To twin sisters Yvette and Yvonne Rodriguez, the smell of cigars is intrinsically entwined with memories of their Cuban grandmother.
“She’s the reason we’re passionate about cigars,” said Yvette, 37. “We adored this typical Cuban woman who’d wear headscarves, flowing skirts and smoke cigars. She wasn’t embarrassed. She enjoyed them.”
Even though their parents didn’t smoke cigars, both sisters took their first puffs as teenagers.
“We were 16,” said Yvette. “It was almost a seamless rite of passage growing up in the Cuban community in Miami, like taking your first sip of rum.”
Two years ago, Yvette and Yvonne took a leap of faith. They gave up their jobs in public relations and media, respectively, and launched cigar brand called Tres Lindas Cubanas.
“The name is from a folk song about three beautiful Cuban ladies,” said Yvonne. “We say it’s us and our grandmother.”
The sisters researched the industry and weren’t surprised by what they learned: “It’s very male-dominated,” said Yvonne, “You won’t easily find women-owned cigar brands.”
In the U.S. — the biggest market for cigars, followed by China, the Netherlands, Spain and France — more than 6 billion cigars were sold in 2015, valued at more than $6.6. billion, according to market research firm Euromonitor.
The challenge to break into the industry didn’t faze the sisters. “We’ve always been outside of the box because we don’t like to conform to what’s expected,” said Yvette.
With $10,000 of their own money, and no generational ties to the cigar business (as is common in the industry), the twins recruited their boyfriends to join the startup. After a year of research and development, the team debuted the cigar brand online and in cigar stores across Miami.
“Everyone told us not to sell in Miami first because it’s so competitive here. But we wanted to prove ourselves and our product,” said Yvonne.
Today, the business is profitable and generating more than $50,000 in annual revenue.
The cigars — priced between $8 to $10 each — are now sold in stores in six states, including Illinois, Florida, Maryland, Texas, North Carolina and Washington. “We recently sent a small order of 10 boxes to a store in Maryland and they sold out the next day. That felt great,” she said.
“We are the new demographic of cigar smokers,” she said. “We are contemporary, urban and sophisticated yet traditional at the same time. We want to position Tres Lindas Cubanas in this niche.”
Another milestone: “I think we could be the only cigar brand owned and run by Afro-Cuban American women,” said Yvette.
A trip to Costa Rica in 2013 got the ball rolling on Tres Lindas Cubanas.
“Yvonne and I generally knew we wanted to pursue this but hadn’t really given it a lot of thought,” said Yvette. While on vacation there, Yvette had a serendipitous meeting with an owner of a cigar factory in Nicaragua.
“We kept in touch and eventually got into business with him,” she said. Over a year, the sisters worked with the business partner to create three unique blends — light, mild and strong.
“The blends reflect the brand’s name,”Yvette added. “We wanted the flavors to celebrate our Afro-Cuban heritage and the many complexions of women in our community.
They named the blends “La Clarita” (mild blend rolled in lighter leaf), “La Mulata” (medium-to-strong in a brown leaf) and “La Negrita” (full-bodied rolled in a dark leaf).
a limited budgets, they adopted grassroots marketing. “We’d walk into cigar stores pitching the brand. We tapped social media and did a lot of word-of-mouth advertising,” said Yvette.
But it wasn’t easy.
“We’d get hazed,” said Yvonne. “Businesses didn’t take us seriously at first. They’d interrogate us like it was a job interview. It didn’t offend us because we were prepared.”
Yvette and Yvonne want to steadily grow the business. “We have no debt and we want to keep it that way,” said Yvette.
As relations improve between the United States and Cuba, the duo wants to one day have a presence there.
“Our parents fled Cuba to come to the United States. We’re American but we’re also very connected with Cuba,” said Yvette
Her ultimate vision: “We’d love to have a tobacco farm in Cuba and make Cuban cigars,” she said.