Sunday, April 08, 2007
SMOKE NIGHT (MNA April 07)
By CEAN BURGESON
The sign on the wall says it best, “Enter as strangers, leave as friends.”
Surroundings on River Street in Manistee is filled with unique gifts and other items of interest to the pedestrian shopper downtown, but the main feature of the store is its walk-in humidor, and the best night to show up at the shop is smoke night, on the first and third Wednesdays of the month.
Last Wednesday evening’s get-together was made even more special, as master cigar roller Billy Perdomo, brother of Nick Perdomo, owner of Perdomo cigars, was in town to demonstrate his cigar rolling expertise, and to let the customers roll their own cigars under his expert tutelage.
“You roll it, you smoke it,” was the event’s motto.
“This is probably our most popular cigar,” says owner Oscar Carlson, who along with his wife Karen, started running the eclectic downtown shop two years ago. The store has an event like this about four times per year with the Perdomo company. “They come fourth of July weekend,” says Karen. “And then we do one in the winter time, and then spring and fall. This trip is unique, however, because of the cigar rolling that takes place.
Customers love the event. They enjoy hors d’oeuvres, take turns rolling cigars and talking with the representatives from Perdomo, relax and talk with each other in the smoke room, and of course — enjoy quality cigars.
“Billy gets out four or five weeks a year,” says Roger Sherburn, who is the local representative for Perdomo cigars. “And then we have several other rollers that go out and travel with the representatives too. We do rolling events fairly regularly, but they’re definitely kind of a special occasion.”
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s nice, because you really want to educate people on our products, and why we think ours is better than others,” says Billy. Perdomo’s company is different in that they actually allow people to learn from masters like Billy and get the hands-on experience of putting a leaf wrapper around a tube of tobacco to make a cigar. Very few cigar makers give the public this rare opportunity.
“Most of them will do straight-out rolling,” says Billy. “They bring someone difficult to communicate with. As far as the teaching, it’s kind of a lost art. You don’t see it that much anymore.”
But Billy isn’t difficult to speak to at all, and he has a sense of humor that usually ends up with his pupil being the butt of his jokes. One amateur roller finishes his cigar, and proudly holds it up, beaming with pride at what he has created. Billy doesn’t let him down easily.
“That one is too loose,” says Billy. “It wouldn’t pass inspection.”
The assembled group enjoys a laugh, and the next victim steps up to try their hand at rolling one that might pass Billy’s muster. Perdomo is open, knowledgeable, and will answer any question, which makes him an instant hit with customers, who become more like fans by the time the night is through. Regular customers come back whenever he is in town, and newcomers become instantly hooked on the rolling events.
Marc Soles comes up from Scottville for the smoke nights. “I’ve been to smoke night a half a dozen times so far,” he says. This was his first Perdomo cigar rolling event, and although he has been smoking cigars for years, this was the first time he had ever actually rolled his own cigar. “It took me a good five minutes. It was hard, because the leaves are very delicate.”
When Billy is asked how long it takes Perdomo craftsman to roll a cigar, he points to the student he has been tutoring for the last ten minutes through creating his first cigar and says, “not this long.” Professional rollers produce 300 finished cigars in an eight hour day.
“Obviously, they’re artisans,” said Soles. “They’re good at what they’re doing.” Soles wasn’t familiar with the brand before, but bought a Perdomo to try after working with the master and actually making one himself. Perdomo is a good teacher, because cigars are a long-standing tradition in his family.
Billy’s a third generation cigar maker. “My grandfather started,” he says. “He was originally a roller at a factory in Havana. He rolled there, and he became an apprentice, and then a master. My father went up the same ranks, and came to the United States in 1959. My grandfather became friends with Batista, who was against Fidel (Castro). My father got shot and had to come to the United States, and my grandfather went to prison in Cuba, where he stayed until 1970.”
“But my father, when he came (to the U.S.), he didn’t want anything to do with cigars, because he thought that it would never be the same thing that it once was. But my brother took a very big interest into the company, so he kind of restarted us back into it.”
Wanting his son to succeed, Billy’s father helped to get Nick and the business set up in Nicaragua with the factory and plantations. The company is still based in Nicaragua with a home office in Miami.
The company now sells cigars world-wide. “I’ve been to Russia, China — I’ve been all over the world,” says Billy. “I like the business very much.”
Although Billy has two daughters who haven’t shown an interest in the business, his brother has a 13-year-old son who will carry on the family tradition of fine cigar making. “If it was up to him, he’d start tomorrow,” says Billy.
As another smoke night neared its close, and Perdomo prepared to leave to continue his cigar-rolling tour in other shops around Michigan and the Mid-West, it was quite evident from looking around the smoking room at Surroundings that another group of cigar smokers had “entered as strangers and would leave as friends.”
Cean Burgeson can be reached at: email@example.com