3 Days in the White House
DISPATCHES FROM ESTELI, NICARAGUA, WITH FRIDAY ELLIS PROPRIETOR OF GOVERNORS CIGAR AND PIPE
article by Michael DeVault
Heavy gray clouds hang over the dark, volcanic soil of a freshly tilled field that lies on one side of a long dirt road. A gentle breeze ruffles the leaves of young tobacco plants along the opposite side of the road, and periodically, a young boy walking with his grandfather turns to spy the group of interlopers, trying to figure out why this group of Americans is so interested in piles of wet dirt.
The group of eight men and one woman have traveled more than 1,200 miles to learn more about the vast tobacco operations of the AJ Fernandez Cigar Factory, a relative newcomer that has been taking the cigar world by storm since its beginnings as a producer of premium cigars for other labels. For the nine people on that road, this trip represents the moment of a lifetime, standing quite literally at the place where their passions begin. Yet, as the boy noticed passing, they’re not interested in the tobacco leaves. They’re more intent on learning about the dirt.
“It was interesting,” recalls Friday Ellis. “Here we are in this beautiful place, surrounded by this culture, and they’re working this rich, dark, almost black soil. And that’s what we were interested in. Because agriculture is in our roots here.” Ellis is the proprietor of Governors Cigar and Pipe, a Monroe tobacconist that specializes in premium cigars and pipe tobaccos. This trip is the result of Ellis’s efforts to arrange just such a visit for some of his regular customers. “The workers, our guide, everyone understood we weren’t just some dudes in town for partying, that we really were interested in what they were doing and why, and it showed.”
This moment between the fields isn’t the first time the Governors crew has gotten “hands on” during the trip. Earlier in the day, while visiting another section of the massive Fernandez plantation, the group was observing workers picking and loading Secco, a part of the tobacco leaf primarily used as filler to improve aroma and burn. “Instead of just standing there and listening, everybody jumped in and were helping load the trucks,” says Ellis. “They wanted to be hands on.”
If “hands on” is what these visitors wanted when they got onto the plane, they’ve definitely come to the right place. In Esteli, virtually everything is done by hand.
A Family Tradition
The cigar industry is business steeped in traditions and family legacies, owing in equal parts to the vast natural resources required to produce tobacco and the closely guarded techniques of cigar production that tend to get passed down from generation to generation within the same family.
At just 36 years old, A.J. Fernandez is a newcomer, an outlier of sorts, in an industry that has a history of being quite hostile to outsiders and newcomers. Yet, here he sits, at the head of a table in the White House, the guesthouse in which the company entertains visiting cigar aficionados and business associates. He’s been here for a half hour or so, having arrived after working a 13-hour day in his factory.
“You could tell he had the stress of unfinished business still on his mind,” says Dustin James, a Monroe realtor who made the trip. Yet, as Fernandez discusses cigars with the men, he moves from casual conversation and a pop-in to full out camping mode. A quick phone call to the factory and, almost like magic, a box of cigars appears. This cigar, Fernandez tells them, isn’t on the market yet. In fact, it hasn’t even been finished.
“A.J. begins to talk about a new blend and makes a quick call to the plant manager, and voila, we are smoking a cigar that has not been released yet,” says Darren Gomez, another visitor in the Governors gang. “This is surreal, even to me, and I am taken aback by the whole situation.”
They enjoy the new blend for a few moments and, in his characteristically calm manner, Fernandez begins to solicit input on Enclave, a cigar blend that A.J. Fernandez Cigars intends to release later this year. Ellis underscores the importance of this moment. “This is a brand new cigar that no one here has tried before,” Ellis says. “And he’s asking for our opinions on it. We found out later he tweaked the blend because of our feedback.”
For Ellis, this is one of many defining moments of the trip. After all, Governors is a relative newcomer to the world of cigars, and several of the men on this trip are new to the cigar world, too. Yet, they are speaking with knowledge, with depth and with an astute understanding of cigar craft. And they’re speaking to one of the men responsible for the cigar explosion. Ellis beams with pride. “That’s my goal as a tobacconist, and in that moment, I was so proud of their knowledge,” Ellis says.
Just ten years after getting started, Fernandez is a giant in the cigar world. Even more so in the village of Esteli, where his company is one of the largest employers, funds a school for employees’ children and even financed the construction of a hospital for workers and their families. In other words, Fernandez and his company aren’t just about selling cigars to Americans. They’re about living life, earning an honest living and enjoying the fruits of their labor, all traits the visitors from Louisiana have in common with the people of Esteli, where agriculture plays a large role in driving the economy. As the men at the table will quickly learn, though, agriculture isn’t their only commonality.
