Cigar Weekly Interview with Diego Trinidad

Cigar Weekly: Diego, you have been using the Trinidad name in connection with tobacco products for 37 years in the U.S. But there are a number of other companies producing cigars with the Trinidad name. In previous discussions, you mentioned that you were pursuing legal actions with some of these companies, in particular, a company in Miami using the Trinidad name. Have you made any progress?

Diego Trinidad: We were beginning to get into legal actions. It was suggested by a mutual friend that we should get together and talk. This we did in January. I showed him a lot of the documentation. He read the whole thing. He was satisfied that we were the legitimate owners of the name. And that we own the trademark in connection with tobacco products. I was satisfied that he really didn't know about this. He's a young man and he went to school at the University of Miami, like I did. He hasn't been here that long to know that much about the whole story. I was satisfied that he did this without knowing that we were involved in the cigar business. At the end of our conversation he agreed to withdraw his cigars from the market. Which he has. In the meantime while we continue to negotiate, we have been selling our cigars to his clients. And of course, he's getting some compensation out of that. So we hope to be able to announce a settlement very shortly, but that's working out very well. Thankfully.

CW: Another one was the Bahia Trinidad. Is anything happening there?

DT: That's the important one outstanding. Although there are two other minor brands still out there. Our intention is to eventually take care of all that. Even though our business slogan has always been "Taste and Compare" we are completely sure when smokers do that, they will choose ours, but still there is no reason why someone should take advantage of someone else's name. There are several registration applications that involve the name Trinidad, about 5 or 6, which are all pending because of the Cuban registration. Everyone will lose against the Cubans except us. That's why we filed a petition to cancel their brand because they lied in their application and because we are the legitimate owners of the brand market and we can prove it. Specifically because we have been using the name Trinidad in connection with tobacco product in interstate commerce in the United States for 37 years. There's no way the Cubans can win against us. At this point, if we had the permanent registration in Washington, we could simply go ahead and apply for an injunction with customs and they would be stopped from importing cigars. But because we do not have that permanent registration we can't.

I haven't talked to Mr. Borhani and I don't plan to do so. He has been sent several indirect messages. And we would love to solve this problem without getting into legal expenses. But, basically it's up to him. If he insists on marketing his cigars with the name Trinidad, which by the way, he at least uses the name Trinidad in conjunction with Bahia, and Bahia seems to be the principle component of the name. So it would be very easy for him to drop the Trinidad name. And we would all be happy about it.

CW: I'm certainly not an expert in trademark law, but it was my understanding that you had to use a trademark in commerce before you really owned it. Since the Cubans are not allowed to distribute their products in the U.S how can they lay any claim to the Trinidad name?

DT: They were able to get away with that in two ways. To circumvent the embargo against Cuba they went ahead and used my father's registration which he filed in Havana in 1958 before they even came to power. In the meantime, unfortunately, we were careless and we did not renew the federal registration, which we've had for close to 30 years. So there was a window of opportunity created and since there was no Trinidad name at the time, the Washington bureaucrats just granted the registration. But you are right. It has to be used within 2 years. Now the registration was granted in April of 1996. Basically it has expired, but there is a 6 month grace period. So they have until the end of the year. But one way or another, I think before the end of the year, that situation will be settled.

CW: You have 2 cigars right now, a corona and a robusto, both made by Fuente. Do you have plans to extend your product line?

DT: Yes we do. We have talked to the Fuentes the last time we were in the Dominican Republic in December of last year. And we discussed the possibility of coming out with a bigger size. Something like a Churchill. That would be my preference. A lot of people now seem to like the torpedo size. So we haven't decided yet. And there is little room in the Fuentes production because of their prior commitments. Plus, it has to be aged for a year.

CW: Let me make sure I understand. You age them for a year after they are rolled?

DT: That's right. They only use 2 rollers for our production. That's how limited it is right now. Thankfully, I think they have opened a couple of new factories in the Dominican Republic. Their legal problems with the Mondavi's are finally cleared up. This would be helpful for everyone. They'll get back into the business of making cigars and get away from defending themselves against a very unjust lawsuit.

CW: A lot of people have noted the similarities between your cigars and the Fuente Don Carlos line. Do you know the difference of tobacco between the two?

DT: I am not technically that knowledgeable in the blend side of it. And, of course, the Fuentes are very secretive about their blends. I do understand there are some differences and apparently only real connoisseurs can detect them. But you are right. The cigars are very similar and that's why most people that smoke like them so much because they compare them. Carlos, Jr. always gets a kick out of people comparing our cigars favorably with theirs. Because after all, we make both of them. Probably the main difference is in the wrapper. Even though they also use Cameroon but they also use certain flavorings. Most people that smoke both cigars always comment on that. That ours has a slightly different taste.

