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The Legendary Carlos Fuente Sr.

Shane K. K's picture

Shane K.

You’ll find the kindest words on legendary cigar-maker Carlos Fuente Sr. when his many family, friends, and colleagues in the premium cigar industry recall their memories of him. His entire life was spent in tobacco and those closest to him stood in awe of his work ethic until his last days. He passed away in August of 2016 at the age of 81 after a battle with stomach cancer. The company he took over from his father, Arturo, in 1958 began as a modest operation in the family home, but today produces well over 30 million premium handmade cigars annually. The legacy of Carlos Fuente Sr. is one of sheer will, resilience, and, above all, a relentless love for tobacco. Let’s look at the titanic reputation of one of the world’s greatest cigar-makers.

The First Arturo Fuente Cigars

In 1912, Arturo Fuente established A. Fuente & Co. with business partners in Ybor City, Florida, which, today, is a neighborhood in Tampa. The company thrived for twelve years, swelling to a successful 500-employee operation until a fire in 1924 burnt the cigar factory to the ground. For the next decade and a half, Arturo made ends meet working for other cigar-makers, not wanting to revive the brand that bore his name unless he could manage it as a strictly family-owned enterprise. The Fuentes would not make their own cigars again until the 1940s when Arturo’s son, Carlos, and his siblings were required to roll 50 cigars per day after school. The fledgling cigar factory was operated out of the family home where furniture was temporarily relocated outside every day to make room for making more cigars as the local audience for Arturo Fuente cigars grew. It operated as a cash-only business at first, and Arturo was only interested in making enough cigars to earn a living.   

Throughout his youth Carlos Sr. worked seven days a week, often multiple jobs, from delivering papers to working in a pharmacy to working as a baker, all while rolling cigars alongside his family members every spare moment they had. It was feared he would never walk again after contracting polio at age 11, but he regained his strength and willed himself to mobilize. It was just one of many challenges that forever influenced his drive.

The Tobacco Man Takes Over

In 1958, when the average annual income in America was roughly $3,600, Arturo Fuente sold A. Fuente & Co. to his son, Carlos, for one dollar. The company had just over $1,100 in assets and no debt. Carlos Fuente Sr. paid himself a meager wage of $40 per week as he sought to compete in an increasingly mechanized cigar-making industry in America. Many cigar rollers who worked for the Fuentes in Tampa would move on to other occupations once they learned English. Carlos Sr. knew that to stay in business the company would have to automate or go abroad. He took the latter route, first in Nicaragua and later in Honduras, but both gambles eventually went up in flames. Sandinista uprisings forced the Fuentes from Nicaragua, while a fire took down their operations in Honduras.

Reviving a Brand in the Dominican Republic

In 1980, as a last-ditch effort, Carlos Sr. mortgaged his home, cashed in his retirement, and decided to try his luck restoring his brand by making cigars in the Dominican Republic (DR).

Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia first opened its doors in 1980 with about seven workers. Carlos Sr.’s 26-year-old son, Carlito, was instrumental in establishing the family’s Dominican operations, but it was no picnic. Civil unrest in the DR was prevalent in the early 1980s. Luckily, tensions didn’t spiral out of control as badly as in Nicaragua, and the Fuentes persisted. For more than seven years, the family lived in a tiny home with no electricity, air conditioning, or telephone. Carlos Sr. and Carlito were impossibly determined. Decades after they had proven they could be successful, Carlos Sr. continued to drive the 1980 Datsun he crammed his family in, as well as bales of tobacco, as a reminder of the company’s humble beginnings and the struggles they faced.

Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia is a far cry from a small enterprise today, but the Fuente family is well-connected to its modest roots because Carlos Sr. never forgot them. His success embodies the American dream, but hard work, business smarts, and a passion for tobacco has had more to do with their achievements than luck. Carlos Sr. stuck every dime of profit back into the business by buying as much of the best tobacco as he could afford. His goal was never to make the most cigars, only the best. And, he understood early on that having large reserves of tobacco was the only way to make the best cigars consistently and on a growing scale.

