Twenty years in business is worthy of a celebration, and you consider it is a business that was built with immigrants and refugees, it deserves an even bigger celebration. So is the case of Bobalu cigars, located in downtown Austin, Texas.
The city Austin, is a remarkable thread through the fabric of America. An iconic American city rich in history and alive with music, food, and libations. I could go on, but I am not here, to tell you about Austin, you can read the Stogie Press article on the city here.
No! I am here my friends, to tell you a story about living the American dream!
Jeff Lipton and his brother, along with the rest of the Lipton family, grew up in Houston. Jeff himself, is a graduate of the University of Texas – Austin. Go Longhorns ! ! Well actually I am a Miami Canes fan but I can tolerate the Longhorns. Jeff is the owner of Bobalu Cigars. He and I had a swell chat the other day, as he told me about his brand.
An Introduction to Bobalu Cigars and Jeff Lipton
SP: 20 years in business is terrific milestone, congratulations. Where did it all begin?
JL: The whole thing was the luck of the draw! I got into the cigar business in mid 1990s. My brother opened a cigar shop in Houston back in the 1995 or so. He learned it was hard to get cigars from the distributors. We would call cigar distributors and they would tell us they are taking no more customers. So I decided to take a trip to the Dominican Republic and learn about blending and rolling cigars. We decided to sell our own cigars and only our own. You only get one chance at making it great. By 1997 open our 2nd location in Austin. we were a good size, not huge, but a good size. Putting the customer first, Bobalu Cigars would take responsible and try harder.
By absolute luck, the first shop in Austin was around the corner from a Homeless Advocacy Organization Caritas which had a Cuban refugee program. We were Gringos, but they sent over an older Cuban man, a refugee and cigar roller. Within 5 minutes of talking to him , he was hired. He was a maestro that worked for us, for 20 years.
SP: How long have you been smoking cigars and what got you started?
JL: We started smoking cigars in college, at the University of Texas. It wasn’t my favorite thing in the world. Then my brother opened the store and this was ridiculously cool. Once you are into it, you understand, you learn. You can be sitting next to anybody, all walks of life. We are brothers of the leaf.
SP: Tell us about Bobalu cigars?
JL: We buy our leaf from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. The Austin stores produce about 1/3 of our cigars with the remainder being produced in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic – mainly the Dominican.
We are always shopping around a lot to get the best price on leaf. There are costs and obstacles all over in the place in this business.
We roll 1000s of cigars a month here and have expanded the business to include rolling events with cigar rollers. We do about 250 of these events a year. In fact, we will be doing a number of super bowl parties. Weddings are also big for us.
Over 15 years ago we started a cigar rolling school where you can learn how to blend and roll. It has turned out to be a big success. Custom labels and cigars are also a part of the business … we make cigars for lots of other stores too.
The luck keeps rolling in!
Jeff went on to explain to me that in the cigar business you just never know what the next new hit will be. He told me the story about how they came to make a sweet tip cigar, which is now one of his best sellers. A gentlemen entered his shop one day and purchased a cigar. As he tasted it, he mentioned that it has a sweet tip. Jeff quickly apologized noting that some of the vegetal glue must of gotten on the cigar and offered to replace it. The gentlemen smiled and said “no, I kind of like this”. So with a simple accident came innovation and Babaulu started making and selling sweet tip cigars.
Growing a Business – February 14, 1997
SP: What was it like in the beginning?
JL: We were blending every day. I had a spiral notebook, a pen, and a checkbook; that’s it. It was Old School.
My brother opened the first shop and cigars sold like crazy. Those were the time with no flavor. The time of Macunduo, Excalibur, and others like that .. We opened a year and half later, on Valentines Day, February 14, 1997. Now we have two stores. Of course being here on 6th street, where it is packed, is great and our second location our factory store iswhere you can see the production happen. has helped a lot.. If you want to see us rolling cigars “LIVE” we have a two cigar roller webcams on our website.
We also do a lot of internet business. We have a big site with lot’s of visitors. The introduction of websites, bulletin boards, and social media, just helps grow the business.
SP: How did you come up with the name Bobalu?
JL: It is a Cuban word and song. We got it from the I Love Lucy series. Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnez) played that song on numerous episodes.
SP: How many Torcedors do you have?
JL: 8 full timers and 5 that do events exclusively with 8 stations at the factory and 2 at the satellite store.
They all have a specialty. Some guys are all around and some roll specific vitolas. They hand bunch their own, no machines used.
SP: How many lines do you offer?
JL: There are 4 or 5 different wrapper leaves we use and 6 or 7 lines in here in Austin.
Moving Forward in an Uncertain World
Bobalu Cigars continues to grow with Jeff’s guidance. In addition to premium blends. They offer custom blends and a whole line of flavored cigar selections. They have been producing presidential inauguration cigars since George Bush Jr. I asked Jeff about his latest President Donald J. Trump cigar and you can sense the smile on his face as he told me:
“ You take grief always, as you never know what happens when you try something. You have to be able to turn on the dime. Take our latest Trump cigar.s. The ad went up the next day and I took it off, In two months – we were sold out. We have since sold close to a 1000 boxes. In comparison, the President Bush or President Obama cigars only sold about 25 to 50 boxes.”
Jeff chuckled and said, “Hey, jobs were added right there… immigrants got jobs and they got their citizenship it was great… We only hope that the cigar regulations can be overturned. “
SP: What are you plans for the future?
JF: Somewhat hopeful. You have to be a realist, we are like the ugly step child that gets kicked around. Taxes will come, but get the regulations are killing the industry. with all that said we have never sold more.. lot’s of curbed smoking… it has not had an effect on us. The tobacco has never been better. In Spite of Altidas and General owning the market but we have to adapted and created a nice niche for us will move with the ebbs and flow of the business.
It was a pleasure to talk with Jeff and walk his road to success. Bobalu Cigars will be celebrating their 20th year in business this coming Valentine’s day and throughout the year. I wished him much success in the future and the next time I get to Austin, I will stop in to see him and the Bobalu crew.
Babalu Cigars can be reached on their website www.bobalu.com and also on social media channels:
- Facebook – Bobalu Cigar Company
- Twitter – @bobalucigars
- You Tube – Bobalu Cigar Company
So if you find yourself in Austin, Texas – stop into Bobalu Cigars and say hi. Tell them Boston Jimmie said hello.