Twists of fate led immigrant to boutique cigar business
In a little room in the back of Hain's Cigar and Pipe Shop on South George Street in York, Jesus Castanon sits at a folding table with a small pile of tobacco leaves on it.
As the Cuban immigrant talks, he pulls apart the leaves.
With careful snags and tears, he lines up the tobacco leaves to create what he calls the bundle. He moves slowly. Methodically. With a purpose. He feels with his fingers to ensure there are no holes in the bundle and that none of the leaves are twisted.
He stops to take a puff off his cigar — a Brazilian mix he had been saving for a year.
"Destiny works in ways we don't understand," Castañón said. "Why I am here was predetermined for me."
In a little more than a dozen years, Castañón has built a growing boutique cigar empire. He maintains a manufacturing center in the Dominican Republic to handle production that he, his wife and other family can't handle themselves.
But the thing that sets the 41-year-old and his brand, J. Castañón Cigars, apart is quality over quantity.
Many big-name cigar makers use machines to make most of the cigar and a person puts the final wrapper on it, letting them legally call it "hand rolled."
Not for Castañón. It's "hecho totalmente a mano" (totally made by hand). His product is sold at local tobacco shops, country clubs and similar businesses, and there are plans to grow the experience (see "Growing the experience," this page) for those who love quality cigars.
But, as he talks about destiny, he notes Central Pennsylvania's deep roots in the country's first cash crop.
"To me, I want to bring back and revitalize the name this area had in the tobacco industry," he said. "I've been very welcomed here and it's a chance to give back, to give people a chance to enjoy something that was made here again."
'Word of mouth'
After coming to the United States, Castañón and his wife, Xenia Hernandez, were hired to hand-roll cigars for the now closed Demuth Tobacco shop in Lancaster. That led to connections that let Castañón buy Hain's in York.
As his hand-rolling fame grew, he began to distribute his cigars locally. Sometimes, he would knock on doors at local tobacco shops. Other times, they sought him out.
"Sometimes they get in touch with me because their customers asked for it," he said. "It's all about the marketing. The best has been word of mouth."
Today, there are 18 retailers that stretch across the midstate and beyond to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
To win over a new retailer, Castañón first asks the shop owner if he may do a live-rolling demonstration for the shop's customers. The goal is to let the customers offer feedback, making the decision to carry the cigars easier for the retailer to make.
One of his best customers is the Lancaster Country Club on New Holland Pike. In an average week, Elvin Bradley, one of the country club's bar managers, said he sells two or more bundles, which have 25 cigars each. Each cigar goes for $10.
"All I sell here is just his cigars," Bradley said. "It's hard to find a good hand-rolled cigar that's not been touched by a machine at a reasonable price."
The most popular cigar is the Mareba — which means "chief of the tribe." The cigar is made of Brazilian tobacco and placed in a Brazilian Maduro wrapper. While Castañón and his family still roll some of these themselves, many are made at the manufacturing center — he calls it the "studio" — in Sosua, Dominican Republic. They are imported through his company, Trans Heritage Tobacco.
And almost all the cigar rollers in the studio come from the Cohiba Cigar factory in Havana, Cuba, where Castañón and his wife met as they learned the craft.
Growing the experience
While much of the tobacco used in Jesus Castañón's cigars comes from Brazil, he plans to make things more domestic.
At one time, Castañón notes, tobacco farming was big business in the region.
In 1860, Lancaster County alone produced about 6 million pounds of tobacco, said Wendell Zercher, curator at LancasterHistory.org, the county's historical society. By 1882, that amount had grown to 14 million pounds.
In 2012, all of Pennsylvania's tobacco growers produced 22.98 million pounds, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
A great many people were involved in growing tobacco in Lancaster County, Zercher said. At one point, almost every farm grew the cash crop, though certainly not all.
"My grandfather decided not to," Zercher said. "He had a moral conscience against it."
Castañón hopes to bring Lancaster back to prominence in the tobacco industry, but from a more traditional perspective.
He said he had made friends with some of the Amish tobacco farmers and had an agreement to use a few acres to grow tobacco from seeds his mother brought him last year from Cuba. Using Cuban methods, the plants would be maintained by his father-in-law's family, who were tobacco farmers in Cuba. The plan is to organize bus trips for cigar enthusiasts to visit the fields and speak with the farmers.
And, perhaps, enjoy a cigar or two on the ride.
"It would be grown in Lancaster County, but with … the technique done in Cuba," Castañón said.