“Our biggest issue is no different than everybody else: You can ask 99 percent of every manufacturer out there, ‘What’s your biggest issue?’ Right now, it’s packaging.”
Although packaging issues were something Espinosa couldn’t predict early on in the pandemic, he was able to adjust different aspects of his business in order to better handle today’s reality. A lot of the changes made happened within the company’s factory in Nicaragua. Espinosa Cigars provides its La Zona team with plenty of masks and hand sanitizer, even with the pandemic winding down and becoming more of an ongoing situation, such as the flu or a cold. Everyone that walks into the factory is asked to wash his or her hands, and Espinosa himself is a firm believer that each worker should have a choice of whether to wear a mask during their workday. Hygiene is a major concern for Espinosa, who sees society’s emphasis on washing hands, cleaning and protecting oneself from germ exposure as one of the positive things to come out of the pandemic.
Another change that came from the pandemic was the company’s stock of tobacco. Espinosa Cigars has more tobacco on hand for its blends today than it has had in the past, and a big lesson that Espinosa learned was to stock up on different tobaccos, packaging and bands in order to prepare for any unforeseen supply chain issues. Planning is key, he explains, because you have to make sure you have everything needed to keep your cigars on store shelves and your customers supplied with what they’re looking for. If the last two years of events that took place during the pandemic have taught Espinosa anything, it’s to expect—and to plan—for the unexpected.
Building and maintaining relationships with business partners is also something Espinosa works diligently at. He is aware of the important role that retailers play in his business, and he works hard to supply them with the support that is necessary to be successful with Espinosa Cigars’ products. He engages with his retail partners on a regular basis, calling them frequently to not only talk business but to keep up with their families as well.
“[Retailers] like people that work for them. It’s a partnership, so we have to engage with them,” Espinosa explains. “I’ll sit in my office, and on Mondays I’ll call all my friends: the retailers. ‘Hey, how are you doing? How’s your family? How’s this? How’s that?’ That’s how you continue to build the relationship.”
It’s that personal touch that sets Erik Espinosa apart from others. He doesn’t own a computer—a fact that he’s almost excited to share. He does check and respond to emails, but the best way to get in touch with Espinosa is the old-fashioned way: Call him.
“It’s funny, I don’t know how many numbers I have on my phone, but I have a lot,” he says. “I give every consumer that I like my telephone number. That’s the type of person that I am.”
Espinosa also isn’t afraid to use video and virtual conferencing software to stay in touch with retailers. Before the pandemic, Espinosa was one of the many people in the cigar industry who were constantly on the road. That, of course, wasn’t possible in 2020 and part of 2021 as the world grappled with the pandemic and travel restrictions, but Espinosa turned to video calls and software like Zoom to engage with retailers and consumers and maintain his preference for face-to-face interactions.
That leads to another reason retailers are taking notice of Espinosa Cigars: Espinosa takes an active role in his company’s business and its success. If he’s at an event, he’s actively engaging with everyone at the event. He doesn’t take a back seat just because he’s the owner of the company. He lets consumers and retailers know about the company’s cigars and what the company is about. With the success of Knuckle Sandwich, Laranja and La Bomba, retailers don’t have to worry about whether Espinosa Cigars are going to move. They’re not only going to sell; it’s also not uncommon for them to sell out.
“Give us the opportunity,” he says to retailers who are not yet carrying his products. “I will never sell to anybody who says, ‘Give me a box of this and a box of that.’ No, no, no. You’re not ready for us because it’s not going to sell. I’d rather just sell you one brand. Get four SKUs in there and make them look presentable. Then we’ll send the sales guy to sell it for you, and we’ll do a little tasting.”
Espinosa Cigars’ meteoric rise has come as a result of Erik Espinosa’s drive to be the best and his willingness to put himself out there every day alongside his team to do whatever’s necessary to get his cigars in the hands and mouths of anyone willing to light one up. That drive, however, never comes at the expense of the truth. It also doesn’t supersede Espinosa’s rule of always doing what’s right and being loyal to those who have been loyal to him.
“That’s what I tell everybody: I don’t sell my soul. I’m very loyal. If you’re loyal to me, I’m going to be loyal to you,” he says.
Hate it or love it, Erik Espinosa and Espinosa Cigars are on top of their game, and there’s no sign of that stopping anytime soon.
This story first appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. You can view the entire issue online for free by clicking here.
– Photography by Slav Gordeyev. Story by Antoine Reid, senior editor and digital director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid.