CLARKSDALE — Long known for the Delta blues, soon this area will also be known for premium cigars. Avalon Cigars, a boutique cigar manufacturer that uses a proprietary pecan-aging process, is going into production here in 2007.
Building on the popularity of the Delta’s native music, Avalon’s founders, Gary Hilton and Tom Ramsey, are bringing the two together in a nod to the area’s heritage, culture and music.
The two came up with the idea of a Delta Blues Cigar on Ramsey’s back porch while enjoying a fine cigar and great red wine. They had been custom ordering their own cigar blends from a small factory in the heart of Miami’s Callie Ocho district, Little Havana.
Ramsey met the owner of the shop while attending a conference in Miami three years ago. “He’s a nice guy, the patriarch of the family, and came from Cuba in 1958,” he said. “He was standing in front of his shop, and we started talking. I had coffee and a cigar with him and got to know him. I’ve been buying cigars from him since then.”
Workers in that Miami shop hand roll the Avalon Cigars and ship them to Clarksdale for aging and packaging , but there are plans to bring at least part of the operation to the city. Currently, Avalon has two employees , but that will change thanks to the city’s application for a Community Development Block Grant for a building. Plans call for 10 to 25 people to roll short filler cigars in Clarksdale.
“Rolling is a hands-on process that takes great manual dexterity. It’s something a machine just can’t do,” Ramsey said. “We would love to utilize the labor pool of the Delta. With the right training, these jobs could be a perfect fit for Clarksdale and the Delta.”
Once they created the concept, Hilton and Ramsey tested the product in Ramsey’s kitchen and were pleasantly surprised to find a successful formula. Using the pecan wood to age the cigars gave them a distinct flavor.
“For the most part, we’ve got the product right where we want it and we’re building up inventory now,” Hilton said. “We researched trends in cigars before we started the company, and we have an appreciation for the blues.”
The love of this music is used for the branding and marketing of the cigars. “We wanted to highlight our two passions, great cigars and Mississippi,” Ramsey said. “Now is a wonderful time with the state blues trail opening.
Supporting the blues is a piece of history and economics.”
The duo, who’re both natives of Vicksburg, named their company for the hometown of blues legend Mississippi John Hurt. The different cigar series are named for blues singers (living and deceased), juke joints and legendary figures from Delta folklore.
With his marketing background, Hilton says they looked at it objectively. “What do we have that we can market? And we wanted to deliver a luxury item,” he said. “We thought we could take what we know and present it with the cigars.”
The names and images of some of Mississippi’s legendary blues artists appear on the bands of the cigars. That includes Honeyboy Edwards, who has played with all the big names and at age 91 is still playing.
“It’s a great thing for him and we’re honored to have him on it,” Ramsey said. “We’re not ripping off these old blues artists like others have done.”
Three percent of cigar sales are paid to the artists and their families. Because of that arrangement, the Avalon owners are receiving calls of support from museums and others interested in preserving the blues heritage. In its packaging and marketing materials, Avalon Cigars will use the works of local artists and photographers.
“For so long, people have exploited the musicians and artists from this area,” Hilton said. “We wanted to start out by doing the right thing. We will pay royalties to the bluesmen and their estates and we will use local talent for our promotional materials. We want to be a part of growing this community.”
Ramsey, an investment banker with GodwinCapital, has worked with numerous growing businesses and witnessed several start-up successes and failures. “Watching my clients go through the pains of formation and growth taught me valuable lessons that Gary and I hope to apply here,” he said. “You have to be prepared for the good and the bad. You can’t just go into a venture hoping everything will come out the way you planned.”
Their kitchen hobby got better and better and the pair realized they were on to something. Popular throughout the 1990s, the interest in cigars reached an apex in 1997 with 417 million imported into the U.S. That’s not counting cigars made here. Ramsey says the quality of cigars suffered during that boom as cigar makers tried to keep up with demand. After 1997, sales fell off , but they’re starting to climb again.
“The quality grew consistently and the popularity is sustained,” he said. “The demand has grown even with the anti-smoking legislation. Cigars don’t seem to fall into that genre.”
As of now, Avalon Cigars are for sale at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, but that’s about to change this year. Ramsey and Hilton are in discussion with retailers all over the country, and plan to start with cigar stores in the Southeast and grow from there.
Having the cigars on sale at Ground Zero, the blues club owned by actor Morgan Freeman and local businessman Bill Luckett, gives the fledgling product good exposure.
“It connects the cigars to the blues. We wanted closer ties to the Delta with our campaign to help blues musicians,” Hilton said. “It’s being accepted and people like it.”
The Avalon owners are appreciative of Luckett’s help in introducing them around the Delta. “This connection authenticates us as a company and a product,” Hilton said. “We got lucky with the popularity of the blues and renewed interest on the West Coast. Every weekend people come to Ground Zero from all over the world.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.