By LAURA KOSS
There's nothing fancy about Cortez Cigars. Occupying a former home on Broad Street (Route 35) in Shrewsbury, it has no novelty gadgets or souvenirs on display, no teddy bears in undersized t-shirts smoking oversized cigars.
No, this place is not just a store, it's a workshop, each half of the business sharing a singular purpose. Here, 27-year-old proprietor Luis Cortez makes traditional, hand-rolled Cuban cigars, and that's all he sells.
"We focus just on cigars, and only sell cigars we make," he says. "We enjoy what we do and have a passion for it."
What, one might naturally ask, is a Cuban immigrant doing making an old world product in, ahem, the homogeneous community of Shrewsbury? (Fewer than 200 of the borough's 3,600 residents are non-white, according to the 2000 Census.)
To Cortez, the answer is simple. After several years of working for other cigar manufacturers, he realized that the clientele lived in suburban towns like Shrewsbury. So he figured, "why not make them here?" he says.
After nearly three years operating out of a space on nearby White Road, he moved the business to its present location six months ago.
Even so, it's a place already rich in tradition and fragrance. Cortez uses tobacco imported from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua,
Honduras and Brazil, leaves that cure for seven years in whiskey oak
barrels before they're ready to roll, he says.
"Tobacco is like a sponge," he explains. "The aroma of the whiskey
marries with the tobacco."
With the tobacco leaf, Cortez says that he "will make just about
anything" from the long, elegant Lancero "that Fidel Castro made very
famous," to the plumpest cigars imaginable.
In fact, such variety is a requirement of the trade. "All the time, you
have to come up with different shapes," he tells redbankgreen on a recent visit.
For example, there's the Corona, a five-and-a-half-incher filled with a choice of blends. The most popular offering is the "shaggy foot torpedo," which gets its name from one fringed end, which allows the long leaf to show 'foot' denoting the end of it, rather than its length.
Smokers of the shaggy foot "get a chance to try the raw-leaf tobacco with no wrapper," he says, "and they can tell it is high-quality, long-leaf tobacco."
Cortez is happy to show off his craft and welcomes questions about it. A quiet, easygoing host, he makes walking into is cigar shop like a visit to his house. Here, lucky customers may catch him at work rolling cigars, or using antique presses and molds to finish the process.
"I make about 250 cigars a day," doing the bulk of production in the morning, he says. "And I only smoke one."
Contrast that with the custom of his great-grandmother, Dolores. She "smoked a bundle every week," he laughs. "She was famous for that."
Great-grandmother? Cortez is a fourth-generation Cuban cigar roller, following the women in his family. In fact, about two-thirds of the Cuban cigar industry's workers are women, Cortez says.
"They have a gentle touch and more patience," he says.
It was his Dolores, says Cortez, who taught him the craft back in their native Cuba beginning when he was just 10 years old. He later trained in factories in the Dominican Republic and rolled cigars in Havana.
"I've done a little bit of everything," he says, including de-veining tobacco leaves and working he presses.
Cortez moved from Cuba to Miami in 1997 he leaves it to one's imagination to figure out how. But Miami's weather made him feel like he was still in Cuba, he jokes. So, when his brother, Kristian, got a job in New Jersey with a cigar company, he joined him.
Cortez relocated to Red Bank in 1999. He's the sole owner of Cortez Cigars, though Kristian, who's now based in Washington D.C., helps handle the wholesale side of the business.
The brothers plan to open a store in the D.C. area in the near future. Meantime, Luis fiancé, Jennifer Pallante, books custom cigar-rolling events for Cortez Cigars.
"People hire us to roll the cigars," for anything from high-end private parties to golf outings, weddings and fundraisers, Cortez says. He's done benefits for the Shrewsbury fire and police departments, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Monmouth County and Ronald McDonald House.
He also travels outside the region for special events. Last year, he did a poker tournament in Dublin, his first event overseas, and he's been invited to do more, he says.
"A lot of people like to see me roll cigars," he says, and a cigar-rolling event
is a chance for people to see the skill and craftsmanship involved.
But they're not just watching; they're buying. Even with cigarette sales down, and anti-smoking campaigns on the rise, Cortez says business has been adversely affected "not at all."
In fact, he says, his clientele is expanding to include women, who request "petit flavor cigars" tinged with vanilla, coffee, rum, and honey.
In early May, locals and cigar aficionados will get a chance to see the
business up close, when Cortez Cigars hosts a grand opening event. It will
feature offerings from local restaurants,
gift certificates, wine tastings, and of course, his hand-rolled
cigars, its founder says.
And the sense of tradition will continue, he hopes. This summer, Luis and Kristian plan to launch Cortez Cigars as a brand name, selling locally and internationally. They'll start, Luis says, with the Perfecto cigar, to commemorate the small cigars his great-grandmother preferred.
"We should call it 'The Perfecto, by Dolores,'" he says with a laugh.