Gerard Abajian knows that cigar life is all about people. He began in the retail side of the cigar business but built rapport with customers. He also surprisingly spent ten years as a firefighter before co-founding Jake Wyatt Cigars with Neil Garcia. Together, they created some of the most aesthetically unique cigars in the industry. In this interview, Gerard talks with Cigar Life Guy about staying true to himself, the story behind those boxes of 22, and how his company innovates how local cigar shops present cigars.
The First Premium Smoke
Cigar Life Guy: Tell me about your first premium cigar experience.
Gerard Abajian: I would say it happened during the mid-90s. I was with my dad in the backyard. And he had just started as a retailer in southern California and bought a Dominican El Rey del Mundo. He cut it in half and shared it with me, but it was nasty. Then he brought out some cut-up watermelon from the fridge and between puffs said, “Refresh your palate with the cool watermelon.” The cigar was more palatable after that. It was at night, and we were sitting in the backyard. So that was the occasion. Just me and my dad and him telling me about the cigar business he just embarked upon. He had always been a smoker — cigars, pipes, cigarettes. That was the beginning of my cigar journey.
Starting Cigar Life
Cigar Life Guy: Tell us how you got started in the cigar industry. What else did you do before, and how does it help inform what you do with your current business?
Gerard Abajian: I started working at my father’s retail store when I was about nineteen. I learned how to use the cash register and talk to people by describing the cigars I liked. I had done car sales before, so I had some sales experience and prospected different people based on their personalities. That affected how I would approach people from the minute they walked in the door.
The worst question to ask is, “Can I help you?” They would say, “No.” So, I looked for an icebreaker. I figured they were coming for a cigar, so they have a favorite. I’m curious what it is. So I would ask, “Hey, how’s it going? Welcome. What’s your favorite cigar?” It was easier from there. They would tell me their favorite cigar, and I would say I’ve smoked it, and ask them what they thought about it. We became friends. So, that’s always been my approach. Sales have helped in my industry.
Cigar Life Guy: You have been open about your struggles with addiction. How has that changed your perspective on life in general, as well as cigar life?
Gerard Abajian: I was pretty young when I kicked my addiction. I was a teenager. I struggled with school — not intellectually. It was more due to my absence and attendance. Once I kicked the habit at age 24, I developed my spiritual life and focused on how to kick a habit.
I went back to school and studied fire science technology. That landed me a job with our local fire department, which has over 80 stations. I did that for ten years. My father passed away in 2015, and I was still with the fire department. That’s when Neil (Garcia) and I partnered. We started working together and going online. From there, we got invited down to the Dominican Republic. That’s how we came up with the Jake Wyatt Cigar Company.
We visited several factories that gave us samples of what they could produce for us, all according to the flavor palate we wanted. Unfortunately, I always felt in the dark. I wanted to understand the makeup of cigars, how to blend a cigar, and the difference between tobacco. For instance you have Corojo, Criollo.
There are many different varieties of tobacco. It’s not good if someone plans on making my cigars, and I don’t know what’s in them or what the percentages are. So we started our tiny factory out of a little hut. Now we have a factory which is a different entity on its own called Casamorabo. (House; Love; City) That’s a 20,000-square-foot space. Casamorabo now produces Jake Wyatt Cigars, which is a separate entity we own. Now, it’s just about selling cigars.
The Story Behind the Jake Wyatt Cigars
Cigar Life Guy: Jake Wyatt is named after your sons. Can you tell us the story behind it?
Gerard Abajian: Coming up with a name that means something is challenging. You can go through all sorts of different names on a list. One day, I was sitting around playing with names. I’ve always liked a strong and bold name. You have Dunhill of London and Davidoff of Geneva. So, you have these strong names in the industry that have a legacy. Out of nowhere, I thought about Niel’s son, Jake. Then, I considered my son, Wyatt. When I put those names together — Jake Wyatt Cigar Company — it sounded good. We thought about it without making it permanent. And we kept playing with names.
But I kept coming back with this timeless, bold, strong name — Jake Wyatt Cigars. I really like it. It represents our boys and who we are. I’m not a third- or fourth-generation Latin cigar producer with a Latin name. I’m also not trying to fake it by giving you something I’m not. I don’t speak Spanish. I’m not Latin. I live in the United States. That’s who I am. Neil is an athlete. I came from the fire service. So, we have a lot of grit behind our character. At the same time, we present ourselves as gentlemen. We put our hands out first. We always say hello. And that’s what Jake Wyatt represents. We’re always putting people ahead of us.
Cigar Life Guy: Your line also has a connection with baseball and the number 22. What’s the story behind that?
Gerard Abajian: The box count of 22 is a nod from when Neil played baseball; he was jersey number 22. His brother inspired me to become a firefighter, and he just retired as a fire chief of Burbank. He played for the L.A. Heat, a football team composed of firefighters. He was a linebacker and wore jersey number 22. When Jake played baseball, he also wore jersey number 22. I think Niel’s dad might have played baseball in his community with jersey number 22 as well.
