The city’s half-dozen tobacco shops and cigar bars were alight with activity over the weekend as the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association held its annual convention and trade show at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
More than 6,000 retail tobacconists and exhibitors from all over the world were in New Orleans for the 83rd annual convention, browsing hundreds of booths and checking out the city’s tobacco scene.
At the Habana Hemingway Cigar Bar on Toulouse Street, Yvette and Yvonne Rodriguez showed off specialty cigars and talked about the Cuban cigar tradition.
The identical twin sisters are first-generation Americans whose parents and grandparents came to Miami in the 1960s to escape the Fidel Castro regime.
They run a public relations firm in Miami, but it was their newest business venture that brought them to New Orleans. The Rodriguez sisters are in the cigar business, and the city is their latest retail target.
“It’s great for all the senses,” Yvonne Rodriguez said of New Orleans from a cool, perfectly humidified table in the back of La Habana, a cigar bar that’s been open for about two years.
“The taste, the smell, your ears, your eyes — the city is one of a kind. When we heard (the convention) was going to be in New Orleans, we said we had to come. We’re not even at the Convention Center. We’re at the cigar shops talking to the people. It’s just a different vibe.
“Obviously, we’re trying to expand our brand to New Orleans, and we like to feel out the cigar shops. We’re very picky. We like our cigars to be in cigar shops where we’d like to hang out.”
Self-described Afro-Cubans, the sisters said they’re not only the first black women to own a cigar company but also the first Cuban women to go into the business in the United States.
They are not, however, the first women to enjoy smoking a good cigar, and they say it is becoming far more common to find women smoking alongside men in cigar lounges everywhere.
Indeed, on the sidewalk outside La Habana, three young women who said they were visiting from Texas puffed stogies as they strolled along. They said they frequent cigar bars back home and enjoy the ceremony of smoking a good cigar.
La Habana’s manager, Hamza Seddika, said he and his staff have noticed more women coming in, buying cigars and smoking them in the lounge.
The Rodriguez sisters don’t think it’s a passing fad. In fact, they’ve been cigar smokers for years.
Their company’s name is Tres Lindas Cubanas, which they said translates into English as “Three Beautiful Cuban Women.” The sisters said it’s also the title of a classic Cuban song they’ve heard since childhood.
The 2-year-old company offers three cigars on its website, treslindascubanascigars.com , and in cigar shops in Florida, Maryland and, hopefully, in New Orleans if their trip is a success.
The darkest cigar is La Negrita. La Mulata is the medium blend, and La Clarita is the lightest of their three smokes.
“Our whole story is that we’re celebrating the different shades of the Cuban woman. We come in all different shades, from darker to medium to lighter skin. There’s a cigar for everybody,” Yvette Rodriguez said.
“We got introduced to cigars by my grandmother. She was like a Clarita, a Cuban woman who was a very strong personality, who smoked cigars and drank rum. Very, very Cuban,” Yvette said.
Tres Lindas Cubanas uses tobacco with Cuban origin but grown in Nicaragua.
“Tobacco leaves cannot be taken out of Cuba. Everything is government-owned. ... So back in the day, exiles took Cuban tobacco seeds and began farming in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic because their climates resemble Cuba’s,” Yvette said.
The sisters enjoy talking about cigars almost as much as they enjoy smoking them.
“Men and women within the cigar culture like to know the history of the brand. They like to know what you’re doing and what you’re smoking,” Yvonne said.
“Not everybody can go on vacation every year, every month or whatever, but for me, smoking a cigar is like a mini-vacation,” Yvette said.
The business is “a lot of work, but it’s fulfilling and it’s our own business. It’s the American dream for us.”
The cigar convention is open to registered members of the association only. It continues through Tuesday.