Just What
The Doctor

California chiropractor Dr. Garo Bouldoukian develops blends to please his own palate, making his rising cigar company, Garo Habano Cigar Company, a labor of love.

By Dale Scott

"Passion" and "commitment" are two words that were often mouthed by the flurry of entrepreneurs who saw the promise of Big Bucks, back in the days of the cigar boom. But, when the fad phase ended and the last dog had dropped, most had scattered like Washington's cherry blossoms after a Spring thunderstorm. Those who showed their mettle during the gloom of 1998 to 2000 proved their passion for puros, not primarily - or solely - for profit. Some of the fledgling brands have gone on to make a successful name for themselves, and are now growing at a healthy rate. Others have quality products at a reasonable price, who - with a good dose of effective promotion - hope to establish themselves as the next discovery by the marketplace. One of the latter may well be Garo Habano Cigar Company, a small boutique marketer of premium cigars, with headquarters in Glendale, California.

Garo Bouldoukian (GAR-oh Bool-DOOk-ee-an), founder of Garo Habano, is a still-practicing chiropractor. He entered the cigar market in 1996, not as a business, but to satisfy his own enjoyment of fine cigars, and to supply gifts to friends and colleagues. Unaware the cigar Renaissance had begun, he contacted a small Cuban expatriate's factory in the Dominican Republic that still makes several high-quality and well-known premium cigar brands. They supported him in his desire to develop his own favorite blends.

Surrounded by the company's signature supergraphics, Dr. and Mrs. Bouldoukian appear at the Garo Habano booth at the 2003 RTDA trade show in Nashville.
Garo confesses he was, and still is, fascinated by the challenge of creating the blends for his own cigars. He takes great pride and satisfaction in his ability to imagine and then create different blends, to suit his own appetite. "It's strange," he says. "I can almost picture a three-dimensional model of a unique flavor profile in my mind's eye, then go to the factory and duplicate it." Impressed with his ability to transform this abstraction into a finished flavor, the factory owners continue to give him free rein to develop his own cigars' flavor and aroma profiles.

With encouragement from associates whom he blessed with his gift cigars, this shortly evolved into his first commercial line, Garo Blue. It remains a very mild and subtle blend of Dominican Piloto Cubano filler, with a true Connecticut-grown shade wrapper. It now includes eight shapes. Like all other Garo lines, the presentation bespeaks quality, with non-traditional but distinctively elegant bands. Blue is packaged in a thick-walled Spanish cedar 8-9-8 box, with other elegant presentation touches.

Since 1996, Garo has introduced six different lines, and their diversity of flavors, strengths, fermentation techniques, and shapes (currently 26) should pique the palate of any premium cigar connoisseur. Garo has immersed himself in the trade, and has been to every RTDA trade show for eight years. He has slowly built his retailer base of prestige smoke shops, which currently numbers between 250 and 300.

But it hasn't always been easy. After the introduction of the Blue line, Garo struggled through several difficult years. The major cigar makers' sales policy of requiring tobacconists to carry all their brands in order to get the "hot" lines made 1998 through 2000 particularly nerve-wracking. The policy was an effective way to also muscle smaller brands off the shelves, but Garo persevered.

"It was tough in that period," admits Garo who, like other new brand producers at the time, found it difficult to compete for attention and shelf space. "Everyone was scrambling to get the best-known national brands, and we were just a small company," he recalls. "But, I stayed true to the tobacconists, who often found themselves competing against non-traditional outlets that discounted those major-name cigars." Even though friends and family urged him to quit the business, Garo doggedly hung on.

"I refused to give up," Garo explains. "I sold my cigars the old-fashioned way, face-to-face with retailers and consumers in the stores, talking cigars and tobacco, and supporting them personally and single-handedly. I ran small ads, offering discounted sample packs to smokers, to expose them to our cigars. I gave free samples to retailers, so they could in turn hand them out to their best customers." Garo Habano did well in the ratings back in those days, too, with the Blue line earning scores as high as "88" in Cigar Insider.

After Blue, Garo next introduced his robust Maduro in four shapes, with Dominican filler and binder and Brazilian wrapper, available in cedar cabinets of 25. Following the Maduro came the medium-bodied Classique, which combines Dominican Piloto Cubano and Costa Rican leaf in the filler, along with a Dominican binder. Its Dominican wrapper has a subtly warm rosado hue, and Garo describes the flavor as floral, with a woodsy undertone. It is available in four shapes, and is presented in a cedar cabinet.

More recently, the ratings began to roll in, and they were generous in their praise. The medium-bodied Millennium 2000, with a Dominican filler/binder and a Nicaraguan-grown Havana 2000 wrapper, scored an admirable 4.1 in the Winter 2002 Smoke magazine last year. This cigar is available in four shapes.

Then Garo introduced his Nouveau, also in four shapes. This cigar combines Nicaraguan and two different Dominican filler tobaccos, a Dominican binder, and Nicaraguan wrapper. But what makes it intriguing is the use of beer or wines in the actual fermentation process rather than as a flavoring agent for the tobacco or finished cigars. The tobacco in the Nouveau Jazz is enhanced with Chardonnay, the Blues with Merlot, and the Flamenco with Champagne. The most recent, Nouveau Salsa, uses a popular European beverage called Panache, which combines beer and a citrus "7-Up" type soda. Smoke's reviewers earlier this year liked this novel line, also, giving it another 4.1 and deeming it "Highly Recommended" (Spring 2003).

Garo's latest line, Los Lectores, relies on Dominican ligero for power, along with two other Dominican filler tobaccos, an Indonesian binder, and Nicaraguan wrapper. Garo says it is his most full-bodied line. It is available in three shapes, and is boxed in Spanish cedar.

Garo cigars have been earning favorable ratings in cigar shootouts, outscoring many well-known brands. And, with unique cigars like the Nouveau, Garo is justified in saying, "I don't copy others' cigars."

The Garo lineup retails for about $6 to $12, which places it in the prestige premium cigar category. Considering the favorable ratings Garo Habano products consistently earn against its peers, this is not an unreasonable price range. Breaking Out Anchored with unique blends and consistent, quality products, Garo has always insisted on providing retailers personal service, which has all helped to raise Garo Habano's market recognition in recent years.

"The ratings bear out the value in Garo Habano products," says Garo, who has been doubling his efforts in promotions, largely in conjunction with traditional retail shops, to increase recognition of the brand among smokers.

"I still sell to brick-and-mortar smoke shops," Garo emphasizes, adding that he has never offered his products to mass-marketers, mail-order or Internet outlets, or through catalogs, sore points for traditional tobacconists.

"I have also remained personally involved in the selection of tobacco, the blending, and production of all the cigars, visiting the Dominican Republic every six weeks," says Garo. "I intend to continue to do this, and need only draw market interest by publicizing the name Garo Habano."

"Once retailers and smokers truly understand the commitment I personally make," stresses Garo, "they know I am serious in supporting them in selling Garo Habano products."

Far from being an overnight success, Garo has worked hard and paid his dues for several years. Garo Habano has all the elements in place to become a widely accepted boutique premium cigar line - a company to watch.

Garo Habano Cigar Co., 3200 La Crescenta Ave., Suite A, Glendale, CA 91208, Tel: (800) 995-4276, Fax: (818) 248-1361, Web: www.garohabano.com.

SMOKESHOP - December, 2003