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The last cigar factory in Tampa keeps rolling

Aleida Gonzalez stacks "Factory Throwout " cigars after pulling them from the machine that packs and rolls them. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Aleida Gonzalez stacks "Factory Throwout " cigars after pulling them from the machine that packs and rolls them. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Apr. 26, 2018

YBOR CITY -- History lives here, inside the J.C. Newman Cigar Co.

Machines manufactured in the 1930s are still used to pack and roll the cigars, and the sights and smells are throwbacks. Tobacco bits litter the weathered wooden floor, and a pungent odor punctuates the air as workers remove leaves from burlap bags.

Tampa was once home to 150 cigar factories, which churned out millions of cigars in the early part of the 20th century and shipped them worldwide.

J.C. Newman, with its 135 employees, is the sole survivor, even though it's not an Ybor original.

The company moved from Cleveland in 1954 because founder Julius Caesar Newman was eager to be closer to Cuba and its supply of tobacco. Newman took over the E. Regensburg and Sons Cigar Factory at 2701 N 16th St.

Newman's grandson Eric, who is 69, now runs the company.

He has weathered changes in attitudes and regulations.

Starting in August, the FDA may require more detailed labeling about ingredients and manufacturing processes, a costly step for a business working with small margins.

"These regulations could put us out of business," Newman said, though he's hoping a business-friendly Trump administration will make a difference. "What we don't need at this point of our history is more government regulation."

Restrictions on lighting up in most public places have already hurt business, he said, as has shifting feelings toward smoking.

But he and his brother Bobby, who is executive vice president, hope to pass the business on to the next generation. He can't imagine the city without a cigar factory.

"Cigars are to Tampa what automobiles are to Detroit, what wine is to Napa Valley, what Mickey Mouse is to Orlando," he said.

His sales pitch these days revolves around relaxation and ritual.

Newman partakes a few times a month.

"To smoke a cigar, you have to have the time and be in the right mindset," he said. "Everything else is shut out of your mind."

J.C. Newman cranks out about 60,000 "Factory Throwout" cigars a day on those old machines. Modern adjustments to the factory include halogen lights and a mister system to keep the humidity between 60 and 70 percent.

The company is reviving the tradition of hand-rolled cigars, with two craftsmen producing a new line called "The American." A box of 10 will go for about $180 at high-end tobacco lounges and stores later this year.

The Newman building now sits amid the creep of gentrification and craft breweries, and cars speed by on Interstate 4, muffling the sound from its iconic clock tower.

During a recent interview, Eric Newman looked up as the bell chimed on the hour. Once, you could hear it all over Ybor City, and everyone knew where the noise was coming from.

"Listen, El Reloj is speaking to us," he said. "This is the iconic sound, the heartbeat and soul of Ybor City."