About the Owner (by Afficinado Magazine)
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In April 2004, the San Diego city council and its redevelopment agency used their powers of eminent domain to 'condemn' our thriving downtown family business. Please take a moment to learn our story and send us your feedback on this issue. Thank you for your support.

At a recent International Cigar Exposition in Las Vegas I met Ahmad Mesdaq, an earnest young man originally from Afghanistan. We found a relatively quiet comer in the lobby coffee shop and while we puffed on his cigars he told me about himself and his cigar factory. Afghanistan is usually associated with pipe smoking and I was surprised to learn that he had been smoking cigars for quite some time. A graduate of San Diego State University in Electrical Engineering Ahmad found that his chosen field would not support him. He elected to open a small bar and restaurant. During that time an old friend from Cuba showed him the art of making cigars and he used this knowledge to promote his restaurant. He struggled with this new found career for almost two years before he got a break. The New York Times and some local newspapers discovered his cigar factory, wrote him up and he was on his way. The secret recipe and blending techniques from his Cuban friend have helped produce a cigar with a distinctive quality and flavor.

Ahmad is a man who, by virtue of his culture and inherent good sense, does not dismiss advice from people because of their age or any other reason. He listens to everybody and therein lies one of the factors for his success. He is, himself, a rather complex and creditable young man. He enjoys a fine cigar and a good cup of coffee. He doesn't drink alcohol but respects the rights of others to pursue their own pleasures.

Taking the bull by the horns he took his savings, some $150,000 and invested it in his dream. He is now receiving phone calls from Holland, Germany and all over the U.S. ordering his cigars as 90% of his business is mail order. His present retail operation is just for people who are not familiar with his brand. The cigar factory hosts these customers with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and one of his cigars. As Ahmad says, "if they are happy with the cigar they can always buy a box of them!"

The cigars, rolled in San Diego, are showcased everyday except Sunday and Monday. These presentations attract a great deal of media attention and goes a long way towards educating the people on the cigar making process. "They think the wrapper is brown paper! Once they see it is all pure tobacco, no additives, no chemicals, they are more encouraged to smoke and buy cigars. It has turned out to be a million dollar business," he beams proudly.

Ahmad prefers to target the true cigar smoker. People who want to sit down after a meal and enjoy a cigar that is a quality product. He offers cigars from a 32 ring size all the way to a 54 ring. He also offers two cigars that are aged and cured in cognac. The prices are reasonable. Of all the businesses in Old Town San Diego, the New York Times chose to highlight Gran Havana Cigar Factory. That issue came out on a Sunday and by evening they had sold out their cigars!

Seven rollers, a combination of Cuban and Dominican artisans make up the present staff. Each cigar roller is assigned to a certain cigar. If a customer is not satisfied, we simply ask them why It never happens twice. "Because we pay such good wages they are very careful. We do not make our cigar rollers roll 500-600 cigars. We believe if we have them roll such a high amount, the quality won't be consistent." The cigars are Dominican filler, Ecuadorian
wrapper and sometimes Sumatra wrappers, which give a pleasant aromatic aroma and flavor. Their aim is to produce a flavorful and aromatic cigar definitely not harsh or strong. Ten to fifteen boxes are stored in the walk-in humidor and they keep 50,000 to 60,000 cigars in their inventory.

Ahmad is not experiencing any tobacco shortage at the present because, as he says, "I am not afraid to invest $100,000 to $200,000 in tobacco. I don't buy green tobacco, only cured." He does not use tobacco from Brazil, Costa Rica, Argentina or Venezuela because the farmers in those areas just recently converted from coffee to tobacco growing.

The tobacco used is aged six months before production and three months after rolling. The
humidification process is a carefully guarded secret as is the blending, which Ahmad does himself every morning. Although there is a great deal of piracy currently in the industry Ahmad feels that his loyal employees will stand by him.

As we talked and smoked, our discussion touched upon the number of bad cigars being palmed off on the smoking public. "They, the public, are not fools and they have the patience to ferret out the good products." The purchase of cigars from the "mythical factories" in Mexico, Miami and the Dominican Republic are quickly recognized for the frauds they are. Ahmad feels that more control should be exercised by the organizers of cigar conventions and shows to weed out those questionable and marginal "factories."

The Gran Havana Cigar Factory does its distribution without intermediaries allowing them to maintain reasonable prices. They also do not sell more than five boxes to an individual (to keep from competing with their retailers). They have their own staff of sales people and cigars are shipped directly to the stores, bars and restaurants.

A growing concern in the industry is the humidification of the cigars in many of the new locations. Ahmad maintains that their education program is helpful in this regard and if the salesmen find that the stores are being careless, then they discontinue distribution to them. "We take a lot of pride in our work. Our cigar can be returned for any reason and we will make sure you are satisfied."

A refined, but outspoken person, Ahmad has opinions on all cigar related subjects. Although he came from a Communist country he does not believe that Cuban cigars are what they used to be. The Cuban economy, devastated by the U.S. embargo, caused the Cubans to spray their tobacco with pesticides in order to save the crops. He is disappointed with the current product. By contrast, tobacco coming into the U.S. is checked and marked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for excessive use of pesticides and other pesticides that are illegal in the U.S. His cigars, made from Dominican, Honduran ' Nicaraguan or Ecuadorian tobacco would be dumped in the ocean if the shipment contained DDT.

The anti-smoking lobby holds no concerns for him. Quoting his father's favorite axiom, "the best action is inaction," he dismisses the furor. "Cigars are pure and natural. It is not addictive because you don't inhale. Anti-smoking? I am not worried about it. It will attract more customers."

Not what I would call a shy person, Ahmad displayed a touch of humility when he recounted the admiration of his younger customers over his own youth and success. In truth, he has come a long way in his sometimes harrowing road to the fruition of his dream. Circumventing the back-stabbing, lies, cheating he has experienced in the industry he sometimes feels "he can't even trust himself!". In one instance he recounts he bought some tobacco in the Dominican Republic and when it arrived it was a completely different tobacco. He had to discard it, losing his $10,000 investment. Marking this experience down to youth and naivete, he now sends his employees to seminars paying all their expenses. "I check on them to make sure they are taking notes. it is nice for them to be educated and familiar with the industry."

The reason behind this is based on the observation that the current cigar smokers are, by and large, more educated and want value for their money. They quickly spot someone who is not very knowledgeable in the humidor or conversely not very helpful. The new smoker wants to be taken seriously and demands $5.00 worth of cigar for his $5.00. Consistency, honesty and respect are the by-words in servicing cigar patrons. A traditional approach, to be sure, but one more businesses should be emulating.

The future looks good for the cigar industry and Ahmad expects to be part of that future. Gran Havana Cigar Factory, 560 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, California 92101, 1-800-427-0776.

-By Afficinado Magazine

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745 4th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101
Email: gran_havana@yahoo.com
Telephone: (800) 427-0776
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