TAMPA —No American city is better known for cigars than Tampa.
And no family is more closely associated with the cigars in "Cigar City" than the Fuentes, whose Arturo Fuente Cigar Co. started in Tampa and grew into one of the world's largest handmade-cigar businesses.
On Friday, Carlos Fuente Sr., the family patriarch and retired president who drove the company to international acclaim, died in Tampa of stomach cancer. He was 81.
"My father was not only a pioneer in the cigar industry, but he was also an amazing family man who will be sorely missed by so many," his son and current company president Carlos Fuente Jr. said in a prepared statement.
"His legacy will remain with us forever as we continue his tradition of hard work, perseverance and dedication."
Each year, more than 30 million Fuente cigars — including its flagship blends Fuente Fuente Opus X and Arturo Fuente Hemingway — are rolled at company factories employing an estimated 3,500 people in the Dominican Republic. The company's headquarters are in a restored cigar factory on Second Avenue at 22nd Street in Ybor City.
"He is among the absolute icons of this industry," said Jeff Borysiewicz, founder of Cigar Rights of America, an advocacy group for premium cigars. "When you think cigars, Fuente is at the top of that list. "
Borysiewicz said Fuente cigars are among the last cigar brands still operated by a founding family. Another is Tampa's 121-year-old J.C. Newman Cigar Co., which produces its own line of cigars and owns the rights to Cuesta-Rey.
Fuente cigars trace their genesis to 1912, when the founder of the company — Arturo Fuente Sr., father of Carlos Fuente Sr. — moved from his native Cuba to West Tampa and opened an A. Fuente & Co. factory.
The business grew to more than 500 rollers. Then, in 1924, all was lost in a factory fire.
Arturo Sr. remained in the industry but worked with other factories.
Carlos Fuente Sr. was born in 1935, and at age 11 was diagnosed with polio. He was told he would never walk again. Three years later, he proved doctors wrong by making a full recovery.
"Nothing ever stopped that man," said Lisa Figueredo, publisher of Cigar City Magazine and lifelong friend of the Fuente family. "I don't even think a freight train could. The whole family is like that. They are all fighters."
Twenty-two years after the fire cost him his business, Arturo Sr. started over again by establishing the company whose name would gain worldwide fame — Arturo Fuente Cigar Co.
Its beginnings were humble and the business plan simple: Roll cigars on the 10- by 15-foot back porch of the family home and sell locally.
Employees were primarily friends and family, including a young Carlos Sr., who rolled 50 cigars after school each day before he went off to play with his friends.
Then in 1956, Carlos Sr. bought the cigar company from his father for $1.
"It was Carlos Sr. who put the Fuente blend on the map," said Borysiewicz, the cigar advocate.
Carlos Sr. made deals with distributors to sell cigars nationally and relocated operations from the porch back into a Tampa factory.
His boldest move came in 1962.
With tension growing between the United States and Cuba, Carlos Sr. had a feeling the island nation's tobacco — relied upon by so many American cigar manufacturers — soon would be cut off.
He rushed to Cuba with cash to stockpile supplies. It likely was one of the last legal shipments of Cuban tobacco to reach American shores. It provided the Fuente family with 10 years of steady production.
As the U.S. embargo against Cuba drove many cigar companies out of business, lovers of Cuban tobacco nationwide were switching to Fuente.
By the time its Cuban supply was gone, the family had learned how to make cigars from quality tobacco grown in other places.
In the 1980s, the Fuentes opened factories and established a tobacco farm in the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti remains the hub of the Fuente rolling operations today.
To pay for the factories, Carlos Sr. had to remortage his Tampa home and empty his savings, said his friend and accountant Luis Garcia.
"He took a chance and it worked," Garcia said. "A lot of people credit that decision with saving the U.S. premium cigar industry. It was going the way of the cheap 10 cent cigars made by machines. He proved there was still a market for premium hand-rolled cigars."
Tampa has remained the family's hometown, and business operations are still based at the former Fuente factory.
In March, with its namesake brandishing a cigar while wearing his signature Panama hat and guayabera shirt, the section of Second Avenue that runs by the old factory was renamed Carlos Fuente's Way.
Fuente cigars are distributed in the United States through the Newman Cigar Co. in Ybor City. Eric Newman, a friend and business partner, said Carlos Sr. considered the road dedication among his greatest honors.
"He loved Tampa, he loved cigars and he was so proud of his history and heritage here," said Newman, president of Newman Cigar Co. "That day encapsulated all of that."
Despite his success in a glamorous industry, Carlos Sr. remained a humble man, said Figueredo with Cigar City Magazine.
"He lived in the same home in West Tampa since 1970 no matter how successful he got," Figueredo said. "The world knows him as a cigar giant. Tampa knew him as one of their own. His friends and family knew him as a good man."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.