Even if you’re new to the cigar lifestyle, you probably already recognize how smoking a premium cigar brings people together. The founders of ATL Cigar Co. set out to embody that spirit. It began with a line of cigars that captures the essence of community in their hometown of Atlanta. Peter Gross, COO of Luciano Cigars and one of the founders of ATL Cigar Co. discusses how he leaped into the cigar industry, Cuban cigars, and the sublime, travel, and how conversation while smoking a fine cigar can create instant and lasting bonds.
The First Premium Smoke
Cigar Life Guy: Tell me about your first premium cigar experience.
Peter Gross: On my 18th birthday, I bought myself a subscription to Cigar Aficionado magazine and a pack of Swisher Sweets, which I smoked alone on my parent’s patio.
Soon, I found the local premium cigar retailers, like McCranie’s in Cornelius, NC, and started smoking Griffin’s and Avo Uvezian cigars, which I liked fine then. Still, I knew I had to get to Havana.
In June ’98, I hitched a ride from Nassau on an old Russian airliner and a handful of other lawbreakers. When I landed, I made my way straight to the Hotel Nacional.
I bought a box of Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas and a single Romeo y Julieta Churchill, which I enjoyed on the hotel’s veranda with a Cuba Libre. It remains one of the most sublime experiences of my life.
I smoked Cubans mainly for the next 20 years, including a fair amount of time living abroad — UK, Ghana, and Kenya. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stomach Dominican puros — the bitterness and aftertaste were a different product category — and I still can’t.
Then in 2017, on another trip to Havana, I was shocked to learn about the growth of Nicaraguan cigars, which hadn’t registered to me then.
I returned to the US and went to Puff’ N’ Stuff in Tucker, GA, where Ronnie introduced me to Aganorsa Leaf and AJ Fernandez products; it was like smoking for the first time again.
Nicaraguan tobacco had more flavor than most Cuban cigars by the mid-2010s. However, they finished clean in the classic Cuban way — which most Dominican products still can’t provide.
A Community of Cigar Smokers
Cigar Life Guy: You, Leroy, and Janelle met at a neighborhood hotdog stand. What about cigar culture brings people from all walks of life together?
Peter Gross: Leroy, Janelle, and I were neighbors in SW Atlanta for six years in the mid-2000s, and yeah — we started a hotdog stand together as a way to bring the neighborhood together and to provide an alternative on Sunday nights to the trap house on our street.
Those hotdog stand sessions would always end with a cigar, where we tried to figure out the “un-figure-out-able:” how to fix our neighborhood and improve ourselves.
The cigar gave space for intimacy. If you’re with someone for 90 minutes, it’s amazing how deep you can get and how reflective a cigar helps you to become. We built a bond by smoking those cigars. This bond was stronger than the differences in our backgrounds, perspectives, voting decisions, and even our life philosophies.
We still don’t agree on everything, but our conflict is creative. It’s made us all better people and professionals.
When we launched ATL Cigar Co in 2021, we combined all of our skills — Leroy’s as a community builder and philosopher, Janelle’s as a maker and marketer, and mine as a start-up operator — and we made something that people responded to. We wanted to export our friendship’s complex but genuine bond through a cigar brand, and it’s been amazing to see the response.
Cigars Around the World
Cigar Life Guy: You have lived and traveled all over the world. What is one of your most memorable cigar experiences abroad?
Peter Gross: When Leroy and I visited Luciano Meirelles in Esteli in 2021, only a few months after launching our company, we were blown away by Luciano’s passion for tobacco and the deep connection we felt with him.
All week he blended new cigars for us from scratch. He used whatever tobacco he had on hand at the restaurant, his house, or the factory. And we tasted flavors we’d never experienced. One of those blends became the Wise Blood, a cigar we’re proud to launch through our retail network in April 2023. Still, he produced so many great blends in front of us that week that it’s tough to put the experience into words.
Fast forward eighteen months. This partnership with Luciano has taken us into stores on three continents. It has allowed us to be owners of tobacco farms and factories that make some of the world’s best cigars.
It’s all happened so fast, but we know we are in this for the long haul. And we’re excited to keep rolling out new blends and products over the months and years ahead. When you start with well-fermented tobacco from our farms and combine it with the expertise of someone with Luciano’s talents, the results will always be exceptional.
Making the Leap to Full-Time Cigar Life
Cigar Life Guy: You gave up a good “9 to 5” job at the beginning of 2023. Talk about making that jump into cigars 100% and any advice you’d give someone considering making the same jump.?
Peter Gross: Yeah, I left a job I loved, providing insurance to low and middle-income people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which I’d done for the past 12 years or so. It was a giant leap. Yet, I knew that the strength of the Luciano brand, network, and production capabilities would be the “Next Big Thing” in the industry. And I wanted to be a part of it.
I waited a year to jump while I built up a cushion to enable me to move. So, I recommend staying the same amount of time or longer for anyone thinking about it. And make sure you have some cash in the bank.
At the same time, I see many people not jumping when they should. It’s a catch-22 to leave something safe and venture into the unknown, and I get it. But you have to take calculated risks, make the numbers work, and make a bet on yourself.
Taking a risk may have downsides for your bank account, but always taking the safe road has downsides for your soul.
Cigar Life Guy: What has been the most pleasant surprise of working in the cigar industry?
Peter Gross: The industry is a family; I’m new in the industry, and I don’t deserve to be where I am when compared to many other people who’ve been working for decades.
As Chief Operating Officer for Luciano Cigars, which makes and distributes ATL Cigar Co as part of its family of brands, I’m so honored with the welcome I have received from longtime stalwarts in the industry. It’s been amazing to look at these men and women whom I have looked up to as my heroes and now call them friends.
Branding Hometown Atlanta
Cigar Life Guy: You are from Atlanta. How does the ATL line embody the city and your brand’s message of bringing people together?
Peter Gross: ATL Cigar Co is trying to bridge gaps that have long existed in our city, between north and south, Black and white, liberal and conservative.
We started by bridging those gaps in our own company to prove that it can be done. We’re working every day, cigar by cigar, to encourage the city to do the same. But, at the same time, we wanted to embody in our brand those things that have made Atlanta what it is — hustle with soul, business, and purpose together.
We are honoring the city’s civil rights leaders, celebrities, and novelists from middle Georgia. Our goal is to find the thread that unites them.
The city is also agony and ecstasy as an Atlanta sports fan. It’s the vibe on the Beltline on a spring day. It’s Bankhead and Buckhead. Atlanta gives us a fantastic palette from which to choose as we build this company.
Photo credit: ATL Cigar Co.