Q & A With Jon Huber of Crowned Heads

The company with some of the biggest buzz lately in Social Media has yet to release a cigar. Crowned Heads which was formed by former employees of CAO has Jon Huber in the limelight once again. Huber who was the Director of Marketing before the company was bought by Scandinavian Tobacco Group has used social media to perfection to create a buzz for a cigar that no one has any idea of what it will bring to the table. Four Kicks is slated to be released soon in limited numbers and the stores that have been announced as retailers are already fielding calls on the smoke.

I recently reached out to Jon Huber asking if he would take the time to answer some questions, and he was kind enough to do so…

acigarsmoker.com: Jon Huber, a lover of music, and Nashville. How did you wind up in the cigar industry and ultimately with CAO?

Jon Huber: Back in 1995, I was at a crossroads in my life where I no longer wanted to just “have a job.” I didn’t want to dread going into work every morning; I wanted to do something I loved and be paid for it. At that time, I was getting really interested in wine and cigars. I loved that both were made by hand–with little or no machinery–I loved the romance, tradition, and passion each industry seemed to have. There was (and still is) something utterly noble about growing something from a seed, harvesting, cultivating, fermenting, blending, etc. One day, I was in a wine store here in Nashville and they had a copy of Cigar Aficionado (George Burns cover) at the register. I bought it, read it cover to cover, and started saving my money to purchase a few cigars each week. I became hooked. I was (and still am) a cigar ‘geek’ and kept the bands of the cigars I smoked in a journal; I took notes on each and every cigar I smoked. Soon thereafter, I knew in my gut that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

Actually getting a job in the cigar industry wasn’t as easy. I literally took that issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine and wrote letters and made phone calls to every company I could find in there. Nobody would hire me. I even received a rejection letter from Gordon Mott (Cigar Aficionado Executive Editor). I even tried local retail tobacconists here in Nashville–I couldn’t even get a $7/hour job working the register. Literally, the very last ad in that magazine was for “CAO International, Inc.” Coincidentally, they were located here in Nashville. I wrote a letter to the owner (Cano A. Ozgener) but heard nothing for several months. Then one afternoon, I got a voice mail at my office from Cano. I went in for a couple of interviews and Cano offered me a job as the ‘Shipping Manager.’ Despite the fact that I had zero experience with shipping anything I took the job; I just wanted to get my foot in the door. To this day, Cano will tell you I was “the worst shipping manager ever.” That lasted about 5 months before I was promoted to Director of Promotions and Public Relations.

acigarsmoker.com: CAO is sold, and you are about to join the unemployment line. What was the thought process that led up to the creation of Crowned Heads?

Jon Huber: You could actually see the writing on the wall (in terms of what would ultimately happen to CAO) for about a year before the actual announcement was made that CAO would be moving to Richmond. So it’s not like it hit me out of left field; I had some time to think about things. I knew I had to stay in the cigar business–it’s in my blood, it’s a part of who I am. I also knew I didn’t want to make a lateral move and just go do what I’d been doing for another cigar company. I wanted to take a step up towards the next level, i.e., be involved with my own brand, and do things the way I’d always wanted to do them. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way; Mike Conder approached me outside of the office and asked if I’d be interested in doing something together. I said, “I’m in!” I’d been working with Mike in the marketing department (he was my boss) and I really enjoyed working with Mike. I’ve learned so much from Mike; I’ve always looked at him as one of my ‘gurus.’ From that point on, I couldn’t wait to walk out the front door (CAO) and get on with the next step. CAO was a wonderful chapter in my life; I will forever be indebted to the Ozgener family. But those last months there were absolute misery. I just couldn’t take all the corporate BS a minute longer. It went from being all about the love of the business and the product, to being all about the money, P&L reports, projections, 5-year plans, etc.

acigarsmoker.com: With the FDA looking to get involved in the cigar industry and smoking laws becoming Draconian was the decision more difficult?

Jon Huber: Those factors never crossed my mind or entered into my decision one iota. Those are legitimate concerns; however, I’ve always had faith in the general public in that the government will soon go to far and people will stand up for themselves and their rights and say, “enough!” Prohibition didn’t work the first time and it won’t work the second time, either.

acigarsmoker.com: Lately, it seems like everyone is releasing a cigar. Were you worried at all about the crowded market place?

Jon Huber: I was never worried about any other new releases, competition, etc. Worrying about those factors only distracts you from your task at hand. I felt that if we stayed focused on our vision and remained true to our philosophy, we’d come out on the other end with an excellent product that would ultimately find it’s audience. Honestly, I felt like the Stones when they were recording “Exile on Main St.” For the better part of this past year, we were holed-up in our space here away from everyone and just kept the blinders on and kept going forward.

acigarsmoker.com:  CAO was pretty corporate when you look at some of the small brands out there. How will having free reign of the marketing allow you to do things different?

