Do you eat bell peppers?” asks John Woltman, plant manager at Yoe, Pennsylvania-based tobacco manufacturer House of Windsor, Inc. “The active ingredient that gives bell peppers their distinctive flavor is in the parts per billion.” The analogy is offered as a means of explaining how dozens of flavoring components - some in quantities so small they would seem irrelevant - all come together to create unique and essentially impossible-to-duplicate pipe tobacco blends, which the small company makes in the hundreds.
The bell pepper’s active ingredient, it turns out, is present in quantities one thousand times less than the smallest amounts of flavor that Woltman and his staff of blenders might add to any particular recipe batch. Take that special ingredient out of a pepper, and it would no longer be a pepper. Take that special ingredient out of your favorite pipe tobacco blend and, well, that’s just one example of the zeal that separates pipe smokers from cigar smokers, and one of the reasons why House of Windsor needs expert blenders in the first place.
Woltman is taking a rare break from the endless demands of overseeing production at the old-line tobacco manufacturer. On any given day, he and his small but dedicated staff dive in to any task at hand, paying little attention to job titles, all in a common effort to keep the factory humming smoothly and retail customers happy and satisfied. “In a small little business like this, everybody wears a lot of hats,” says Raphael Hebert, national sales manager for House of Windsor and its parent company, Cincinnati-based American Western Cigar Co.
Finding House of Windsor isn’t the easiest task. Blink twice while driving through the tiny borough of Yoe, Pennsylvania, and you may nearly miss the town entirely, passing into any one of its small neighbors, all on the outskirts of York, an old manufacturing city not far from the Delaware border. Most long-time tobacconists would quickly recognize the historical link among these towns - places with names like Windsor and Red Lion. At their peak, the region’s cigar factories produced nearly 50% of all of the nation’s five-cent cigars, and chewing tobacco was a close second in importance. Today, only a handful of producers keep the area’s tobacco manufacturing legacy alive.
Perched at the top of a hill in Yoe, where none of the businesses even have street numbers, is House of Windsor. True to the region’s tradition, it produces not only classic style short-fill cigars and chewing tobaccos, but pipe tobaccos as well. And in a twist of irony, it is the pipe tobaccos that management here has seen emerge as an important growth market for the 80-year-old firm, one that’s already helped revitalize sales for the manufacturer.
|Cutting pipe tobacco in one of many possible styles. House of Windsor still produces many less common historical cuts, and can even create entirely custom cuts.
The company’s brands are instantly recognizable, from one of the oldest lines of flavored cigars in the market - Wolf Brothers Crooks - to classic pipe mixtures like Briggs, Country Doctor, and Bourbon Street. The company itself is also one of the oldest and last manufacturers of bulk pipe tobaccos and blending components in the industry, producing a wide range of branded and private label blends. Having recently put past operating difficulties behind it, House of Windsor is well-positioned to leverage its expertise, capacity, and flexibility in establishing a larger presence in this segment.
“There’s a need in the market right now because there’s a void,” says Hebert. “A lot of the major players are slowly getting away from pipe tobacco, because it’s a very complex operation for a relatively small volume of sales,” but a niche market that House of Windsor is excited to grow.
A New, Comfortable Size
The privately-held firm, which traces its roots to 1918, was a division of U.S. Tobacco from 1962 until 1988, and still occupies the large facility that was built under UST ownership. The 130,000 sq. foot factory and office complex was considered one of the most modern tobacco manufacturing centers in the industry for years, producing large quantities of regional and national brands. Following its return to private ownership, House of Windsor saw its fortunes recede over the years, though. By the end of the 1990s the company had been in and out of financial difficulties several times and facing a shaky future.
At this same time, the company’s rich history, manufacturing capabilities, and extensive tobacco blending expertise caught the attention of Alfred Berger, who with his son David founded Cincinnati-based American Western Cigar in the mid-1990s to import and market premium flavored cigars from Indonesia. Berger, whose own family involvement in the cigar industry extends back several generations, envisioned a mutually beneficial strategic alliance between the two companies: American Western would gain access to desirable domestic manufacturing capabilities, while House of Windsor would benefit from an infusion of resources, including American Western’s focused marketing expertise. Berger says he also brought something else that “infects” his own company, and would ultimately infect House of Windsor: a desire to have fun, despite the challenges a day may bring.
By January 2001, a deal was finalized, with American Western controlling a majority stake in House of Windsor and its equally recognizable distribution arm, Red Lion International. With an influx of new management expertise, the task of restoring House of Windsor’s luster was underway. By mid-year, back orders had been eliminated, and the company had resumed production of all its premium pipe tobaccos and bulk blending components, drawn from a library of over 200 different proprietary blends.
|John Woltman, plant supervisor (left), oversees production of House of Windsor’s cigars and tobaccos. Alfred Berger (right) and American Wester Cigar Co. bought the company in 2001.
One of the most important aspects of American Western’s involvement, according to Berger, has been its decision to leave House of Windsor’s human resources essentially intact, providing “extra help” while allowing the staff’s accumulated expertise do what it does best. “It has worked very, very well,” explains Berger, emphasizing that “90 percent of everything they were doing was working. The 10 percent was the marketing, finance, and some of the other things which were difficult.”
With changes in production and financing firmly in place, attention has since been focused on promoting an ever-expanding national sales and marketing program, building market share, and bringing the House of Windsor name back to the forefront of full-line tobacco shops. “Unless you do some good marketing, you find that your business shrinks every year,” says Berger.
