TAMPA — The two-story Ybor City wooden and concrete block building at 2708 N 18th St. is primarily known as a former Arturo Fuente Cigar Co. factory.
But Carlos Fuente Jr., the third generation of that family to run what is now one of the world’s largest handmade-cigar businesses, also remembers it for a different venture.
“That’s where my shoeshine stand was when I was a kid,” the 68-year-old said. “My grandfather handed me the shoeshine box and put me to work so I could earn my own money.”
The Fuentes sold the 7,000-square-foot building to the Blanco family in 1976.
The Blancos are now selling it for $799,500.
Realtor Warren Foley said the layout remains the same as when the Fuente family owned it, a mix of industrial and residential.
The Fuentes rolled cigars on the first floor. Company patriarch Arturo Fuente Sr. and wife Cristina lived on the second.
The Blancos used the first floor for cabinet making and remodeled the second into a six-bedroom, 2 ½-bath residence.
“The first floor still has the vaults where the tobacco dried,” Foley said.
Fuente Jr. watched his father, Carlos Fuente Sr., build those vaults.
“He did it along with his brother and uncles and people close to the family,” he said. “In those days, when you couldn’t afford to pay anyone, family and friends did not let you down. I hope whoever buys the building respects its history.”
The history of Fuente cigars begins in 1912 when Arturo Fuente Sr. moved from his native Cuba to West Tampa and opened A. Fuente & Co.
The business grew to more than 500 rollers. Then, in 1924, all was lost in a factory fire.
Arturo Fuente Sr. remained in the industry but worked with other factories for 22 years until he reestablished his business under the name Arturo Fuente Cigar Co. on the 10-by-15-foot back porch of the family’s Ybor home. Employees were primarily friends and family. Sales were local.
Then in 1956, Carlos Fuente Sr. took over the company and expanded by purchasing the building at 2708 N 18th St. It was built in 1925 as a factory for the Vicente Nieto and Bros. cigar company.
“I lived in West Tampa at the time, but my grandfather’s house had been taken by the interstate,” Fuente Jr. said. “So, my father turned the upstairs into a home for his parents.”
Carlos Fuente Sr. often stayed there too after working late into the night.
“So then one day my mother grabbed two suitcases and told me that if my father wasn’t going to come home to see us, we would go to see him,” Fuente Jr. said. “That building became a second home. Sometimes we’d stay a night. Sometimes we’d stay a week. A lot of our family did. The house was always full of cousins, uncles and aunts. We’d have giant family meals there. They’d all sleep there. It was so much fun. It’s also where I learned a work ethic.”
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Fuente Jr. was 8 when he asked his grandfather for a nickel to buy a lollipop at the corner store.
“He says, ‘You have to earn your money in the valley,’” Fuente Jr. laughed.
That’s when Arturo Fuente Sr. made him a shoeshine box and set up a station outside the factory.
“We did a lot of business,” Fuente Jr. said. “Another time, my grandfather bought a big block of ice and bottles of different flavors so we could sell snow cones. Another time he had me set up a flea market. That’s how we were raised in that building.”
Meanwhile, Carlos Fuente Sr. put the cigar company on the map from that building.
In 1962, realizing the United States would soon cut off all relations with Cuba, he purchased 10 years’ worth of tobacco from the island nation. It is believed to be the last shipment of Cuban tobacco to the United States and outlasted competitor supplies. Lovers of Cuban tobacco nationwide switched to Fuente cigars and remained customers when tobacco from other countries was later used.
The company outgrew their building and, in 1965, purchased the cigar factory at 1603 E Sixth Ave.
In the 1980s, the Fuentes opened factories and established a tobacco farm in the Dominican Republic.
Their Sixth Avenue building is now the corporate headquarters. Their cigars are distributed in the United States through Ybor’s Newman Cigar Co.
“I still like to drive by our old building,” Fuente Jr. said. “It’s where I was raised. It’s where I learned to ride a bike. I still remember the names of the neighbors and their nicknames. It is a really special location.”