"I come here because I want to stop
off on the way home, have a cigar and relax,"
Brian Shapiro said anti-smoking laws have
been a boon for cigar clubs because they
provide rare havens for smokers. Hernandez
adds to the atmosphere, allowing cigar smokers
to see the quality of craftsmanship for
"one of the few items left in the world
that are completely handmade," Shapiro
Health concerns about tobacco are antithetical
to how Hernandez views the world.
"Where I'm from in Cabaiguan, most
people live to over 95," Hernandez
said. "It's because there you get up
in the morning and you smoke quality tobacco,
you drink between 10 to 15 cups of coffee
a day, you drink whiskey and you make love
five times a week."