Tobacco Road : L.A.'s Last Cigar Factory Plans Big Move
The hand-rolled cigars on his humidor shelf represent his past. Victor Migenes figures that the roll of hand-drawn blueprints on an office shelf represents his future.
“This is what I want to do,” Migenes said, unfurling architectural sketches that depict an unusual floor plan: an old-fashioned cigar factory located in a gleaming new downtown Los Angeles high-rise.
“This would be the work area,” he said, pointing to the proposed layout. “And over here we’d have the smokers’ den. Dark wood. Nice dark leather chairs. A place to relax and socialize and enjoy your smoke and maybe enjoy a glass of brandy.”
Migenes paused to reflect on the imaginary scene and take a long, contemplative puff on the cigar in his hand.
“Well, I don’t know about the brandy. But it would be a good place to enjoy a cigar,” he finally said, blowing a cloud of aromatic blue smoke into the air for emphasis.
Migenes knows about cigars.
The 30-year-old Eagle Rock man owns Los Angeles’ last cigar factory, La Plata Cigar Co. It is tucked away in an aging storefront on Grand Avenue at the southern edge of downtown. After 43 years, Migenes figures it is time to move uptown.
A cigar factory in a flashy new high-rise? At a time when public opinion of smokers has never been lower and tobacco taxes have never been higher? In a city where some officials want to make tough restrictions against indoor smoking even tougher?
“I want to move into the ‘90s,” said Migenes, a third-generation cigar maker who grew up in the tobacco shop.
As a boy, Migenes would come after school to sweep around the tables where a dozen workers filled stacks of worn, wooden trays with handmade coronas and Churchills and panatelas. When he finished sweeping, he would box up leftover tobacco scraps to be sold to a snuff maker in Tennessee.
As he grew older, Migenes rode his bicycle to deliver cigars to downtown executives. In time, his Puerto Rico-born father taught him how to roll cigars and how to balance the books in a business where customers often purchased stogies by the pocketful and charged them to personal accounts.
Migenes never intended to become a cigar maker. Music was his passion and he dreamed of becoming a rock ‘n’ roll performer. But Victor Migenes Sr.'s heart attack and retirement in 1983 changed all of that.
“There was an outpouring of help from my father’s customers,” he said. “One man took me into the humidor and handed me an envelope full of money and said: ‘Take this if you need it.’ I didn’t need it, but I realized right then that this place had a special meaning to a lot of people.”
These days, Migenes lets his shoulder-length hair down only on weekends. That is when he plays drums in a band called “Paisley Terror.” Its specialty is hard-rock music, which he describes as “being in the Whitesnake vein.”
Weekdays, he presides over five employees who cut 14 1/2 tons of tobacco a year into palm-sized strips that are rolled and pressed into 175,000 handmade cigars.
The completed leaf-wrapped stogies come in 30 shapes and 15 tobacco mixtures and sell for $1.50 to $5 each. Many are purchased in twos and threes by downtown workers who hurry in on their lunch hour to make their selection from the factory’s walk-in humidor.
Others go by the bagful to businessmen. Some buy more than 1,000 at a time, freezing most of the cigars to keep away insects until it is time to thaw them out and fire them up.
Migenes buys his tobacco in Miami. He selects dark, rich leaves imported from Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. Most of it is grown from “Havana seed"--which is the closest that U.S. buyers can get to the prized Cuban cigars that have been banned from this country.
La Plata workers such as Gloria Gomez and Oscar Mursuli have rolled cigars for his family for as many as 18 years, Migenes said. Although cigar makers are common in the Miami area, they are a rare breed on the West Coast.
So are cigar factories. At its peak, Los Angeles only had about seven cigar manufacturers, Migenes said. Although several individual cigar makers work in the city, his is the last company, he said.
That is reason enough to keep Howard Rasco of Los Angeles coming back every few days.
“The tobacco’s fresh,” said Rasco, who works for a graphics printer and buys two cigars at a time. “I don’t smoke them. I chew them. One lasts me a whole day. I’ve been coming in here for 10 years.”
Smoker Bob Bickford, an insurance investigator from Torrance, said he has visited La Plata twice monthly for about the same period.
“The quality is excellent and the consistency is good,” Bickford said, plunking down $19.50 for 25 La Plata Junior Smokers. “I smoke when I’m driving. Or when I’m outside. I’d get killed by my wife if I tried to smoke inside.”
Migenes shrugs off the smoke-'em-outside attitude. However, he suspects that such feelings may be stalling his high-rise relocation plans.
Some of the landlords and real estate agents he has talked with since he spent $3,000 on blueprints a year ago also seem unenthusiastic about introducing cigar smoke to their buildings.
Migenes said he is looking for a ground-level location with curbside, metered parking for customers who want to dash in. He calculates that lease costs will probably keep him south of 7th Street, where rents are cheaper.
“I’m not going to move if I have to charge 50 cents a cigar more in order to pay the rent,” he said, fingering his blueprints. “I’m not going to make my customers pay for this.”
He sees his new place catering to “old-timers who still want sawdust on the floor” and to “the suit-and-tie businessman” he knows he must cultivate to keep the city’s last cigar factory alive.
The tobacco business, he reasons, is full of blends.