Jon Huber: Being free from the corporate side of the business has been incredibly liberating. And when you’re ‘free’ you are more opened to creativity and your craft. We created ‘Crowned Heads’ to be the umbrella under which we would be able to create different brands–each brand with it’s own unique personality, taste, branding. In short, the way we’ve set it up, we won’t have to create each brand going forward to be consistent with the ‘Crowned Heads’ look and feel. Beginning with ‘Four Kicks,’ each brand will be very unique. I’ve always looked at this like a band. A band has a unique personality but it can record different albums, and each album can sound completely different than the previous one. Crowned Heads is essentially just ‘the band,’ and ‘Four Kicks’ is really just our first album. The next one down the road won’t ‘sound’ (taste, or look) anything like ‘Four Kicks.’

acigarsmoker.com: It’s been publicized that E.P. Carrillo will make Four Kicks for Crowned Heads. Can you let us in on some of the process that lead to the selection of E.P. Carrillo?

Job Huber: We knew the manufacturer selection would be one of the most important decisions we would make towards the long-term success and longevity of our company. In mid-January, we began actually evaluating manufacturers; we put huge sheets of white paper on the wall and we wrote out a list of about 15 different manufacturer choices. Then we created a rating system, of sorts, where we broke it out into various categories. Truth be told, cigar ratings played a small part of it but we were more interested in other criteria such as trust, integrity, experience, how many brands are being made there, etc. We narrowed down our list and in March we flew down first to Miami, then on to Nicaragua, for a series of meetings and factory visits. Ironically, Ernesto was the first person we met with; we had dinner with him and his son, Ernie. At that time, the topic of Ernesto actually making a cigar for us never even came up–we had a nice dinner, smoked a couple of cigars at his office afterwards, and he basically wished us luck and we went on to Nicaragua the next morning. So fast forward to late May, and we were evaluating all of our options and we kept coming back to Ernesto as being our ‘top draft pick;’ we just didn’t know if he was going to be open to doing something together. Keep in mind, up until then he’d never done a brand for anyone else besides himself. Fortunately, when we did approach him about the project he was very interested in working together. He felt that our philosophies lined up, that we both had similar approaches to the business end, and we both shared the same respect and love for the product.

acigarsmoker.com: I was recently in the Dominican Republic, and on the eve of your blog posting questioning the romanticizing of cigars I got into a bit of debate about the notes we taste in cigars. I said it was more about perception, then fact. Much like an aroma can trigger a memory, I feel taste is similar. However, in a recent conversation with an industry big-wig he said, “Despite the 5 tastes of salt, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami that we can distinguish certain notes such as cocoa, coffee, and more.” In fact, Umami is described as being meaty. We can distinguish the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate. We don’t refer to it as sweet, or bitter. Do you feel bloggers in general are helping or hurting the industry as you said in your words “romanticize cigars”?

Jon Huber: Ahhhh…the infamous ‘blogger’ blog. That created a lot of interest; however, I think a lot of people took what I said out of context. In that blog, I said that I AM a fan of the ‘flavor descriptive’ type of marketing; I just think sometimes it goes too far. I also said that ‘some’–not all–bloggers seem to be taking on a bit too much ego. I wasn’t making a blanket statement towards all bloggers. I think the online cigar community (including bloggers) has helped the industry tremendously. Together with social media, the blogger community has changed the way we (cigar manufacturers) get our message out. It has largely changed the scope of how business is done. That all said, I still maintain that a little less ego (with certain bloggers) would be a welcomed breath of fresh air. I’m just saying, keep things in perspective.

acigarsmoker.com: 2011 will end with a limited release of Four Kicks before a larger release. What can we expect from future releases? Will you stay with E.P. Carrillo or venture out to other factories?

Jon Huber: Our focus is to slowly build Four Kicks production and distribution as much as our supply (tobacco) will allow. Controlled growth follows behind keeping the cigars consistently excellent. It all begins with the right tobacco, and the right processing of those tobaccos–that is where Ernesto is a genius. You can expect to see a shape extension or two to the Four Kicks line next year, and we are entertaining the concept of releasing one size of a brand that would be released in full in 2013. In fact, I’ve been smoking sample blends for that potential project this past week.

acigarsmoker.com: Can we expect to see you make in store appearances in the near future on a national level?

Jon Huber: If anyone is actually interested in that, yeah I might rear my ugly head in a few stores next year. Seriously though, we are very determined to build this brand (Four Kicks) on the quality of the cigar and not on a ‘personality’ or a ‘face.’ We will be selective and focused towards in-store events; there are no plans for any ‘Grand National Tours’ or 50 cities in 60 days.

acigarsmoker.com: It seems that a lot of brands lately have become “Rock Star” driven. I believe people want to see you at locations, and interact with you. It seems to be the way business is done lately. I notice lately a lot of customers at the local B&Ms wait to make their box purchases at an event. I’m curious to your take on how appearances has seemed to drive sales in my neck of the woods.
Jon Huber: I believe that if the product is good, people will seek it out, purchase it, and enjoy it–regardless of in-store or ‘rockstar’ appearances. That is the model we’re building our company upon. Yes, often times an ‘appearance’ will spur sales for that day or night, but what happens after that? The quality has to be there or the follow-thru sales won’t be. The problem I see with building a brand upon a ‘personality’ or ‘face’ is that sometimes that ‘personality’ becomes bigger than the brand. You can’t be in all places all of the time; your product’s quality and consistency have to be there and that is what sells your brand 99% of the time. I want to focus on creating great cigars with Ernesto and with our team here, as opposed to focusing on being a ‘rockstar.’