Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Between the Leaves #1 Raymond Pages Raffo (Tabacalera AJ Fernandez) | by Andrew Perelson, A Kaplowitz Media Contributor

"Have you Kaplowitz'd to-day?"
"Have you Andrew Perelson'd to-day?"

Between the Leaves #1
by Andrew Perelson

In my opinion, the top dog gets all the scraps. In the cigar industry, there is never going to be a shortage of homages to all the gentlemen and women who make up its upper echelon. They own the Tabacaleras, they blend the cigars, their names are on the band, and their evenings are vibrant and adventurous -- full of top-shelf booze and premium tobacco. They travel the globe, they get the fame, and we assume the riches. [& the bitches - ed,]

My observations are very clear to me that this group gets 99% of the typical articles and series that are produced in the industry. Why not? How would you even begin to write about the underbelly and realness of the industry? One would have to embed themselves in a Tabacalera or deep within a brand's employee roster to find that proper person or peoples who could represent the truly interesting aspects of the cigar industry.

I have decided that profiling the people behind the scenes would be more interesting and would broaden the everyday cigar lovers' knowledge of the seed to shelf process. This, as well as elaborate on how everything happens behind the scenes that would not be known unless we as enthusiasts dig. 

With that said: I have been collecting friends in the cigar industry on Facebook and LinkedIn for many years. The way I have been going about this is to have certain avatars that illuminate the industry as a whole and typically they tag their go-to people throughout the value chain… sales and operations. I would say that I have a cadre of the most amazing people in the cigar industry from top to bottom. I have owners and sales professionals and marketers, as well as blenders. I also have rollers and factory folk that have come up in the conversation. These are the people I am really interested in.

More than traveling the world and having a cigar every day in a new location -- what interests me is what goes on in the Tabacalera.

What’s the difference between good & great and how do the pieces fit together? It's not that easy to figure out. There is no 'step-by-step' about what goes on and when you do finally see something on a Tabacalera it is from the "rich" perspective of being a distinguished guest sipping on rum and sitting in the sun. Beyond that, my connections are mostly great personalities. People who have cultivated a presence and move in and out of consciousness with hundreds of 'likes' for every turd they lay.

Sadly these friendships overall are not deep but I would say that more than most I have really made an effort to become someone who enjoys the nuances and interests of my Facebook friends. I comment more than most about the normal aspects of people's lives. I like it when AJ shares pictures of petting and riding his horses. I like the birthday parties for mom and the pictures of the early mornings in airports with hair all in a miff. Moreover, I like the work.

Seeing all the different leaves laid out and sorted through. Taking in the piles of freshly rolled cigars on tables and in temperature and humidity controlled rooms. That's the stuff that interests me. I spend the majority of my time handling extremely technical work in the transportation industry and spending time with my family. I have found that the salt of the industry does the same!

Raymond Pages Raffo

The subject of our first profile is Raymond Pages Raffo. I connected with him though Abdel Yusef Fernandez, Rafael Nodal, and Nick Melillo, all who have relationships with him. 

AJ employs Raymond in a trusted role as his Head of Operations. This is quite a responsibility for a young man like Ray, but he takes it very seriously and is tireless. Rafael and Nick find him as the point person on their creative pursuit of the finest Nicaraguan tobaccos from the fields of AJ Fernandez and the warehouse. After meeting Ray, it's clear that they respect his knowledge and that they like him as a person. This is his job for all that come to the factory. God, and what a job it is. 

Let’s also say that Ray is a badass. If you look at the goings-on of his day-to-day life; he smokes a giant strong cigar mostly something he is proud to have worked on. He looks scary because he owns the smoke, nothing dainty or refined from Ray! Also because he works hard during the day he smokes this giant cigar without much handling so it's in his mouth and then he is done with it. Raymond is 25 and lives in Esteli. He often BBQs with his friends and he is always a fixture around the goings-on of AJ's social and family life. 

He, like many, was born in Cuba where his parents grew tobacco when he was a young boy. You ask how at 25 he slipped into this sweet role, well he is AJ's brother-in-law! (I did not know I was an investigative journalist, but I am thrilled to have found out!) As the Operations Leader for AJ’s factory, Tabacalera Fernandez, he’s the fellow that AJ trusts with the selection of the tobacco and the sourcing of all part and ingredients. He is one of the top two people overall! He did not start out at the top, however. He started working in the factory at 18 and showed his dedication and skill.

Raymond is integral in supervising the manufacturing process. In describing what he does he tells me that Abdel does all the blends and he does everything else including searching for the tobaccos for AJ to try prior to choosing said blends. He puts together what he calls the "tabscos" or "puritos" for AJ to try before choosing the blends. These are basic rolls that look like Backwoods smokes from the pharmacy. They are the same leaf and it allows blenders to get the taste of each part more fully. 

As a final note, I asked Ray what his favorite smokes are and none to my surprise they are the ones he has worked on with pride from the Tabacalera. The first being the Ramon Allones Cigar. This is a classic Cuban name and the Nicaraguan version is maybe better. According to lore, the brand was AJ's father's favorite back in Cuba -- so its send-up was something he really worked hard on with Ray.

He also mentions in our communication how much he loves the Upmann by AJ. This certainly is a tough cigar to put out as Upmann has 170 years of greatness and you can't just screw with that. Also, the Montecristo Nicaraguan which has been tearing up the reviews, a collaboration with Rafael Nodal. To say that AJ and Rafael work well together is an understatement, and right behind them in their efforts is Ray. 

To end let me say that one day I hope to visit Ray in Esteli and see him in action. During which I would take part in one of his chicken BBQs! At 25, Raymond has the respect of all blenders and the trust of one of the best, Abdel Yusef. He should be proud of his place in the process and I know that by the time he is a young 35 he will be doing even more amazing things!

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