Steve Zengel, the founder of Los Caidos Cigars, has had a varied and interesting career. Before establishing Los Caidos Cigars in 2016, the 49-year-old New Jersey native was an educator and a college basketball coach, a position in which he taught young men valuable life lessons while instructing them in the game’s Xs and Os. He became a financial advisor who specialized in serving professional athletes, helping them to plan their financial security after their playing days have passed. He even earned an Ed.D. in education, which allowed him to serve as a vice principal at a New Jersey high school for three and a half years after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the community and destroyed his own cigar shop. No matter how Zengel has earned his paycheck, however, there have been two intense passions throughout his career: a love for cigars and the social aspects of cigar smoking, and a deep desire to help other people.
Zengel smoked his first cigar with legendary Princeton men’s basketball coach Pete Carril in 1996 when Carril appeared at a basketball clinic that Zengel was hosting. Zengel loved smoking his first cigar so much that he convinced his best friend, Chris Dincuff, a financial advisor who was working at the World Trade Center in New York City, to try a cigar too. The two of them soon enjoyed cigars when they got together, which gave them yet another avenue to deepen their friendship.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Dincuff was among the 2,977 people who lost their lives in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Zengel was shaken to his core over the loss of his best friend. Beginning on Sept. 11, 2002, and on every anniversary since, Zengel remembers Dincuff by smoking a cigar in his backyard.
“The idea of doing a cigar to honor fallen police officers and firefighters began with my experience in honoring my friend Chris,” Zengel explains. “I had a very real experience of wanting to remember loved ones lost through a cigar. That’s why it made perfect sense to me to create a cigar brand that would raise money for the families of fallen first responders.”
Fulfilling the Dream
Zengel’s transition from cigar consumer to cigar manufacturer began when his assistant coaching position for Hampton University ended when most of the staff was fired after failing to reach the NCAA tournament. While the new coach asked Zengel to stay at Hampton, Zengel decided to leave. Having just completed his Ed.D., Zengel got a job teaching in Virginia and obtained a part-time position at Emerson’s Cigars, where he worked alongside owner Scott Regina. While working at Emerson’s, Zengel began to dream of having his own cigar shop, and when he and his wife discussed their future, Zengel knew what he wanted to accomplish.
“She asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided I wanted to sell cigars,” Zengel recalls. “Scott and I talked, and he gave me his blessing. We moved back to New Jersey, and I opened Beach House Cigars in Seaside Heights on March 12, 2012.”
Zengel opened Beach House Cigars with just nine boxes of cigars, but he greatly expanded his offerings to more than 230 cigar varieties housed in three humidors by the summer’s end. Everything with the business was going much better than Zengel could ever have imagined. On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore. Amidst the storm’s devastation was Beach House Cigars—destroyed a little more than eight months after opening.
“We were gone in an instant,” Zengel remembers. “I had nothing to do, but a guy from the local school system called and asked if the Ed.D. degree I had hanging behind my register in the cigar shop was real. His school was going through a hard time, and it needed some help. He offered me a job as vice principal, which I began in January 2013.”
While helping his community by taking on the job of vice principal, Zengel didn’t let his dream of selling cigars die. About six months after Hurricane Sandy, Zengel reopened Beach House Cigars in his hometown of Wall, New Jersey, thanks to the generosity of his old boss at Emerson’s Cigars.
“Scott Regina called me and asked what I needed to reopen the store,” Zengel says. “I told him ‘everything’ because I was completely wiped out. He sent me about $30,000 worth of retail merchandise to get me started again with a note that said to pay him whenever I could.”
While his days were filled with working at the school, Zengel hired Frank Lancelotti, a retired police officer, to mind Beach House Cigars. In conversations with Lancelotti, Zengel learned of the deaths of Christopher Matlosz, a Lakewood police officer, and Marc Castellano, a New Jersey state trooper, both of whom were killed approximately 10 miles from the new location, and both of whose families were struggling financially. Learning that local police charities had been established to raise funds for the families, Zengel’s philanthropic personality kicked into high gear.
“We became a cigar store that serviced everything—golf outings, picnics, casino nights—to give to these charities, but I felt like it wasn’t enough,” Zengel explains. “We were giving back $200 at the end of the day, and I felt embarrassed because I wanted to do more.”