The Fuentes’ investment in the Dominican Republic came full circle with the debut of Fuente Fuente Opus X cigars – a venture that cost millions of dollars and over five years to develop, but paid off handsomely, thanks to the persistence of Carlos Sr.’s son, Carlito. Fuente Fuente Opus X is the first Dominican Puro and has been among the most sought-after cigars in the world since its premiere in 1995. Its binder, filler, and wrapper tobaccos are grown exclusively on the Fuente family’s now famous Dominican estates, Chateau de la Fuente.  

Fuente Classics

To best understand Carlos Fuente Sr.’s influence, smoke his cigars. Arturo Fuente cigars have received dozens of the industry’s highest critical accolades, including two ‘#1 Cigar of the Year’ titles in Cigar Aficionado, for Fuente Fuente Opus X in 2005 and Don Carlos Eye of the Shark in 2017. Accessible classics like Arturo Fuente Hemingway and the original Don Carlos lines have been the highest-quality, bestselling Cameroon-wrapped cigars in the world for over thirty years. Cigar lovers adore the brand for its signature Dominican spices and luscious, well-aged taste. Arturo Fuente Chateau Series, Gran Reserva, and Seleccion d’Oro round out the foundation in the Fuente family’s iconic portfolio.

Several ultra-rare cigars like Arturo Fuente Anejo, Hemingway Maduro, Magnum R, and limited edition Opus X shapes can be found sporadically and at select Fuente events for purchase. Collectors travel far to get their hands on Fuente’s finest because they know there is no comparison, and they sell out fast. The quality and sheer volume of cigars the Fuentes make is hard to comprehend, but their taste is unmistakable.

From the Ashes

Even as the Fuente brand matured into a global sensation from the late 1980s through the Cigar Boom of the 1990s, challenges tested the Fuentes’ resolve. Following the much anticipated debut of Fuente Fuente Opus X cigars in 1995, the Mondavi and Rothschild families, makers of Opus One wine, sued the Fuentes for trademark infringement over the use Opus in their cigar’s name. It was Carlos Sr. who insisted on defending the Fuente family name in the face of those whom he felt were trying to take his company away. The lawsuit cost the Fuentes $2 million in legal fees and years in the courts, but ultimately, they prevailed. Today, Opus X cigars can be found in select Fuente retailers around the world. 

In 1998, Hurricane George tore through Dominican Republic and wiped out several barns where the Fuentes were storing precious reserves of Opus X tobacco. Again, the family pivoted and created an entirely new cigar – Arturo Fuente Anejo – to tide consumers over until Opus production recovered. Anejo is a much sought-after classic now. The Fuentes have proven they handle adversity in one way: with conviction.  

More Than One Brand

As Carlos Sr. and Carlito steadily built up their business, they were shrewd to produce a handful of other brands, namely Ashton, which they’ve been making for over 35 years. Even throughout the boom of the 1990s when demand for premium cigars soared, Carlos Sr. understood that producing other brands represented a long-term strategy for keeping the rollers in his factory consistently busy. If tobacco for a particular Fuente blend was in short supply, the Fuentes’ rollers have always had plenty of cigars to make. Diversifying their production has also afforded the Fuentes the opportunity to blend an entirely separate portfolio of premium cigars that mirrors the popularity and prestige of their own brands with top-rated bestsellers like Ashton Classic, Ashton VSG, Ashton ESG, and more. 

Passing the Torch

It’s impossible to pay homage to Carlos Fuente Sr. without acknowledging the prominent role his family has played in the company’s success. His son, Carlito Fuente, is an equally legendary cigar-maker in his own right. He has been the public face of Arturo Fuente cigars for decades and is the company’s driving force. He began at his father’s side and worked intimately with him until the end. Carlito’s sister, Cynthia Fuente, shares much of the spotlight, traveling to meet with retailers and cigar lovers around the world. Today, their children play an active role in the family business.

The Fuentes have uplifted impoverished Dominican families with their Cigar Family Charitable Foundation (CFCF) – an organization dedicated to providing essential humanitarian resources to those in the DR’s Bonao region, where many Fuente cigars are made. The CFCF’s initiatives focus on providing access to clean drinking water, healthcare, education, and healthy, organic food to an entire community whose once dire circumstances have been completely reversed.  

The spirit of giving back is alive and well in the Fuente family’s philosophy as the next generation sets the pace for this historic company. Remember that the next time you smoke an Arturo Fuente cigar, and raise a toast to the legendary Carlos Fuente Sr.

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