Tobacco Business Second Life Dr Gabie Kafie & Kafie 1901 Cigars

by | Dec 21, 2022

At the height of Dr. Gaby Kafie’s career, things unexpectedly came to a screeching halt. It was 2007, and Kafie found himself in a bit of a role reversal—the doctor had become the patient, and the prognosis was not good. He was diagnosed with a very rare eye condition known as central serous chorioretinopathy. For most people, this diagnosis usually only affects one eye and the condition is temporary. Kafie, however, was diagnosed with bilateral ocular disease and was suffering from the chronic form of the disease. This meant the career he had enjoyed and worked so hard for was coming to an end much earlier than he would have ever expected it to.

“This derailed my medical career, which was the only thing I loved with regards to professions,” he says. “I spent the first 40 years of my life dedicated toward becoming a doctor and being a doctor. I’ll never forget the day when my ophthalmologist told me that he could not give me medical clearance to go back to work. My life as a trained foot and ankle surgeon came to an immediate halt.”

At the time he was 38 years old and spending a lot of time at home with his family. It took nearly three years for him to find a new passion, which turned out to be cigars. While he had been a casual cigar smoker before, he now had more time to delve into the specifics of the cigar world, including the different types of tobaccos, the different factories that made cigars and how they create blends. It wasn’t until 2013, when he was 41 years old that he decided to take that next step and turn cigars into a full-time business.

“I’ve always had this belief that if you are going to do something and be the best, you’ve got to dedicate your life to that one single passion,” he says. “That’s why I tell everyone premium cigars saved my life. The business and culture of premium cigars gave me purpose. I found a way to connect what I love—my family—with another great love of mine: premium cigars. The fact that this industry is so welcoming to newcomers is what inspires me to create new, timeless blends while at the same time helping others enter the business. Each day I wake up excited about being in the industry. I love every aspect of it, especially the people. I’ve been really blessed to work with the finest.”

That’s only part of Kafie’s story. To truly understand why he got into the cigar industry and what inspired his namesake brand, you have to first become familiar with his family history. His parents constantly looked for the perfect place to raise their family and wanted their children to be able to attend the best schools. When he was young, Kafie’s family moved from Honduras to Spain, then to Jordan before they eventually made their way to Southern California when he was 6 years old.

Dr. Gaby Kafie | Kafie Cigars

“I am the middle child of three,” Kafie says. “My older brother Fernando Jr. wanted to become a doctor, and I followed in his footsteps as he was and still is a great mentor of mine. My sister Tiffany studied business management and lives in Honduras where she is married to a doctor. You could say we’re a family of doctors. Kafie family members by nature are all overachievers and very eccentric. We tend not to compete with others; rather, [we] find weaknesses within ourselves that we strive to overcome.”

Kafie was a big sports fan and played several of them in his youth. Because of this, Kafie wanted to study medicine and specialize in a field that would allow him to work closely with athletes. With years of hard work, Kafie fulfilled his childhood dream. Kafie did indeed become a doctor and specialized in podiatric orthopedics, foot and ankle surgery, sports medicine, and wound care. Even though he no longer practices medicine, he maintains an active medical license, something he says he does so that his children will always value proper education.

“I will always be a doctor, whether I am working with patients or not,” he says. “I love the education I received and cherish it with all my heart. Everything we master in life starts with education, and the same goes for becoming a great cigar maker, company and brand owner.”

Kafie has smoked cigars since he was 18 years old, and they figured prominently into his downtime, such as the time he spent as a big-game offshore fisherman. When his medical career came to an end, cigars seemed like the next passion for him to pursue. The more he studied and educated himself on everything related to cigars, the clearer an opportunity came into view.

“I felt there was room for a brand that would represent our family and my personal story in life,” he explains. “I knew that this venture would take years; however, I knew without a doubt I wanted to spend the rest of my life building a family cigar business. Without hesitation, I flew to Honduras and went to visit the best cigar maker in the country: Rolando Reyes Sr. This is the man that everyone wanted to learn from.”