Building the Mission
The path to contributing more to the fallen officers’ families was sparked by one of Beach House Cigars’ customers, Matt Catania, a Jersey Mike’s franchisee. Catania, who is also one of Zengel’s former players and has become Zengel’s best friend, explained Jersey Mike’s charitable contribution methods and suggested that Zengel close Beach House Cigars, establish his own cigar brand and contribute a portion of the profits to police charities.
“Matt told me to grow a set of balls, stop being a vice principal, shut the shop down, and go national with a cigar brand and give a dollar back,” Zengel says. “So that’s what I did. That was 2015. I called Paul Palmer [president of Aganorsa Leaf], and we officially launched Los Caidos out of the Cigar Emporium in Lyndhurst on Feb. 25, 2016.”
“We only ordered 500 boxes, and we sold out quickly, but Paul didn’t want to do it at first because it was such a small commitment,” Zengel explains. “I loved everything Casa Fernandez, as Aganorsa Leaf was known then, produced, so I really wanted them to make Perfection. I started calling Paul in February 2013, and I called him on the 15th of every month after that. After the third or fourth month he realized I wasn’t going to stop.”
The deal to make Perfection for Zengel was finally done after Palmer, Max Fernandez and Aganorsa Leaf’s local rep, Bob Morrison, stopped into Beach House Cigars. An excited Zengel rushed out of the store to get coffee and doughnuts and held an impromptu event inside his shop. Zengel’s enthusiasm was contagious, and at the end of the day, Palmer agreed to make the cigars.
Zengel ordered 500 boxes of Los Caidos in 2015. In 2016, the cigars became available, and Zengel pledged $1 from every cigar sold to police charities. The brand did well enough to convince Zengel that he could build a national brand, and his goals became even bigger. Having sold out of the first run of Los Caidos, Zengel commissioned a second, larger run, which debuted on Oct. 2, 2018, at a celebratory event held at Club Macanudo in New York City. With its second run, Los Caidos expanded its mission to include giving to charities benefiting fallen firefighters. Consumers could choose between a Los Caidos cigar wrapped with a blue band for police charities or one with a red band that contributes to firefighter charities. Both cigars are featured in a 20-count box, with 10 cigars each of both the blue-banded and red-banded options.
At the same time that he was relaunching Los Caidos, Zengel formally introduced Life of a Ride Time, a 501(c)(3) charity that also raises funds for the families of fallen police officers and firefighters. Life of a Ride Time stemmed from a 13-day motorcycle tour of the United States that Zengel had taken to raise awareness of Los Caidos in 2016. After riding more than 7,000 miles on a bike, Zengel brainstormed and came up with a better idea that was less taxing on the body and more effective in spreading the message.
Throughout 2019, Zengel has paired Los Caidos events at cigar shops around the country with Life of a Ride Time motorcycle rallies. The cigar event typically takes place on a Friday night, and the motorcycle rally occurs on a Saturday morning. In 2019, Zengel organized close to 20 cigar and Life of a Ride Time events with the goal of raising $1 million for the charities that Los Caidos represents.
“There are 11 board members of Life of a Ride Time, and they come from the police, fire and Harley-Davidson communities,” Zengel explains. “That’s where the dollars go. I thought about the things I love to do in life—ride motorcycles, drink, smoke and help people—and that’s what started it. I do the rides in the cities with the largest police and fire departments in the U.S., and I’m going to continue to do them until we reach that $1 million goal. Then we’ll think of another way to add to Los Caidos’ mission of helping the families of fallen police officers and firefighters.”
The motorcycle rallies build awareness in the police, fire and Harley-Davidson communities, and they drive cigar smokers into the local retailers who carry Los Caidos, thus building stronger links between those who serve and protect and participating cigar retailers.
“I hope retailers can build stronger businesses and better their own communities through Los Caidos cigars,” Zengel concludes. “I want firefighters and police officers to support their local Los Caidos retailer, and I want to give retailers who want an opportunity to raise money for fallen officers’ families an opportunity to do so. Los Caidos is a national brand with a community focus. We’re all committed to making the world better, one cigar at a time.”
This story first appeared in the November /December 2019 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Story by Stephen A. Ross, editor-in-chief of Tobacco Business Magazine.