Riverside entrepreneur Bill Bromley developed a taste for cigars during smoke breaks on construction sites when he was in his 20s.
He turned his hobby into a business in 2006 when he took over operation of the Mission Tobacco Lounge in the city’s downtown. Now, Bromley, 35, is moving further up the supply chain with his own brand of cigars and a partnership in a manufacturing facility in Honduras.
The Mission Tobacco Lounge opened in 1997 in a 1,700-square-foot shop along University Avenue with a beer and wine bar and a small stage for jazz and blues performers. Bromley and a former partner bought it 10 years later, and he has since expanded it to 6,000 square feet with a walk-in humidor along with a full bar, a larger stage area with a wider range of musical acts, upstairs seating overlooking the bar and a backroom smoking lounge.
Bromley got the idea for his own cigar brand after a 2010 trip to Honduras, where he was invited along with other cigar-shop proprietors to sample tobaccos and build his own cigar during a visit to a production facility for well-known cigar maker Rocky Patel. Improbably, he struck gold with a medium-bodied concoction he said had a little bit of spice but was still very smooth.
“I hit the nail on the head the first time,” he said. “I got extremely lucky.”
Inspired by that early success, he re-created the blend for his debut cigar, dubbed “OG” for “Original.” With help from blenders and manufacturers abroad, he designed two more cigars, a full-bodied variety he calls the “Nuke,” and another one named “Butter” for its creamy smoothness.
Bromley introduced his MTL Cigars by Bill Bromley brand with a launch party in Riverside in June 2011.
He’s currently bringing in about 10,000 MTL cigars each quarter to sell from his shop and is working on expanding sales through other Southern California outlets under the Bill Bromley name. He said he expects to boost production to 50,000 or more within the next few months.
Two new Bromley cigars also are on the way: an introductory blend called The Rookie, and another one for more advanced palettes known as The Creeper.
Bromley said he’ll manufacture the new lines at a 30,000-square-foot facility in Danli, Honduras, where he hopes to eventually roll all his own product and offer contract manufacturing to other brands.
With a Honduras-based partner, Oscar Valladares, he has formed BV Global, which will serve as a distribution arm for the factory they are investing in with three other partners. Bromley is spending weeks at a time in Honduras to get the factory up and running. After several months of planning, he said production began on a small scale a few weeks ago.
Honduras is one of the largest sources of U.S.-sold cigars, along with Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, said Kyle Whalen, public relations manager for the Georgia-based International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association.
Because of its tight regulations and high taxes, the cigar industry can be tough to get into, Whalen said. Cigar companies tend to be small, family-run operations that function much like wineries, manufacturing limited-release boutique brands sought out by cigar lovers for their rarity and quality.
A cigar-industry boom in the early 1990s, fueled by celebrity endorsements, created new demand for product that was filled by upstart operators who rushed low-quality product into the market in search of quick profit.
When popularity waned — partly due to the prevalence of inferior product — those companies went bust, leaving the traditional cigar makers still standing, Whalen said. The industry has grown steadily since then, and has put a stronger emphasis on quality, he said.
“You can do all the marketing in the world, and if it’s not there when somebody lights up and smokes it, it’s not going to be successful,” he said. “They’re not going to buy it.”
Because they are hand-rolled, cigars are a labor-intensive business; a good roller can make 300 or so cigars in a day, Bromley said. The facility is operating now with less than a dozen employees. “We’re real concerned about quality, so we want to keep it small for now,” he said.
Bromley said the partners are also working on a line of flavored cigars, capitalizing on what he said is a growing trend that’s in line with a proliferation of flavored products from the makers of vodka, whiskey and other alcohol products. They are in the research and development phase now.