Kafie traveled to Tabacalera Puros Aliados, where he met the late Rolando Reyes Sr. Reyes was the owner and maker of several brands, including Cuba Aliados, Puros Indios and Cienfuegos (brands now owned by Oliva Cigar Company). Kafie’s family had roots in Central America and Honduras, so he wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with tobacco and the very traditional cigar industry. Just as he had done with his medical career, Kafie looked toward the Reyes family for education and hands-on experience.

“This industry is about learning from the best,” he says. “Going back in time, the Reyes family was at the top of their game. Also, being in Honduras gave me the opportunity to connect once again with my native country and the people of Honduras. At the time, I had this deep desire to bring the best of Honduras’ tobacco culture forward and shed some light on the country once again.”

When his pseudo apprenticeship was over, Kafie was ready to start building his own cigar brand. The inspiration behind Kafie 1901 Cigars came from the love he has for his family and its deep roots in Honduras. He describes his grandfather, Don Chucri Kafie, as being “a fearless entrepreneur who believed in Central America, Honduras and family” and his grandmother, Doña Regina Kafie, as being responsible for overseeing her family of 12 in the city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Kafie’s grandparents have passed, as have all of their children, leaving behind the third and fourth generations of the family to carry on their story and traditions. One way that they do this is by investing in different businesses in Central America and Honduras with the hope that their contributions will help make the region and countries within it thrive and become a better place for locals to live and work.

“My inspiration to create the brand Kafie 1901 was to develop a romantic connection between the soil of the region and our ancestors,” he says. “I feel in my heart and soul that the Kafie family represents a very special group of individuals to the region, and I felt a premium cigar brand would honor our family in the highest forms as premium cigars usually attract quality people in search of quality experiences.”

Kafie Cigars was founded in 2013 with the business goal of creating highly memorable experiences for cigar and coffee connoisseurs around the world. Kafie Cigars represented the Kafie family, its history in Honduras and Dr. Gaby Kafie as a person.

The Dream Blend
Over the course of nine years, Dr. Kafie has worked diligently to build his premium cigar brand. He opened and ran his own cigar factory, Tabacalera G. Kafie y Cia., in Danlí, Honduras. He also developed four different blends to expand his brand. The Don Fernando Maduro Collection was created using a 5-6-year-aged Cuban Seed Habano wrapper that was grown in Nicaragua. This blend is what Kafie often referred to as being the foundation of the Kafie 1901 Cigars lineup.

The Kafie 1901 Connecticut took nine months to create due to the inability to find a suitable wrapper. This medium-bodied cigar has a shade-grown wrapper from Ecuador, and its binder contains tobaccos from three different countries. The Kafie 1901 Sumatra’s wrapper was sun-grown in Ecuador and consists of long-filler tobacco from Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Kafie explains that it’s the Cuban seed Habano binder that gives this blend the balance that today’s cigar smokers are looking for. The Kafie 1901 San Andres has tobaccos from five different countries. This box-pressed cigar is among the strongest in Kafie Cigars’ portfolio and is a blend fit for festive, celebratory occasions.

Dr. Gaby Kafie | Kafie Cigars

Each blend was developed with the end goal of Kafie Cigars being able to offer cigar smokers with a wheelhouse of flavors that they would enjoy. Variety was key, and thus Kafie never wanted to stick with just one particular type of tobacco or cigar blend.
“We wanted to cover the spectrum from light to medium to full-bodied cigars,” he says. “Over the past eight years, we have only developed five premium cigars in the Kafie 1901 Core line, the fifth being our Kafie 1901 Serie L Natural, which will be making its debut in the weeks to come.”

The fifth blend presented the biggest challenge to Kafie and also sparked one of the biggest changes in his company. By 2019, Kafie began experiencing issues that stemmed from his business being based in Honduras. That year, he started working on a blend that he was never able to finish because he didn’t have the right tobacco. He wanted to create a cigar that was entirely made of Dominican-grown tobacco. Kafie felt a puro was what his company needed, but natural disasters like hurricanes and supply chain issues caused by the pandemic prevented him from creating what he envisioned as his “dream blend.”