CW: Your products use Cameroon wrapper and a Dominican filler and binder?

DT: The Dominican filler and binder I understand comes from the Fuentes' farm in the Dominican Republic where they grow the wrapper for the Opus X.

CW: You're also working on a completely new brand. The Trinidad Y Hermano line, correct?

DT: That's right. We have been working on that and we were hoping to have it in the market by April. But we have run into a number of problems and we have decided to delay the launching of the new brand. We want to be completely satisfied when we finally come out into the market that we can offer the very best cigar that we can possibly produce.

CW: Do you have a date when you might possibly have those out?

DT: Not really. We hope for sometime in the summer.

CW: Are you going to try to make it for RTDA in August?

DT: That would be great. That certainly would be a target date. But we would want to have it in the market, if possible, before then. We'll see. We're not going to rush it.

CW: Let's talk about where your products are sold. I believe you said you were almost in every state now. How many different retail outlets do you have?

DT: I got an order this week from Boise, Idaho. I think that makes 40 states. We don't have retailers in Hawaii and Alaska. And there are a number of states in the Northwest that we don't have either.

CW: I'd be willing to move to Hawaii to sell your cigars if you'd like (chuckle).

DT: Well, I'm sure it would be sold there. We have moved very slowly with our national distribution because our production is so limited. Nevertheless, we do try to open a couple of new accounts every week if possible, because we'd rather have the cigar as wide spread nationally as we can.

CW: How many cigars are you making or selling a year?

DT: I think we're selling about 15,000 cigars a month (cigars not boxes). Which is a really ridiculously low figure. We hope to increase that as the year goes on. We do try to keep it to the most select full-service cigar shops.

CW: How do you decide to bring out a new line?

DT: A lot of it is popularity. The Churchill is one of the most popular cigars next to the Robusto. But it's up to the Fuentes. The production side of it is in their hands. If and when they decide they can do it, then we'll be happy to start distributing them.

CW: It certainly seems like the Fuentes are the best cigar makers in the world?

DT: As far as I am concerned, they are. Since I was 7 years old, my parents started taking me around the factories. I have never in my life, in any business, seen the quality control that the Fuentes have in their factory in the Dominican Republic. It's really impressive. So yes, as far as I am concerned, it is by far the best cigar made in the world.

CW: Who's going to make your new line?

DT: We're still looking around. Always with the advice of the Fuentes. They are the experts. But it's not easy. We have a very high standard to compare ourselves to. There are a number of excellent cigar makers out there. But you run into problems of maintaining the quality. Finding a good manufacturer is not that difficult. Finding someone that can consistently produce an excellent cigar is. And we want to make sure that we make the right choice.

CW: How are you marketing your cigars?

DT: It's surprising. I get at least a couple outlets a week from individual clients and they call me or I call them and immediately they want to order. I do a little bit of research on my own and try to find the best shops in every major city. A lot of it is word of mouth also.

CW: Do you have a web page?

DT: That has been a major struggle. I was hoping to have it ready by the end of the week. Now it definitely will be on next week. I will announce it on the Fuente family web site when it's ready.

CW: What are the prices of your cigars?

DT: The corona is $9.00 and the robusto is $10.00 suggested retail price. We have no control over what individual retailers charge. We try to keep the price as close to that as possible.

CW: Since your cigar does compare so similar to the Don Carlos, it's also a dollar or two more than the Don Carlos. Do you think it's priced correctly?

DT: When the cigars first came into the market, they were priced slightly lower. It was at the behest of Carlos Fuente, Sr. that we decided to raise the price a little bit. Our cigars came into the market at about the same time the Cohibas were being heavily promoted nationally. Carlos, Sr. told me to try the Cohibas, "they're selling for $10, and as far as I'm concerned ours is better. I think we should sell them for the same price". And we did. But we're not going to raise the price on the cigars anymore. And we hope the retailers keep it as close as they can to suggested retail price.

CW: For our last question, If the embargo were lifted tomorrow, how do you think it would affect your business?

DT: Politics aside, I would like nothing more than for smokers to compare the Cuban made cigars with ours. I am absolutely sure that most people that know cigars and that can get away from the mystique of a Cuban made cigar will find that our cigars are a far better cigar in every way. So, we have no problem with that.

On the other hand, it would present an interesting problem if the legal situation had not been decided by then, because once again, since they have the national registration. But it would have to be decided in court because we would continue to sell our cigars. They might try to start selling theirs. It wouldn't just be a case of letting the smoker decide but we would try to get them out of it. I think we would prevail without a doubt.

CW: Thanks to Diego Trinidad for answering our questions.