It’s called the Cigar City, but there are now more breweries than cigar factories. Tampa—specifically its Ybor City neighborhood—was once the capital of the global cigar industry. A drive through Ybor City shows many of the old cigar factories still standing, some dilapidated and vacant, some renovated to apartments and offices, but there is one where cigars are still rolled. Just one.
In 1953, Stanford Newman began a test to see if the old E. Regensburg Cigar Factory in Tampa would be suitable for his father’s cigar company. A year later, Julius Caeser Newman moved his company from Ohio to the Cigar City.
The Regensburg factory was built in 1910, but the massive factory was better known as El Reloj, Spanish for the clock, due to the tall bellower that sits at one corner of the factory. In 1951, Regensburg left after mechanization took employment from 1,000 rollers to around 300. Enter J.C. Newman.
In 2020, J.C. Newman will celebrate its 125th anniversary and part of those celebrations will be an updated El Reloj factory. The company plans to turn it into a cigar destination, though it’s not as if that isn’t the case at the moment.
The building houses a multitude of things, most notably, a cigar factory on the second floors that produces 60,000 cigars. In addition, a museum and the J.C. Newman offices are on the first floor, there’s a machine shop, a museum area, complete with exhibits detailing the building and company’s history. And lots of storage. The building is so large and contains so much history, that some members of the Newman family struggled to identify where various pictures we took were taken.
And while there’s a two-year project planned to update the building, it’s not as if the company hasn’t been doing that for the last half-century. We arrived shortly after a new roof had been installed. The museum area is substantially more involved than a few pictures with captions; i.e., a museum professional certainly helped the company construct it. In 2002, the company restored the building’s famous clock which had been dormant for nearly 50 years after a woman complained it was waking up her baby.
The clock now chimes, every day.
A total of 135 employees and two dogs work out of the nearly 100,000-square-foot building. There are two separate cigar operations: the antique, human-operated cigar machines that produce 60,000 cigars are overseen by 15 employees while two employees make cigars entirely by hand, part of Drew Newman’s upcoming Fourth Generation Cigar Co. project.
Because of the Newman family’s political advocacy, the factory receives a fair bit of politicians. As such, you see charts and maps throughout the factory stressing the importance of the cigar industry and the uniqueness of what’s taking place at the El Reloj factory.
Up until recently that operation was just the antique machines, which use mixed filler tobacco from the Fuente and Padrón factories, as well as the Newman’s own PENSA factory in Estelí, Nicaragua. That filler is mixed into a special blend which is then placed inside of various wrappers to create brands like Factory Throwouts.
The machines are different from those used by the companies responsible for mass market cigars like Swisher. These are older, slower and finickier. And while they are still machines, they won’t work unless a human is there to place the tobacco leaf, fill the blended tobacco or remove the finished cigars. Quite simply, there is as much movement over the course of a minute as you’d see at any factory, but the difference is just in output.
Jeannie is one of Bobby’s dogs. She is an ambassador for Southeastern Guide Dogs, which Bobby sits on the board of, an organization that trains dogs to serve as guide dogs for the visually-impaired and veterans. She roams the office, seen here protecting the hallway from stray bloggers.
For the Newman family, the red brick building is a matter of pride. It could very easily move this production to Nicaragua, where it would be far cheaper to make the identical cigars, but it wouldn’t be the same. The Newmans are Cigar City and until someone else resurrects another old building, Cigar City is J.C. Newman.
Text for this post was written by Charlie Minato.