“I was missing a quality natural shade wrapper to complete the blend I was trying to build,” he says. “From 2017 to 2020, our company was producing top-quality premium cigars in Honduras, three of which were nominated for best value cigar, best Honduran cigar and best brand-Honduras by Cigar Journal magazine. In light of coming short from winning, we were really doing good work at the time, and our reputation for producing quality cigars was spreading. However, in late 2019 and in 2020, Honduras was devastated by two major hurricanes, and to this day Honduras is still feeling the after-effects of the pandemic. Forces out of my control made it so that if we wanted to continue to produce a variety of quality premium blends we needed to look elsewhere for tobacco.”

Kafie worked closely with his attorney and others in the industry to find a solution to his problem. That’s when someone suggested that he look into La Aurora Cigars, a prominent factory located in the Dominican Republic.

“I had always admired the history of La Aurora and the quality cigars they produce,” he says. “When I got the chance to visit the factory and see their operations firsthand, it was a no-brainer. Building great cigars is about tobacco inventory and tobacco experience. I quickly came to realize that there was no better place for Kafie 1901 Cigars or myself than La Aurora.”

The more Kafie learned about La Aurora and the history of the family behind it, the more he felt it would be a good fit for his company’s production needs. After several meetings with La Aurora’s master blender, Manuel Inoa, Kafie was finally able to finish that blend he’d been working on for years: the Kafie 1901 Serie L Natural.

Dr. Gaby Kafie | Kafie Cigars

“Since inception, our company has been focused on making blends that feature tobaccos from many countries. Typically, one cigar blend has tobaccos from multiple countries. Our Kafie 1901 Serie L Natural, on the other hand, is a 100 percent Dominican puro, a blend that was only made possible through the guidance of La Aurora’s head master blender, Mr. Manuel Inoa.”

He continues, “This is a cigar that I have been wanting to make for over five years. It has finally come to life, and such a quality blend was only possible in the Dominican Republic. This will be a permanent addition to the Kafie 1901 Cigars portfolio. Our Kafie 1901 Premium Cigar Core line now consists of five blends, each unique in their own way.”

The wrapper for the Kafie 1901 Serie L Dominican puro is a five-year-aged Corojo from the Cibao Valley in the Dominican Republic. This is a medium to full-bodied cigar with a blend that’s described as “complex” and that has a perfect balance throughout. According to Dr. Kafie, the flavor notes of the cigar include wood, leather, almond, honey and floral notes. The flavor profile is also described as being sweet with an undertone of what Kafie describes as “an undertone of bitter cocoa elegance.”

The Kafie 1901 Serie L Natural was first released in a Robusto and Toro format in the fall of this year and will launch in three additional sizes this winter. Each cigar release requires an extreme level of attention from Kafie and from those in the factory. Each tobacco variety used must go through extensive fermentation and aging. In the case of Kafie Cigars, no tobaccos used in the blends have been aged for less than four years. Kafie also believes in working closely with the best blenders in the industry in order to better understand the characteristics of each leaf and the blend as a whole. Kafie’s goal for his company is to produce consistent blends and products that not only bolster the Kafie family name but also help make the cigar industry stronger.

“Our brand of cigars produces permanent lines,” he says. “We do not believe in doing short runs because everything we do is produced on a limited scale already. If a consumer falls in love with a line of cigars we offer, we want that individual to always be able to come back and revisit that blend.”

He continues, “We thrive on making sure a blend stays consistent over time and that construction and draw always deliver a quality experience to connoisseurs. We take great pride in telling our family story through Kafie 1901 Cigars and want people to know that when you purchase our cigars you’re buying a product from a family with 120-year history in the region. We know quality tobacco, we know our people, we speak the language, and we’re 100 percent invested not only in our company but also our industry. We’re here to make our industry better, not just to sell you a cigar.”

Dr. Gaby Kafie | Kafie Cigars

Advocating for Boutiques
In addition to becoming a brand owner, Dr. Gaby Kafie is known for being an advocate for the cigar industry and, more specifically, for boutique brands. In 2016, Kafie helped establish and launched the Boutique Cigar Association of America (BCAA), an organization with a mission of supporting and promoting small, family owned cigar businesses that sell less than 1 million cigars each year. The 1 million cigars or less designation was important to give a spotlight to those smaller manufacturers who are impacted by regulations differently than larger companies. Before the BCAA was created, Kafie realized that entities like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration didn’t understand the range in sizes of most companies in the cigar industry and that although premium cigars were a commonality, a smaller manufacturer had a much different business model than that of a larger producer.

