YBOR CITY – Alfred Moreno remembers in the 1970s, while serving in the Navy, how grateful he was when some casino owners decided to help out his shipmates with a small, but very welcome, donation.
“I’m a retired Navy submariner, so I know how that feels,” Moreno said. “I was stationed in California and we would write to the casinos and they would send us their used deck of cards and chips so we could play on board. It saved us money from buying it, and we had one casino that actually sent us a portable casino kit. Every Satuday was casino night on the submarine.”
Three decades later, Moreno is now the general manager of Nicahabana Cigars Inc., a shop in Ybor City that’s been in the community for 50 years, and not only sells fresh hand rolled cigars, but let’s customers watch them being made.
“The first cigar rolled out of Ybor City in April 1886,” he said of the city’s unique tradition and history.
Moreno not only remembers how important the casino gifts were to his shipmates back in the 1970s, but has decided to do the same for soldiers serving the United States today. He’s joined up with the other cigar shops in Ybor City for the “Cigars for Soliders” program. Customers are encouraged to purchase an extra cigar, which will be sent to soldiers overseas as a small token of gratitude for their service. The motto on the posters around town say “Thank our troops with the sweet taste of a fine cigar.”
Moreno said the idea started about a year ago, after one local store came up with the concept and the community’s economic development office, the Ybor City Development Corporation, decided to ask all the cigar shops to join in.
“We had a store that recently closed that would do it on their own, and we all picked up on it,” Moreno said. “Ybor City is known as the home of the cigar in the United States.”
The idea is simple. “You buy a cigar that you actually donate to the soldiers or sailors, and at the end of the month they collect them and ship them to the guys in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.
In the course of the past year, quite a few stogies have made it overseas, he said, since the shops get a healthy number of donations every month.
“I would say we get a couple of hundred each month,” he said.
At Nicahabana Cigars, the item donated most often is the Robusto, Moreno said – possibly because it’s not as strong as some other Cuban cigars.
“They normally would get the Robusto,” he said. “It’s one of the cheaper ones, and in these stores it’s a milder one. If the soldier tries it, it’s not going to kill them.”
By sending these donated gifts to the soldiers, Moreno said, it’s a way for the community to let them know that the people back home are still thinking about them, and rooting for them. And it’s a unique donation program, he said, that could only happen in Ybor City, known famously as Tampa’s Latin Quarter.
“There are six shops – plus the Columbia Restaurant – that sell cigars,” he said. “There are three that are considered factories that roll on site. We’re trying to bring it back.”
In addition to Nicahabana Cigars, the other shops are El Sol Cigars, King Corona Cigars Café & Bar, La Herencia de Cuba Cigar Factory, Metropolitan Cigars Inc., and Tampa Sweethearts Cigar Co. Each has its own distinct appeal. El Sol is Tampa’s oldest cigar store, and La Herencia is among the top ten cigar rollers in the world. There are even Cigar Industry History Tours available by calling 813-428-0854 or logging on to www.yborcitytours.com.
Moreno said it’s a good business to be in. Not matter how weak the economy gets, he said, people still love to drink – and smoke, come good times or bad.
“A wise man once told me that tobacco and liquor will never go away,” he said. “You celebrate by smoking and drinking in the good times, and you sorrow with cigars and drinking in the sad times.”
The donation progam also helps promote Ybor City’s rich history, he said, since it was those original cigar factories that helped build the town in the 1880s, leading eventually to the different factories started when other Europeans – Spanish, Italians, and Germans – began migrating here.
“The Spanish started to do cigar boxes, so we had a lot of cigar box factories,” he said. “Everybody had their little niche.”
As for Cigars for Soldiers, Moreno said he plans to keep up the donation program for “as long as they’re overseas.”
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