Last year, the companies jointly exhibited at over 20 regional and national trade shows and conventions, and introduced coupons and promotions, new brands, and sampler packs.
While House of Windsor is a considerably smaller company today than it was during the 1970s, it has retained proportionally far more talent and expertise than its size would suggest, the benefit of years of accumulated resources. This vast wealth of tobacco blending knowledge is a combination of staff experience - Elijia, the company’s pipe tobacco “chef,” has been there about 20 years - and one-of-a-kind assets, such as the pipe tobacco business of Philip Morris, brand names and blend recipes and all, purchased from the company years ago.
Much like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices or Coca-Cola’s vault-locked formula, House of Windsor has what it refers to as its “bibles” - three giant recipe books detailing the precise components in the precise proportions that are used to produce not just one product, but over 200 different finished tobacco blends. A fourth book details the company’s flavored cigar blends.
Woltman, a 32-year company veteran, says that House of Windsor’s history in pipe tobacco extends back to its former home in Richmond, Virginia, to about 1918. “We have formulas that go back to the 1920s, 30s, and 40s,” he says. The company’s Model pipe tobacco was one of the nation’s leading brands around World War II. As consumer tastes changed, blends and formulas have evolved in turn.
“You have to stay modern and keep up with the current trends, so we’ve developed newer blends and newer formulas based on our expertise,” says Woltman. “The trend a while ago was toward the more aromatic [styles], more flavors, whereas the old blends were more of the English style, the heavy burleys.” Woltman sees a renewed interest in the English style blends, a prospect he’s excited about since he’s armed with intimate knowledge of how many of those blends were originally made 50 years ago.
For the uninitiated - which included American Western’s Berger when he was first introduced to House of Windsor operations - comprehending the complexities of pipe tobacco blending is no small task. The subtleties were something Berger admits took him by surprise, despite his extensive knowledge of cigar production.
House of Windsor still produces some of its oldest formulas as is, others are used more like seasonings in a new recipe. “Some of those formulas are actually blending components in our more modern mixtures,” Woltman explains. “We take that core, and we blend other tobaccos with it now, and put a top flavoring on it. But the core component has stayed unchanged for many years.”
Much like a long list of ingredients a chef uses to create a signature dish, dozens of individual flavorings - some in tiny quantities - are combined to create one-of-a-kind tobacco blends.
“To achieve a good English blend, you do what’s called a primary casing and then usually a top dressing, or top flavoring,” Woltman explains. “But the casing itself, in one of our typical formulas, would have about 15 different components…not harsh chemicals, but pretty much natural components.”
While some of these components are simple, like licorice or sugar, others are themselves custom House of Windsor blends. “Some of those components, we make also. So if a recipe calls for this component, we have to go back to the formula book and make that component ourselves, because there’s no flavoring company out there that makes it.” In that one component alone, there could be 10 or 15 sub-components, in some cases mere milliliters added to a typical 250 gallon batch of casing, which is then applied to 1,000 pounds of tobacco.
|If you’ve ever purchased product from House of Windsor, you’ve probably spoken with 30-year company veteran Bob Gohn, customer service manager (left), or Sherry Florio, regional sales manager at the Pennsylvania headquarters.
Because there are so many separate components used in any given blend, a typical House of Windsor blend is virtually impossible to copy or duplicate. Some major manufacturers have even tried, but retailers and customers accustomed to the “real thing” have been delighted to see the return of authentic Red Lion and House of Windsor blends, all at prices lower than the erstwhile knockoffs.
In addition to it’s own selection of branded smoking blends, House of Windsor also offers over 20 bulk blending components in a variety of cuts. The company, which was actually one of the original manufacturers and suppliers of bulk smoking tobaccos to premium tobacco shops, has made every effort to once again reach out to pipe and tobacco shops in ways that larger company’s often can’t. To that end, all of House of Windsor’s bulk tobaccos, from aromatics to blending components, are packaged in 30, 15, and even 5 lb. bags, ideal for even the smallest shops eager to operate a blending bar and provide on-site mixing capabilities without the burden of waste of large minimum orders.
The company’s component tobaccos include Burley, Cavendish, Perique, Latakia, Turkish, bright, and bright Virginia, offered in an array of cuts from long, ribbon, rough, chunk, granulated, flake, and strip cuts to more unusual ones, including cube cuts and ready-rub. “These are historical cuts, which a lot of companies don’t do,” notes Berger.
Finished blends may incorporate several different component tobaccos and cuts. The company also maintains inventories of 36 different styles of private blends, ranging from popular aromatics to natural and English style blends.
In addition to its extensive offering of off-the-shelf tobacco blends and bulk components, House of Windsor also offers a variety of custom tobacco services capable of meeting the specific needs of any retailer, private labeler, or distributor, including custom cutting, casing, toppings, blending, labeling, and packaging. Woltman says its cutting machinery can be configured in numerous ways, and tobacco batches cut in multiple stages to create a wide variety of different cuts,
For retailers searching for a quality supply of bulk or branded tobaccos along with knowledgeable employees eager to spend time answering questions and discussing a shop’s specific needs, House of Windsor offers it all. And don’t forget about the cigars!
House of Windsor, Yoe, Pennsylvania, Toll-free: (800) 237-4715, Tel: (800) 237-4715, Fax: (717) 244-0305; American Western Cigars, 2575 Queen City Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45238, Toll-free: (800) 870-3128, Wk: (513) 662-8802, Fax: (513) 662-8808