“Our southern manners soon kicked in and before long we were discussing Tom Brady and the Seattle Sea Chickens,” James says. During the conversation, as Fernandez extols the virtues of all things Brady, one of the men introduce a new player—Drew Brees. Suddenly, Fernandez’s position softens somewhat. This is, after all, the weekend before the Super Bowl.
Governors regular Darren Gomez is surprised, too.
“With as much enthusiasm and passion as he showed about his cigars, here we are debating who the best quarterback is in the league. His choice is, of course, Tom Brady and my choice is Drew Brees! He has some pointed opinions about several quarterbacks, has some harsh words about Peyton Manning being overrated and ultimately ends the conversation with Tom Brady being the best.”
It’s a position Fernandez will maintain through Super Bowl Sunday, at which point he’s willing to go a little bit further. “He is a class act on and off the field,” Fernandez tells BayouLife. “No one works harder than Brady at perfecting his craft, and his awesome work ethic is unparalleled. With four Super Bowl titles under his watch, he will be noted as one of, if not the greatest of all time.”
Not faint praise from a man who many in the cigar industry argue is, perhaps, one of the greatest tobacco entrepreneurs of his generation. In all fairness, he comes by the skills honestly. His grandfather was the founder of the famed Cuban brand San Lotano, a name Fernandez has reestablished with tobacco blends rolled from his own fields in Nicaragua, underscoring yet again the deep traditional roots of cigar culture.
Better Than They Found It
Today, Ellis is on a mission. The men he’s brought to Nicaragua with him are here because he’s wanting to establish a beachhead in the drive to foster an appreciation for fine cigars back home in Monroe. This trip to Esteli is part of that drive.
“What we’re trying to do is to create a cigar culture, to let people know there is a difference between a cigarette and a cigar,” Ellis explains. He produces a San Lotano cigar, its Habano wrapper still slick with tobacco oils. The cigar’s label proclaims “Hand rolled,” though such a proclamation is hardly warranted. Cigar making is an art, and everyone involved in their creation are artisans of the highest degree, individuals who value progress and quality.
“Even in the empty barns where they hang the tobacco, workers are inside, sweeping dirt floors,” Ellis says. It’s hard work, to be fair, but the jobs are valued both by the company and those who fill them. And, A.J. Fernandez Cigars promises something few in rural Nicaragua can hope for: upward mobility.
“These are jobs these people aspire to,” says Ellis. Walking among the workers on the rolling floor—the vast expanse of a building where the highest skilled workers sit for hours a day rolling each cigar—Ellis sees individuals in teams of two working filler and rolling wrappers, box-pressing finished cigars in the New World line or putting green and gold rings on San Lotano Connecticuts.
“Some of the best teams are husbands and wives, brothers, cousins,” Ellis says. “Family members make the best teams.”
During the visit, the Governors gang gets a few moments to visit with people in the village. They meet a team of workers preparing a site for a Habitat for Humanity house. Donations ensue. Shortly, they’re en route to a boot maker, a man their driver informs them is famous throughout Nicaragua not only for the quality of his boots, but also because he makes orthopedic footwear for children. “After he made our boots, we tipped him generously and explained we appreciated his work. The money was just our small contribution to his mission for the children,” Ellis says.
Quickly, the visitors begin to formulate ways in which they can help. They take up a collection for the Habitat crew and one for the boot maker. They even have plans to continue pitching in from back home. Esteli has changed them, and they want to be some small part in the transformation of Esteli. Hours before the Governors Cigar and Pipe group was set to leave, their driver, Marco, insisted on taking them to a particular spot. Exhausted from long days in the field and touring the region, they protested, but Marco insisted. The visitors relented.
“We pulled ourselves together and got back into the van for the 30 minute ride up the mountain,” Ellis says. “We drove up to this small, overgrown park area in a natural reserve.” Out of the van, they think they were close to the end of the journey, but Marco explains they still have to hike for five minutes or so up the mountain. Tired, travel weary, the group relents. “Our expectations aren’t very high,” Ellis says, “but what a surprise.”
They found themselves standing on a precipice, high above the valley. Below them, the tobacco fields spread out below them. In the distance, a setting sun illuminates the scene. “For a moment, we all stood there, able to take in life and God’s beautiful creation,” Ellis says. Nearby, Marco is smiling. “I’ll remember this moment and how proud Marco is of his country. We’re truly blessed that he shared it with us!”
Back stateside, the men are still assessing their trip, taking stock of the experiences they’ve shared and the things they’ve learned. At the heart of it, though, Ellis is hopeful that they’ve left as large a mark on Esteli as it has left on them. “We walked away and we felt like, on some small part, we made a difference and, hopefully, we left it better than we found it,” says Ellis.
Friday Ellis and his wife, Ashley, took seven men to Esteli, Nicaragua. In addition to Dustin James and Darren Gomez, also making the trip were Scott Bonner, Dr. John Harris, Cameron Myers, Chad Brooks and Cade Reynolds.