Between the Leaves: Raymond Pages Raffo of Tabacalera AJ Fernandez

The top dog gets all of the scraps.  For that reason, there is never going to be a shortage of homages to all the gentlemen and women who make up the upper echelon of the cigar industry.  They own the Tabacaleras, they are the blenders, their name is on the band, their evenings are vibrant and adventurous full of booze and cigars. They travel the globe, they get the fame, and we share in the bounty of their incredible work.

This group gets 99% of the typical articles and series that are produced in the industry. And why not?  How would one even begin to write about the underbelly, the realness, of the industry?  You’d have to embed yourself in a tabacalera or deep within a brand’s employee roster to find that proper individual who could represent the truly interesting aspects of the cigar industry.

I believe passionately that profiling the people behind-the-scenes in the industry would be more interesting than most celebrity spots and would broaden the everyday cigar lovers knowledge of the seed to shelf process.

That’s why I have been connecting with friends in the cigar industry on Facebook and Linkedin for many years. I go about it like this: first, I connect with certain avatars that illuminate the industry as a whole, and then connect with their connections throughout the value chain (sales, operations, etc). In those years, I’ve connected with a cadre of the most amazing people in the cigar industry, from top to bottom. From owners and sales professionals to marketers, blenders, and factory workers.

These are the people I am interested in.

More than travelling the world and having a cigar every day in a new location, what interests me is what goes on in the Tabacalera.  What’s the difference between good to great? And how do the pieces fit together? It’s not so easy to figure out. There is no step by step about what goes on, and when you do finally see something on a Tabacalera, it is from the “rich” perspective of being a distinguished guest sipping on rum in the shade.

Beyond that, my connections are mostly great personalities. Sadly, these friendships overall are not deep but I would say that more than most I have really made an effort to become someone who enjoys the nuances and interests of my Facebook friends and I comment more than most about the normal aspects of people’s lives.  I like it when A.J. shows him petting his horses and riding. I like the birthday parties for mom and the pictures of the early mornings in airports with the hair all in a miff. And I like the work.  Seeing the all the different leaves laid out and sorted through.  Taking in the piles of freshly rolled cigars on tables in climate controlled rooms.  That’s the stuff that interests me.  I spend the majority of my time handling extremely technical work in the transportation industry and spending time with my family.  I have found that the salt of the industry does the same!

The subject of our first profile is Raymond Pages Raffo.  I connected with him though Abdel Yusef Fernandez, Rafael Nodal, and Nick Melillo who each have a relationship with him.

Ray is employed in a trusted role as the Head of his Operation by A.J. Fernandez.  This is quite a responsibility for a young man like Ray, but he takes it very seriously and is tireless in his role.  Rafael and Nick find him as the point person on their creative pursuit of the finest Nicaraguan tobaccos from the fields of A.J. Fernandez and the warehouse. Judging by how they talk about him, it’s clear that they respect his knowledge and that they like him as a person.  This is his job for all who come to the factory. God, and what a job it is.

Ray at work #1 (1)

Ray is 25 and lives in Esteli.  Like many in this industry, he was born in Cuba where his parents grew tobacco when he was a young boy.  You ask how at 25 he slipped into this sweet role? Well, he happens to be A.J.’s brother in law! As the Operations Leader for AJ’s factory, Tabacalera Fernandez,  he’s the fellow that AJ trusts with selection of the tobacco and the sourcing of all part and ingredients.  He is one of the top two people overall!

Ray did not start out at the top. He started working in the factory at 18, quickly showed is dedication and skill, and became integral in supervision of the manufacturing process.  In describing what he does, he tells me that Abdel does all the blends and he does everything else including searching for the tobaccos for A.J. to try prior to choosing the blend.  He puts together what he calls the “tabscos” as he call them for A.J. to try before choosing the blends.  These are basic rolls that look like Backwoods Smokes from the pharmacy.  They are comprised completely of the same leaf and it allows blenders to get the taste of a specific part more fully.

Ray is also a bad ass.  If you look at the goings on of his day to day in his life, he smokes a giant strong cigar mostly something he is proud to have worked on.  He looks scary because he owns the smoke, nothing dainty from Ray! Also, because he works hard during the day, he smokes this giant cigar without much handling, so it’s in his mouth and then he is done. He is also a family man and likes the goings on at his home in Esteli with his kids.  He often BBQs with his friends and he is always a fixture around the goings on of A.J.’s social and family life.

I asked Ray what his favorite smokes are and unsurprisingly they are the ones he has worked on with pride from the Tabacalero.  The first being the Ramon Allones by AJ Fernandez. This is a classic Cuban name and the Nicaraguan version is maybe better. According to lore, the brand was A.J.’s father’s favorite back in Cuba, so his send up was something he really worked hard on with Ray.  He also mentions in our communication how much he loves the H Upmann by A.J.  This certainly is a tough cigar to put out as Upmann has 170 years of greatness and you can’t just screw with that.  Also the Montecristo Nicaragua which has been tearing up the reviews as it was a collaboration with Rafael Nodal.  To say that A.J. and Rafael work well together is an understatement, and right behind them in their efforts is Ray.

I hope to visit Ray in Esteli and see him in action.  During which I would take part in one of his chicken BBQs!  At 25, Ray has the respect of all blenders and the trust of one of the best, Abdel Yusef.  He should be proud of his place in the process and I know that by the time he is 35 he will be doing ever more amazing things!

Note: this post is re-shared with permission by Kaplowitz Media. View the original post here.