A solid foundation is crucial to building anything. That’s the mentality of entrepreneur Nicholas Melillo, creator of Foundation Cigar Co. Melillo has made a career out of tobacco—beginning on the retail side of the industry soon after graduating from high school, followed by a stint at Drew Estate, where he served as the company’s director of tobaccos and production. It was in 2015 that he answered the call to start his own business and left the comforts that came with a secure job to launch Foundation Cigar Co.
Melillo grew up in Connecticut around tobacco and cigars. Both of his grandfathers smoked Connecticut cigars, and he fondly recalls the aroma of Connecticut Broadleaf. At 18 years old, Melillo sat down with his brother and one of his grandfathers and lit up his first cigar. It was Christmastime, and not only was it a coming-of-age moment, but it would set Melillo on a career path defined by Connecticut tobacco and cigars. In 1996, when Melillo graduated from high school, he was full-on into smoking cigars. His father bought him a Diamond Crown humidor, and he inherited his great-grandfather’s humidor from the early 1900s. This was during the height of the Cigar Boom, and cigar aficionados like Melillo and his brother flocked to local tobacconists to get their prized cigars. Melillo and his brother frequented the The Calabash Shoppe, a tobacconist located in Hamden, Connecticut. Lines of cigar enthusiasts ran outside of the store’s humidor, and Melillo would often be among the crowd, waiting to get his hands on the latest cigar.
It was on a Friday while he waited in one of the long lines at The Calabash Shoppe that he decided to approach the two owners of the store about becoming more than just a frequent customer. He told the owners that he wanted to work for them and that he knew every cigar in the humidor, including the price points. They hired him to run the humidor, a job that he started a week before his freshman year of college.
In 2003, Melillo moved to Esteli, Nicaragua, where he began a new chapter in his tobacco career working at Drew Estate. He spent the next several years working and learning about the factory, warehouse and packaging processes that go into cigarmaking. As the years went on, Melillo began seeing the oncoming wave of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations that threatened his career and the industry he worked in. Rather than run from it, Melillo decided to face the challenge head-on—so he left Drew Estate in 2014 to create his own cigar brand.
“I saw these FDA regulations coming down the pipe so I said to myself that if I don’t start a company now, I might not even be able to start a company,” he explains.
Melillo knew he had to get his brands on the market sooner rather than later in order to meet the cutoff dates set by the FDA for new cigar products to be released. He wanted to get his own brands on the market and knew it would take a lot of hard work to not only start his own company but to launch several products in a short amount of time.
“I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I knew if I didn’t start it, I’d probably always regret it. I was definitely getting older, and I said if I waited too long, it’d become more difficult to start a company, but I knew if didn’t, I would definitely regret it. For me, the foundation of making really good cigars is amazing tobacco, so I felt like I had really established a lot of great relationships with tobacco farmers and tobacco dealers throughout the world. Due to those relationships, I had access to some amazing leaves, and I just felt that I had built up enough experience in the industry on the production side—and also the retail side—to spread my wings and go out on my own. So I felt Foundation Cigar Co. was appropriate [for a company name], because it describes my career in this industry, and I felt I had established a good, firm foundation.”
Culture Meets History
Melillo was excited to not only work on his own cigars but also to create a brand around each blend. For years, he had spent his career focusing solely on blending, but with his own company, he was suddenly able to also work on other aspects of business, including marketing and branding. As a lover of culture and history, Melillo knew he wanted Foundation Cigar Co. to reflect his upbringing and his own history. He turned to Esteli-based artist Alex Garcia to help turn his concepts into artwork. The two men worked closely on all of the cigar brands, and having been friends for years, it seemed like a natural progression to bring Garcia on as the company’s full-time art director.
For that first blend, Melillo wanted to create something that paid homage to the country that had become a second home to him. In all of his years of blending, Melillo had yet to create an all-Nicaraguan blend, but for the first release from his own company he wanted to express to retailers and cigar smokers across the world what living in Nicaragua meant to him—not just through the blend but also through the branding. That first Foundation Cigar Co. release, El Gueguense (pronounced “way-when-say”), did just that.
For Melillo, blending is a process that’s shaped by his experience in retail and manufacturing. Having spent his early career working in tobacco retail, he understands that consumers have different palates and retailers have limited shelf space. As he developed the different cigars for Foundation Cigar Co., Melillo worked to create a diverse portfolio of blends that would not only appeal to consumers but also serve retailers well. If Foundation were the only brand you stocked in your humidor, there would be a cigar blend that would appeal to every palate and price point.
El Gueguense is a medium-bodied Nicaraguan puro, also available in a maduro blend. The artwork, hand-drawn by Garcia, includes many visual nods to Nicaraguan culture, including the national flower and tree illustrated on the cigar boxes. Charter Oak is Melillo’s homage to Connecticut cigars. The Connecticut cigar brands that his grandfathers and great-grandfathers smoked mostly faded away and left the market toward the end of the 1990s. Melillo remembers these Connecticut cigars as being great smokes that were available at great price points, and they were more of an everyday kind of cigar. To Melillo, Foundation’s Charter Oak fills the void in the market created by those old Connecticut brands that no longer exist. Having seen and heard from a lot of consumers who were saying they don’t always have a budget to spend on cigars, Melillo created Charter Oak to offer consumers an affordable Connecticut cigar designed to smoke like those he grew up with. Tabernacle is a full-bodied, complex smoke with some depth. The Upsetters, which uses Jamaican cow-tongued tobacco, is made for those smokers looking for an infused cigar. Highclere Castle, a cigar Melillo makes in collaboration with the godsons of the Queen of England, is Foundation’s higher-end cigar. It’s more refined, elegant and smooth compared to other cigars in Foundation’s portfolio.
New Year, New Focus
To celebrate Foundation Cigar Co.’s fifth anniversary, Melillo is readying the release of El Gueguense 5 Year Aniversario, which is slated to launch during the summer. One thing he’s learned in those five years is that he needs to slow down. He realizes just how hard he’s worked to get Foundation Cigar Co. up and running to get the momentum that landed his cigars on many end-of-the-year top cigar lists in 2019. This year is about slowing down and taking more time for himself. For the company, the focus in 2020 is on planning more and spreading more responsibilities around within the team he has built. If Melillo has learned anything since launching Foundation Cigar Co., it’s the importance of finding a balance between work and life.
“I just want people to know that this is my whole life,” he says. “I’m really passionate about and love this industry. I love tobacco, and I just pour my heart and soul into these products, and I hope people respond to them. I also hope retailers understand how dedicated we are at providing quality and consistent products in the market. Retailers feel confident that they know if they recommend a Foundation cigar, it’s going to deliver.”
This story first appeared in the May/June 2020 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 Antoine Reid, senior editor and digital content director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid.