Google “Cuesta Rey,” and you get 58 pages of websites in many languages–mostly cigar stores that sell the brand. Sometimes they are listed as “Cuban Cigars” and sometimes listed under “Pre-Embargo Cigars.” The cigars are made in the República Dominicana by Arturo Fuente and distributed by the J.C. Newman Company. The Cuesta Rey cigar survived global tastes and global politics. The cigar’s original home, the Cuesta Rey Cigar Factory, did not. One of the largest and most successful cigar companies of the Cigar City Boom, Cuesta y Rey Co. employed 500 workers in its West Tampa factory beginning in 1896.
Armando Mendez, writing in his book Ciudad de Cigars: West Tampa, attributes the company’s success to visionary leaders Angel LaMadrid a Cuesta and Peregrino Rey, “whose concepts of how to run business included the novel ideas of international marketing, quality control, and worker motivation and recognition which allowed them to prosper in good times and survive hard times.” Both owners were born in northern Spain, moved to Cuba, and learned the cigar-maker trade as teens. Cuesta practiced his trade in the US cities of Key West, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. By 1883 Cuesta opened his small factory in Atlanta, working side by side with his workers. Peregrino Rey moved from Cuba to Atlanta to work for Cuesta’s company. In 1893 the company moved to Port Tampa, then to Ybor. And in 1896, he joined Peregrino Rey to build a large brick factory in West Tampa. The management team’s style included traditional paternalism and revolutionary marketing and quality control ideas that led to their becoming one of the most successful cigar companies in the world.
Their success was not without hardships, including a major strike by Tampa’s cigar workers union, La Resistencia, in 1901 related to their opening a factory in Jacksonville; and a flu epidemic in 1918 that nearly stopped production. However, the company expanded and acquired factories and a warehouse in Havana, employing more than 1000 workers at its peak. Their brands included Ponce de Leon, La Favorita de Tampa, La Flor de Cuesta Rey, Unica, El Dedicado, and El Anclo.
A master marketeer, Angel Cuesta, sent cigars to King Alfonso XIII of Spain and cigars and cigarettes to the Spanish troops fighting in Morocco. The King named Cuesta Rey the official Purveyor to the Court of Spain. The quest for quality drove the company’s success. Cuesta or Rey inspected each shipment of tobacco, and each outgoing box of cigars too.
Many West Tampa families were linked to the Cuesta Rey Factory for generations. Well-built houses for the master cigar-makers surrounded the factory. They added a building for stores, entertainment, and the Atlanta Restaurant across the street. The owners held annual banquets for families to honor and recognize the workers’ contributions. Willie Garcia, who lived on Beach Street, recalls that he and his father (who ran the Atlanta Restaurant) served coffee daily to the workers. Armando Mendez, his father, and his wife also worked at Cuesta y Rey. My grandfather worked there too. The owners’ sons, A.L. Cuesta Jr. and Karl Cuesta, and Y.D. and Perry Rey, learned the business from the bottom up and continued the successful journey for years.
There are few reminders of these generous men in West Tampa today. Cuesta y Rey is gone. A large empty lot on Howard Avenue marks where this great cigar factory once stood–it is now a hole in the heart of West Tampa. Cuesta Elementary School (built with funds donated by Cuesta) was also torn down in the 1970s. Cuesta gave land on Bayshore Blvd to the Academy of Holy Names and back to his hometown in northern Spain. Peregrino Rey served two terms as West Tampa’s Mayor and on its City Council for 16 years. Rey Park is named in his honor.
After 1959, the factory building was used as a warehouse and purchased by J. Demmi in 1975. It was gutted by fire that same year and finally torn down in 1986. A Tampa Tribune article at that time pictures West Tampa community historians, the late Arsenio Sanchez and Armando Mendez. Arsenio grabbed some bricks, laid them into a nice walking path at his home, and proudly displayed them to all visitors. “The brick path is all we have left.”
Maura Barrios, M.A., operates La Tampeña Tours throughout Tampa, offering custom-tailored tours to fit the needs of your group. Maura is bi-lingual and a native of Tampa with a master’s degree in history. Tours include Historic Tampa (South Tampa, Ybor City, Latin American zone, and the best places to live).
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2006
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
Maura Barrios, M.A., operated La Tampeña Tours throughout Tampa, offering custom-tailored tours to fit the needs of your group. Maura is bi-lingual and a native of Tampa with a Master’s Degree in History.
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