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
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
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
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
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,