Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Manuel Menendez | 1920-2008

A cigar industry leader of Ybor City dies

WELLSWOOD — His early experiences in the Tampa Bay area were inauspicious at best. Ten-year-old Manuel Menendez was sent, all alone, from Colombia to live with an uncle in Tampa. His parents thought the educational opportunities were better in the United States.

But the uncle lived in a boardinghouse for bachelors in Ybor City. He couldn't keep a kid there. So he sent Manuel, who spoke no English, to a boarding school in Pasco County.

"He was miserable there," said his son Adrian. "His aunt and uncle drove down from Georgia to see him, an aunt and uncle he had never laid eyes on before. He hugged one of the wooden spokes of their car and begged them not to leave him there. He was just miserable."

They took him to rural Georgia, where he spent an idyllic childhood. But within 10 years he returned to Tampa to join the family business.

He was significantly happier this time. Tampa became his home for more than six decades, and Mr. Menendez became one of the leaders of Tampa's cigar industry.

Mr. Menendez passed away on April 23, after having suffered from pulmonary problems for many years. He was 88.

His uncles owned and operated J.A. Suarez Tobacco Leaf Co., which at the time imported tobacco from Cuba. As a young man, Mr. Menendez learned to type so he could work in the company's office. But he spent a lot of his time in Cuba, working in tobacco fields and literally learning the tobacco business from the ground up.

In the early 1940s, a friend arranged for Mr. Menendez to go on a blind date, to a dance at Centro Asturiano, with a young woman visiting from New York. He was reluctant to go at first, but his date would become his wife of 64 years.

"He didn't want to take me to the dance because his friend had played a lot of practical jokes on him and he thought this was another one," Viola Menendez said. "But he saw me and he liked me."

She returned to New York but they kept in touch. Mr. Menendez joined the military during World War II and, because of his typing skills, was assigned to assist the officer in charge of all the prisoner of war camps in Florida. During the war years, he married Viola. They started their married life on a North Florida military base.

They came back to Tampa after the war, and eventually Mr. Menendez assumed the helm of the J.A. Suarez Tobacco Leaf Co., which operated out of a building on Franklin Street.

The company concentrated on importing tobacco from Cuba. But after Fidel Castro took over and trade with Cuba was prohibited, the company had to find another way to do business.

"They still did some importing but mostly they became a tobacco storage company," his son said. "They had the first cold storage facility for tobacco in Tampa."

The company expanded under Mr. Menendez, and eventually owned or rented buildings from West Tampa to Ybor City.

"They had a chance to buy Ybor Square for $50,000," his son said, "but that was a lot of money and they were very conservative so they passed on it."

Mr. Menendez was a regular at Centro Asturiano, where he played dominoes every Saturday, but his life centered on his family: his wife, sons, his aunt and uncle in Georgia, his cousins in Tampa, and his parents and other relatives who remained in Colombia.

"He was a great family man and a great provider," his wife said. "Even now, his family in Colombia say they can't believe how much love he had for them."

Besides his wife and son Adrian, Mr. Menendez is survived by son Davian, seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two sisters.

Marty Clear is a freelance writer who writes life stories of Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at

A cigar industry leader of Ybor City dies 05/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 3:55pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Police: Uber driver's gun discharges during fight at Adventure Island in Tampa

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — An Uber driver's gun went off Sunday at Adventure Island during a fight between the driver and two passengers.

  2. Baker cautious on Pride politics


    Rick and Joyce Baker strode down Central Avenue Sunday amid rainbow flags, corporate booths, and blaring music of the St. Pete Pride Festival.

    St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Rick Baker chats Sunday with people at the St. Pete Pride Festival. As mayor, Baker did not sign a Pride parade proclamation, but now he says he would.
  3. Rays' bullpen stars lit up in loss to Orioles

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Saturday it was the soft underbelly of the bullpen that let one get away from the Rays, incurring the wrath of the team's faithful followers, who wondered why the high-leverage guys weren't pitching.

    Rays closer Alex Colome, coming in with the score tied in the ninth, allows three runs in his second straight poor outing.
  4. Lightning among early suitors for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said he planned to explore free agency for potential needs, which include bolstering his blue line and adding a wing or two.

    Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who can be a free agent Saturday, counts the Lightning among his early suitors.
  5. Senate leaders try to appease members as support for health bill slips


    WASHINGTON — Senate Republican leaders scrambled Sunday to rally support for their health care bill, even as opposition continued to build outside Congress and two Republican senators questioned whether the bill would be approved this week.

    Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday, is one of the five Republican senators who announced they cannot support the health care bill as drafted.