August 24 , 2007

Cuban 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 a chavetta.

"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 tobacco.

"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 Outlet.

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 Shapiro said.

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 to work.

"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 Shapiro said.

A director filming a movie in Stamford recently sent someone in to purchase 75 cigars when he found out about Hernandez, Shapiro said.

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 evenings.

"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 boat.

"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," Apotheker said.

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 said.

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."


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