By Brian Chang, JCamp Live Reporter; Clare Ramirez, JCamp Live Video Reporter; and Maria Chicuen, JCamp Live Photographer
Rafael Suarez paid no attention to the commotion around him. He was too busy blending, wrapping and sealing every one of his cigars.
For 14 years, the native of Cuba has worked at the Cigar Factory. He makes about 250 puros, or cigars, each day.
“It’s my life,” he said. “It’s just what I do.”
The cigar shop on Decatur Street is the only registered cigar manufacturer in Louisiana, said owner Al Rushing. People come from all over to buy them.
Inside, the aroma of Robustos and Coronas spread throughout the large, old store, filling the air with a rich, smoky scent. Spanish music played as men sat around and chatted, smoking cigars. Along the red-brick wall hung several signed pictures of satisfied customers such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wayne Newton.
Suarez was one of five cigar makers, called maestros, working at the shop, which moved from San Diego to New Orleans after California tightened its smoking laws in 1997.
Each maestro has a unique style.
Alex Monsato, the youngest of the group, quietly works while listening to music through his earphones. Cándida Tejada is intense and immerses herself in her work, stopping only now and then to chat with her husband, Adalberto. Suarez toils away, out of sight, in the back of the shop while another worker, Leonardo Germosen, works in the front greeting customers and smoking his own cigar.
Most of them speak little English, but they love talking about the craft and sharing what they know with customers.
The cigars go all over the world, said Ryan Leavelle, who helps run the shop.
“We get up to 40 orders each day,” he said. “From all sorts of places.”
Six giant flags hang from the ceiling, representing the countries that the tobacco comes from: Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
Displays are set up throughout the shop, featuring dusty cigar boxes and cigars that are more than 50 years old.
Rushing is one of three owners of the Cigar Factory. He works long hours, but he says he never gets tired.
“The shop is like a playground for me,” he said. “I get to talk, laugh and enjoy our great cigars with customers. The cigars are my toys.”
The Cigar Factory is barely a factory at all. It is a retreat.
People like to stream into the shop after a hard day at work and sit for a few hours, smoke and relax.
At one of the tables sat Robert Schad, a riverboat banjo player from Kansas City, Mo.
“This is my favorite place to stop by when I’m in New Orleans,” he said, taking a few puffs from his Connecticut Shade cigar. “I love being here because you can slow down and think, meditate.”
As he spoke, he spotted his co-worker Lewis Hankin in the shop.
“Hey Lewis,” Schad yelled. “Come here, you old fart!”
Hankin, 70, specializes in doing Mark Twain impressions. He loves spending time at the shop.
“Here,” he said, “we feel at home.”
A lot of visitors like to drop by because they’re curious to see how the cigars are made. They watch the maestros work in rhythm to make their creations. They pick up the tobacco. They spread it on the wrapper. They roll the leaves. Then, they bind the cigar. Each work of art is carefully placed into a wooden box inscribed with the words “Let the Good Times Roll.”
Tejada, the only female worker, has been part of this world since she was 10.
“I was raised in this,” she said. “My father did this, and I guess he planted the seed.”
She and the others live by the store motto: “If we’re open, we’re rolling.”