Jonathan Drew on Reinventing Drew Estate, Part 1

Jonathan Drew returns to lead the rebirth of an icon

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Jonathan Drew by Candace West

Jonathan Drew by Candace WestThere’s no denying that Jonathan Drew is a maverick. He and his partners at Drew Estate broke virtually every unspoken rule in an industry defined by tradition to create a cigar that won a cult following. Then they parlayed that stronghold into a powerhouse brand whose success galvanized the cigar industry to rethink flavored cigars. And that was just the beginning. In the interview that follows, Drew shares his views on the state of the industry and discusses his plans for the “rebirth of Drew Estate.”

The Art of Cigar Making
Tobacco Business: Everything from your marketing and packaging of cigars, to the Drew Estate website design, to the look of your factory reflects a passion for art. Is art a personal passion for you? Beyond cigars, what hobbies and interests do you enjoy?
Jonathan Drew: Art is definitely my passion and forever built into the DNA of Drew Estate. Art is expression and culture and time. It’s what makes us human and is a powerful ally in whatever war you are personally fighting. Any enemy can destroy the physical, but nobody and nothing can stamp out the lifeblood of music and food and imagery and prose.

Every brand of Drew Estate had a reason to be born and was a rebirth of cigar culture, time and time again. Our products are not commodities—they are art, living and evolving. We are presently in “The Rebirth of Drew Estate” time period as an organization right now.

“The Rebirth of Drew Estate” is about reinvention, but from a structural and infrastructural standpoint. It’s about going back to our roots and highlighting our core competencies, while at the same time defining best practices for our retail and distribution partners. We are branching out, diving deeper into technology and institutional attributes with data, for example, that we can bring to the table in creating value for our strategic retail partners.
On a personal level, non-business, I collect 1980s street art, mostly the early graffiti scene, which included the movements of hip hop, CBGB’s, Blondie, Madonna, Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Rammellzee.

Here we are, 20 years since the birth of Drew Estate—what trends or pre-ferences have you observed among cigar smokers?
From the aspect of cigars themselves, big ring gauges, small ring gauges, limited editions, commemoratives and collaborations.

From the aspect of retailing, there are four important aspects to highlight: digital prowess, merchandizing solutions, cigar bars and new packaging solutions, such as the G-Fresh pouches that we have brought to market with our partners at Swisher International. G-Fresh creates more access points for consumers to pick up their favorite sticks and develop new opportunities for mass market operations to realize the high margins of premium cigars.

Would you say that those retail paths are where we should expect to experience growth potential within the cigar industry at this point?
Yes, 100 percent, no question.

In 2014, we launched the ACID G-Fresh packaging solution for the convenience sector, hoping to birth a new “top shelf” for premium cigars at convenience and DTO locations across the country. Even though the success has not been fully realized, I am still confident about the sector. As a matter of fact, we are doubling down on it in 2017. Readers should contact their Swisher International representative or call the home office.

Retail chains are continuously trying to find ways to attract more premium-minded consumers to their stores due to their potential for higher margins. I believe premium cigars will eventually play a distinct role in this evolution.

It’s evident that craft beer has made substantial inroads in that journey—and even changed the way many convenience stores are laid out. I think the new program that Swisher International is about to offer the mass market trade is about to explode in a big way. They have learned a lot of valuable lessons over the last two years and truly listened to their retail partners to make the correct changes to the G-Fresh program. It’s a commendable program, and Drew Estate is proud to be the production partner for premium solutions.

In addition to the new and updated G-Fresh rollout, the Drew Diplomat Retailer Program speaks directly to the topic of digital strength, connectivity between final consumers to the premium cigar brands they identify with. We currently have approximately 500 retail operations across the country, representing almost 1,000 retail doors participating in our digital world, and receive rebates of up to 7 percent per year on the business that we do together, plus other perks. This has proven to be a game changer and benefits all sides of the [industry].

Speaking of Swisher International, following the acquisition you spent a lot of time on the road. What was that like? Did you come away with any revelations from the experience?
I love the road and spending time with our hardworking and passionate salesforce. It’s a challenging occupation to be a company representative, and I respect and value their efforts greatly. I never want to lose touch or disregard the pulse of our retailers either, as oftentimes they are the direct link between Nicaragua and the consumer. Their role is vital in the ecosystem.

Additionally, and probably most impactful to me, I have such a deep love for our premium cigar consumers. I genuinely love spending time with everyone who made Drew Estate what it is today, our “extended family” as we like to call it. Cigar culture is so near and dear to my heart, and I consider myself as much a cigar ambassador as I do a “tobacco man.”

Story by Jennifer Gelfand / Photography by Candace West

This story first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.