Puff & Stuff: How Afro-Cuban American Twin Sisters Are Shaking Up The Cigar Business
The cigar industry is dominated by older white males. So imagine the shock of cigar store owners in Miami when Afro-Cuban twin sisters Yvonne and Yvette Rodriguez come rolling in with personalities as big as their Afros to promote their own line of Cuban cigars, Tres Lindas Cubanas Cigars. Just in case you haven’t heard, it’s the only cigar company owned and operated by Black women.
And the Rodriguez sisters plan to take more than just a puff from the cigar industry; they want to be major players. After all, it is a growing industry. According to the CDC, about 13 billion cigars, including 12.4 billion large cigars and cigarillos and 0.6 billion little cigars, were sold in the United States in 2014.
Yvonne and Yvette are cigar aficionados themselves. Growing up seeing their grandmother smoke Cuban stogies, they had no hesitation in lighting up themselves. Not only do the sisters love a good smoke, they love their Cuban heritage and their Afro-Cuban roots. Raised in a mixed-race immigrant family, the twins’ mother was a Cuban mulata, and their father, a Black Cuban who fled Cuba to live in the Miami. All of this is reflected in their cigar brand. Launched two years ago, Tres Lindas Cubanas Cigars represents the diversity the country. They have three signature cigars: “La Clarita,” which means fair-skinned and the cigar itself is light-medium bodied; “La Mulata,” which translates to a mixture of black/white and the cigar is medium-full and “La Negrita,” which means black woman, but for the cigar it’s their strongest, full-bodied option.
The is actually no true Cuban cigar for purchase in America, due to the embargo the United States still has against Cuba despite warming relations. Most of the cigars labeled Cuban on the American market are growing in countries like Nicaragua using a Cuban seed. The same goes for Tres Lindas.
There are actually four partners in Tres Lindas–the sisters and their boyfriends–Jamil Raheem, who handles Sales and the company’s cigar blends as well as hosts Cigar Happy Hours with Cigar Society of South Florida and Marcus Lightfoot, head of operations. Yvette oversees all of the company’s Media & Public Relations because, as the company’s website says “she looks good on TV,” and Yvonne handles Digital Media as “she is hell-bent on taking long lunches and attending art exhibits all while managing a fast-growing Cigar brand.”
Tres Lindas Cubanas cigars are sold in select shops in Miami and online. We got to chat with the Rodriguez sisters and we found they are truly the type of gals you’d like to hang out with at a cigar lounge puffing on a La Negrita.
MadaemNoire (MN): You are actually running two business, a PR firm and the cigar company. How do you juggle both.
Yvette: We’ve been working in public relations for over six years. And Yvonne and I started the cigar business in 2013. It took us a year to develop our blend. We started selling our cigars in 2014. We juggle it because they work together. We do our own PR for the cigar business and we treat Tres Lindas as a client of the PR business. Since we are small, we use all the resources we already have and it’s worked out great.
MN: Do you both smoke cigars?
Yvonne: It used to be taboo for women to smoke but we grew up in a household were the women enjoyed smoking cigars, especially our grandmother. We idolized our grandmother; whatever she did we wanted to do. She was this very strong woman.
Also we were fascinated by our Cuban roots. We were born in the United Sates, so we’re basically African American. But loved our Afro-Cuban roots–cigar smoking, Cuban coffee, the music, playing dominos. We got to visit Cuban a few years ago and it changed our lives; we wanted to fully embrace our Afro-Cuban roots.
MN: How do you grow the cigars?
Yvette: Since there is technically still an embargo, there are no true Cuban cigars in the U.S. Most people grow their cigars in countries like Nicaragua, which has a climate similar to Cuba. Our cigars come from Cuban seed and we deal with growers in Nicaragua.
MN: It seems like a very complex process?
Yvonne: It’s a business like any other business. As far as production we have a lot of connections with people who own land in Nicaragua. Finding the right cigar blend, it’s like developing a wine. It’s all a matter of taste.
MN: What have been some of the challenges?
Yvette: We are very new and we still have challenges, starting with the fact we don’t come from a tobacco farm family. Many of the cigar brands come from people who grew up in tobacco farm family. It is also a challenge dealing with the major brands. But I think we have a plus because we came from the consumer side, we know what we like to smoke and what others like to smoke.
MN: Since you are the only cigar brand owned by women, and Black women at that, is that a challenge?
Yvonne: There are actually a lot of women in the industry–like the cigar rollers. And there may be some women who have taken over the family business, but we, as far as we can figure out, are the only women who started our own cigar brand, and the only Black women to do so. And some of the other people in the industry don’t know what to make of us. We act as our own sales reps and we come rolling into the cigars stores to sell our line and we come in with our Afros and big personalities. We stand out. We stand out like aliens. But that’s a good thing–’cause we always make a lasting impression.
One the downside, the stores put up a lot of road blocks. When we walk into a shop and we are trying to sell our cigars, the shops are asking us all the basics like we don’t know anything–and this is an everyday thing we go through. But of course we have all the answers and we surprise them. I like that we are a surprise.
MN: This is a family business and your boyfriends are also your partners, how does that work?
Yvette: Actually it works out great. We each have a specialty and we use this as a strength, especially since we are grassroots. We keep it professional when we are doing business. Plus, we all love smoking cigars. If we didn’t have the business we’d still be in a cigar lounge, talking, relaxing, and enjoying a good smoke. So as a business we get to do what we all love together.
Yvonne: We have been creative in getting the word out and using all of our resources. We have even started a YouTube channel to show the behind the scenes of our business our brand and the cigar lifestyle. It’s fun!
MN: Smoking cigarettes can be hazardous to your health. How about cigars?
Yvonne: Yes, and we don’t advocate smoking all the time, though cigar smoking is a little better because you don’t inhale and it takes a least an hour to smoke. Since it takes longer, people usually smoke in the company of others and are socializing. And even though I love smoking a good cigar, I don’t do it all of the time. With cigars, it’s more of a culture. You have people who are cigar aficionados, people who collect cigars. Its like wine drinkers, people who love wine. And like anything you do it in moderation.
Yvette: There are of course some health concerns, but cigar smoking is different. We actually we went to Washington last year because the FDA wants to eliminate all tobacco production. So we went to lobby and to speak to congressmen. Cigars don’t have additives and it’s a natural product, so it’s not addictive. Cigar smoking is more of a hobby.
MN: Are you targeting women with your cigar brand?
Yvonne: Not particularly. Cigars are unisex. And many women in Miami grew up with women smoking cigars, it’s part of the Cuban culture.
MN: What do you like the most about being cigar entrepreneurs?
Yvette: I am so proud of how we have developed our brand and mission. We didn’t have a template and it still worked.
Yvonne: We wanted our bland to reflect who we are–and we are Black women, we are Cuban women. And I think our products reflect this and honors all Cuban women–that we come in all shapes, colors, ¡and sizes. Our company is a homage to our ancestors and a celebration of the Afro-Cuban woman.