Innovation, Presentation, and Aesthetics in Cigars
Cigar Life Guy: You put a lot of thought into design. So, why are aesthetics and presentation so important for Jack Wyatt Cigars?
Gerard Abajian: We have two collections. The Gourmet Collection are the only cigars with artisanal accents on them. And the Connoisseur Collection doesn’t have those accents because the focus is more on the connoisseur. It’s a complex cigar. But that’s not to say the Gourmet isn’t. Anyway, when we initiated and completed the design for our Gourmet Collection, our goal was to have individuals take pictures of the cigars.
Everybody is using Instagram and TikTok to become cigar reviewers, bloggers, or just as a fan base. So, if you’re going to take a picture of Jake Wyatt Cigars, we want it to be a little different. Making the cigar shape, other than a Parejo, is different. Perfectos, Salomones — you can’t streamline that business model. So we thought of something in a traditional size — a Robusto, a Toro, whatever it is. And what can we do differently?
We came up with the accents using different colors of tobacco. It takes us an extra two days to make the Gourmet Collection because of the artisanal accents that need to be applied after they’re rolled. And that department doesn’t even know how to roll cigars. All they know how to do is apply accents.
Jake Wyatt Cigars Accessories and Apparel
Cigar Life Guy: Besides cigars, you carry a variety of accessories and apparel. How do you want consumers to see your brand?
Gerard Abajian: People like our clean, symmetrical look. Our shirts have some design on them, but nothing too obnoxious. We keep it very presentable. And you can wear them to any occasion. The colors are timeless, not loud, which also makes them presentable. They’re timeless. Our staff members also wear our polo shirts. And many people like wearing them when they’re golfing.
Hats are another thing. Our hats are something people desire all the time. In fact, any time we go to trade shows or any time we go to events, they want to buy our hats. We sell a lot of hats. It’s somewhat of a hipster look. We use a leather patch that looks like it’s stitched on, and it has an ironworker look to it that appeals to people. The way I would describe our apparel is timeless and minimalist. It’s good for any occasion. Golfers gravitate to it. Golfing. Boating. Car enthusiasts. It has a clean look, a gentleman’s apparel.
The Future for Jake Wyatt Cigars
Cigar Life Guy: What’s next for Jake Wyatt Cigars?
Gerard Abajian: We just launched the JW Maverick. Right now, we’re focused on distribution, and it’s doing very well. We’re keeping up with production, and we rebranded our entire portfolio. We have new cigar bands with a new design, and the boxes have fresh designs. We also introduced our four packs, which are available for every cigar we make in a Robusto and Toro size. And four-packs help retailers with introducing a cigar to somebody.
The box bears the image of the cigar and a QR code you can scan. It takes you to a 30-second video demonstrating the first, second, and last third of notes you’ll experience while smoking the cigar. And this is on every cigar band. Before buying the cigar and second-guessing whether you’ll like it, you have an interactive video of what to expect. There’s also a QR code on the four-pack and the box.
The inside lid of the box is called a vista. Now, we use the vista as the footprint. It has a diagram of every single cigar inside that box. So the diagram for the Maverick Toro is one Toro chopped in thirds and a diagram of what hints and notes a smoker will experience. We break down the cigar construction, the make-up, where it’s from, what the size is … all of it. So if the retailer is too busy, he can attend to somebody in the humidor, and as customers glance over our product, we do the work for them.
Shelf talkers are sometimes intrusive to other brands sitting below that shelf. They hang down and blind other brands. So, this makes it easier to stand out. It’s all there for you, streamlined and clean. As a boutique company, we’ve never seen anyone take that approach to give you the depth of information on a product.
We also brought out our display trays, which allow retailers to place the box on top of a display. They are actually like wings that spread out into trays. And now you can display four-packs. The tray within a tray slides out, and now you have a footprint of 33 inches of 70 cigars. Usually, within our industry, 33 inches would be about three boxes, and it’s Robusto, Toro, and Gordo. It all looks the same.
With our display, it’s the same space. However, you are not only showcasing three sizes, but we’re also allowing you to display four packs. The real estate is much more appealing. There’s some decoration going on within that 33 inches rather than it being a flat, three identical boxes, which look like an assembly line. It’s more decorative and catches the eye. Thirty-three inches is what everyone scans when looking at a shelf.
Jake Wyatt Cigars: Final Words
Cigar Life Guy: Have we missed anything? Please tell us anything else you’d like the cigar world to know.
Gerard Abajian: I think there’s a perception that we are a high-end cigar. They say, “We’ve heard of you.” However, when I ask them what they think our prices are, they usually say $18 to $20. So, maybe it has to do with design. But I want people to know we are very competitively priced.
Photo credit: Jake Wyatt Cigars