“In the FDA report on premium cigars that was published on August 8, 2016, small companies were defined by the FDA as being a company that generated less than $5 million a year and had 15-20 employees. Let’s just say they were way off and had no understanding of our industry and how many companies would go out of business due to their onerous regulations. It was clear at that very moment that we needed to define our segment of cigar manufacturers and help [regulators] understand what types of companies comprise our industry.”

The BCAA does not define the term “boutique” in terms of craft, passion or dedication to each and every step of the cigar making process. Instead, it keeps its focus on highlighting how the boutique cigar industry is family driven. At the end of 2020, the BCAA announced that it was giving up its nonprofit status and would evolve into more of a social platform for boutique companies. To date, the group currently has 58 member companies that all work together to strengthen the quality of small companies while representing their joint interests at the local, state and federal levels. To accomplish its goals, the BCAA works closely with other trade groups, including the Premium Cigar Association (PCA) and Cigar Rights of America (CRA) to amplify its message. The goal of the BCAA’s work is a simple but important one: to make regulators more aware of the fact that boutique manufacturers exist and help them to better understand the boutique cigar category.

Today, the BCAA is governed by a board of directors consisting of seven members that make decisions on how to best move forward. The group has made some major moves in recent years, from speaking to various government agencies about the boutique cigar businesses and their plight to strengthening its partnerships with the PCA and InterTabac to draw more attention to boutique cigars. Having spent years building his own brand, Kafie has come to realize that awareness is key to success, but for many smaller brands, it’s not so easy to achieve.

“We’ve never heard of you” is a pain point Kafie has had to address in his business over the years. When he hears this from a retailer, he doesn’t take offense but instead sees it as another reason to work on his company’s reach. This drives him with his work with not only his brand but with the BCAA and other brand owners like him. Because he’s running a family owned small business, he doesn’t have a salesforce that is out selling his product, which is something that is common with other boutique brands. Social media has helped build awareness of his business, but it hasn’t necessarily translated into big sales. The success of Kafie Cigars and other boutique brands like it hinges on building direct relationships with retailers and consumers and then having them understand that being family owned is what makes a strong brand overall.

Creating an Extended Family
Kafie Cigars is a family owned brand, and in turn, Kafie prefers to work closely with brick-and-mortar and online retailers that are also family owned. Just as people do whatever’s necessary to take care of their family, Kafie adapts this “family first” policy to fit his business, ensuring he puts his customers’ needs first. For this reason, some may be surprised to learn that Kafie Cigars has opened no new accounts in the past two and a half years, allowing him to focus on quality control and inventory—to the delight of his retail partners.

“Our goal has always been to take care of our core accounts, making sure to always have proper inventory for their customers,” he says. “We don’t believe in being backordered for too long and don’t like to keep retailers and/or consumers waiting for product. This philosophy of always having inventory on hand is not very popular; however, we have developed a very reliable business model for our family and our partners.”

Focusing on having quality inventory readily available and quality retail partners to take on that product has been the business model Kafie has followed for years. He also takes into consideration the end consumer by ensuring there’s a blend in Kafie Cigars’ portfolio for everyone and a cigar for every budget. Kafie is always on the lookout for new business opportunities, but each one is evaluated on whether it will allow him to maintain the value of the products he makes.

Kafie has put his time and years in the industry to the point where he’s now a respected and prominent advocate and champion of cigars. When asked how he measures success within his business, he says it’s easy—all he has to do is look at sales and reorders. Many can develop a cigar line and blend that sells once, he explains. The real challenge is developing a product that sells continuously, and that’s where Kafie has put his focus and effort since he entered the cigar business with his own brand.

Every business faces challenges and obstacles along the way, but with patience and persistence, those can often be overcome. Dr. Gaby Kafie’s purpose in life now is to produce not only a high-quality premium cigar but also a cigar that will enhance the lives of all of the people involved in the process. Cigars are not just a way for Kafie to support his family; they’re a way for him to tell his family’s story and to extend its legacy far beyond the borders of Honduras.

This story first appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. You can view the entire issue online for free by clicking here.

– Photography courtesy of Dr. Gaby Kafie. Story by Antoine Reid, senior editor and digital director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid.




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