The Story of Tabanero Cigars
“You can do whatever you dream.”
Those were the words my mother spoke to me often.
Just as the golden rays of the rising sun would greet the fertile ground of Cuba, so the words of her encouragement greeted me each morning and planted themselves in my heart. The Cuban soil produced crops of the sweetest sugar and finest tobacco. My heart produced a dream of the truest Old World values and New World optimism.
My name is Yanko Macedo and this is my story. It is a story of how my Cuban heritage and the American Dream are bringing a renaissance of the cigar industry in Tampa by providing you with the finest cigars handmade by greatest artisans who truly love the craft.
I was born in 1978 to a really poor family in the outskirts of Havana. I’m not lucky enough to say my immediate family had farms or factories; we were pretty poor. It is a wondrous thing that dreams can grow in such a situation, but the human heart is fertile ground regardless the circumstances that surround it.
Cuba is world renowned for her cigars. It is not just the tobacco that is produced there, it is also the craft of the artisan who makes the cigar. I was fortunate to witness these truths in person as a young boy. Growing up I was sent to visit a member of my extended family who had a farm in Pinar de Rio where they still grow tobacco today. It was during the summers spent amongst the fields and people of Pinar that a love for the way of the cigar was cultivated in me.
Even as a young boy I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Something that was instrumental in shaping that desire was a movie I saw when I was six or seven. The movie was Baby Boom. The main character starts a business making and selling baby food. She starts it in her home in New York. The business became a big industry. That really caught my attention. Living in Cuba I couldn’t believe there was a country in which you could do things like that. To have a dream, to start in the kitchen of your house and to become such a big industry – this is wonderful. It is amazing. I wanted to see my dreams come true in America.
In school, every time that they ask me, ‘So Yanko, what are you going to do when you finish this or that?” I always said, “I’m going to America!” They would say, “ Ah man, you always say that same thing that you are going to America.”
Well, I finally made it when I was sixteen. The first nine years I wasted in Miami by chasing the wrong dreams. I thought that what I was looking for was money, was riches and all that came with it. It took me nine years and eight different ventures, eight different ideas before I understood that what I was looking for was a purpose. The real dream was to feel that I had a purpose.
I remembered those fields from my youth and the beautiful way the artisans made the cigars. The vision of Tabanero Cigars was born. It is my American dream arising from my Cuban heritage. But how was I going to make my dream, my passion a reality?
One of my early ventures was a restaurant in the heart of Tampa, in Ybor City. I remember that on my breaks between lunch and dinner, I used to walk 7th Avenue. It was full of small boutiques. Every time I’d go into a small shop and try different cigars. I was astonished by the lack of consistency. On Wednesday it would taste like this and then on Friday it would be a different batch and it was a completely different taste. I thought, “Well, it looks like these people are treating their small business like a souvenir shop.”
So, I started to search in order to discover if there was a hand-made brand made here in Tampa. Whenever I asked someone the first word out of their mouths was Arturo Fuente or JC Newman. However, Newman stopped producing hand made cigars in the 50s and switched to machine made. Arturo Fuentes left Tampa in late 70s and moved to Nicaragua. It didn’t work out in Nicaragua and they moved to the Dominican Republic. So there was no hand made brand in Tampa, Florida. That is when I became determined to start a brand to put Tampa back on the map as the premier place for the finest hand-made cigars.
Thus began the adventure of Tabanero Cigars. The first chapter of our journey began by opening a small cigar lounge by the airport in Tampa. It only lasted a year and depleted all my money. It failed. I fell. So, I took a break and started really small with one cigar roller in a little 120 square foot space. After working with me for two weeks my only roller left because he said that I didn’t have enough clients coming through the door for me to pay him. I said to myself, “Well, what do I do now?”
But I was so sure of my dream and I was working so hard on my vision of having a hand made brand in Tampa that no obstacle was going to stop me. The feeling was so strong that God had been lining up every piece that I needed to make the dream a reality. He was putting together every piece to make the Tabanero brand the most famous brand in the world. My vision was clear. When people mention Cuba anywhere in the world, whether in Dubai, Paris, or Chicago they think of quality cigars. That is what I wanted for Tabanero. Wherever a person is located, whenever they think of fine hand-made cigars, they will think of Tampa and Tabanero.
So in that little space I grew to five rollers. I had to work outside because there was not enough room for me to work in the same place as the rollers. I realized that we needed a new location. We moved five times in a short span of time. At one location we were having our best sales when we were presented with a new opportunity. The owner of a new Cuban-themed nightclub approached me and said, “Yanko, would you like to have an opportunity to move to 7th Avenue?” I jumped at the chance. They put us in a corner of the nightclub where the patrons to the club could watch our rollers. We were doing good numbers from that corner and I thought we had finally arrived. But after six months the nightclub failed and someone called to tell me we had to be out by the end of the month. It was a difficult time.
People saw me pack all our stuff into a truck and they thought, “Well, that’s the end of Tabanero.” I had to move into a house which we rented in Ybor Heights. It was a disappointing setback. So I prayed more earnestly and worked even harder on my vision. I would come to the four corners in the heart of Ybor each day for an hour and envision our store in this location. Then I would say to God, “I want to be on one of these corners. I don’t know where and I don’t know how. You know we don’t have the money, but God I want to be on one of these four corners.”
I wait patiently and patiently at the little house where we were barely surviving. One day a business owner approached me and said, “I have a place on 22nd across from the Columbia restaurant which has been in Tampa for a hundred and five years.” I said, “Well, that’s better than a house!” So we moved over there and begin growing again. But I did not forget about my prayer to God to be located on one of the four corners.
My heart focused upon a storefront on Seventh avenue that was perfect. I called the landlord telling him I wanted to rent. He said, “No.” But I did not give up. I kept calling him. For four months, every week I would call him. At first, he would answer but after the sixth call he got really mad at me and said, “Please don’t call me anymore I said ‘no’ already.” I kept calling anyway and would leave a message saying, “This is Yanko Macedo and this is your weekly call. Please if you change your mind let me know – this is my number.”
One day I was overwhelmed by my passion for making Tabanero Cigars the best hand-made cigar boutique in the world. I called the landlord and left a voice mail from the bottom of my heart. God knows it was from the bottom of my heart. I said, “Sir, you’ve been saying “no” for four months, but I really, really beg you that we meet face to face and allow me to share with you how we can infuse that corner with the right clientele. There have been bars at that corner forever and it has never positively affected your surrounding neighbors. Let me share with you how my clientele is going to help make that corner a destination point.” The next day at 8 a.m. I got a phone call from the landlord saying, “Ok Yanko, I want to hear what you have to say. I’ll see you at 10 am.”
We met and he believed in our dream. So we are now in that location! I love it; I’m so blessed. Customers say to me, “You have a great location.” I respond, “No I don’t have a great location. I have the best location!” From Tampa, Florida we can save the world. If we are talking about cigars, there is not a location like this in Miami, there is not a location like this in New York, there is no location like this anywhere in the world. I am so blessed. Every time I write my check to the landlord I always put a note in there: “John, Thank You. Thank you for the opportunity. I can’t thank you enough.” I do it every month.
When I reflect on where we are and remember from where we came – wow. It is hard to believe that a kid from Havana, a kid with no schooling, could have such an opportunity and through hard work fueled by an unwavering belief in his dream come to this place. Well, that is my dream; this is my story.