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  1. Business

Sale of Ybor City's King Corona marks end of century-old family cigar business

TAMPA — More than a century ago, a Cuban family working in the new cigar factories of Ybor City quietly started rolling cigars at home on the side.

Five generations later, after establishing themselves as one of the Latin district's most important families, they're leaving the business just as quietly.

Brenda Barco has sold King Corona Cigars Bar and Cafe, the iconic Ybor City establishment she operated with her husband, Don Barco, for the past 19 years.

They are now both retired.

"Brenda's not the type who likes attention," said Don Barco, 66. "So, we kept the sale to ourselves."

Still, he acknowledged the milestone — the end of a long and fruitful business connection his wife's family enjoyed with what once was the cigar capital of the world.

Chantal Hevia, chief executive officer of the Ybor City Museum Society, echoed that sentiment.

"While we wish the owners well and understand why people make such decisions, it certainly does break a long tradition of one of the important families of Ybor," Hevia said.

Don Barco was the face of King Corona, schmoozing with customers on the open air patio along Ybor City's historic main drag or inside explaining the latest arrivals in his walls of cigar cases. But his wife, 64, working behind the scenes, was the "backbone of the operation," he said.

"Brenda was the heart and soul."

Her great-grandparents the Puigs moved from Cuba to Ybor City in the 1890s during the infancy of the district's hand-rolled cigar industry. At its peak, Tampa's cigar industry employed more than 10,000 people in more than 200 factories, producing up to half a billion hand-rolled cigars a year — primarily with Cuban tobacco.

The Puigs worked in the cigar factories but later earned extra cash by rolling their own at home for sale on the streets at a few cents each.

Exactly when they branched out is unclear, Barco said, but they can point to one year with certainty: "My wife's grandfather, Mario Jorge Puig, born in 1905, was rolling by the age of 8."

In 1939, Mario Puig made the operation official and opened Tampa Rico Cigars, a small hand-rolling shop on the corner of 13th Street and Seventh Avenue.

When most of the large factories closed in the 1950s and 1960s, Ybor went through an economic depression, Barco said, and was no longer a safe place to run a business.

So in 1977, Mario Puig partnered with stepson Jerry Garcia and moved the shop to Ybor Square, to the old V.M. Ybor Cigar Factory, which is now home to the Church of Scientology. Ybor Square was an indoor mall with security.

Brenda Barco, Garcia's daughter, joined the operation in 1984 and her husband, the following year.

Together they expanded the business in 1998 by opening King Corona on Seventh Street.

When Ybor Square closed in 1999, the family stopped rolling altogether, and through King Corona, focused on selling cigars.

With the help of their late son Jerry Barco and their daughter Samantha Barco — the fifth generation of the family in the cigar industry — they turned the cafe and bar into one of Ybor's most popular spots.

King Corona's laid-back vibe made Justin Jacobson a regular when he moved to Tampa from Atlanta eight years ago. Now, Jacobson, 34, is the new owner.

"This was the first place where I had a cigar in Tampa," he said. "I'd sit here once or twice a week and say to my friends that owning a place like this was a dream."

Don't expect any major changes at King Corona.

Cigar lockers have been installed. Some new televisions may be added. But that's about it for the near future, Jacobson said — except for the sign etched into the glass of the front window.

It now reads: "Five generations in Ybor City."

"I don't think it's set in yet," Barco said. "When you move forward with change, you're excited about the future but lament about what you left behind."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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