Interview: Jon Huber of Crowned Heads

Interview: Jon Huber of Crowned Heads

(Editor’s Note: This piece also has a contest at the end of the interview, so if you want to know what you can win and how to enter, then please read on.)

This last week we had the honor of interviewing Jon Huber of Crowned Heads. For those of you who don’t know, Crowned Heads is a company formed by former key players from CAO. When CAO was acquired by Scandinavian Tobacco Group in 2010 many of the old guard left the company to find their fortunes elsewhere, amongst that exodus were Jon Huber, Mike Conder, Michael Trebing, and Nancy Heathman, who went on to start Crowned Heads.

Since then the folks at Crowned Heads have been busy and hard at work to get their company operational and their first line out to the market. They wanted to do it right so they took their time and found the perfect partner for their first release, Ernesto Carrillo. The rest as they say is history, Crowned Heads and Ernesto Carrillo came out with Four Kicks and it has been gaining steady popularity and high praise from the public and the new media outlets ever since. So without further introduction our interview with rising star Jon Huber of Crowned Heads:

Cigar Brief (CB):  What do you see the role of your company being in the current market place?

Jon Huber (Jon): I feel that Crowned Heads is a cog in a large wheel that continues to roll and gain momentum in the premium cigar industry; that is, the wheel of so-called ‘boutique’ brands.  It’s all about a return to the basic values of quality, consistency, and customer service.  As simple as they may seem, those three values seem so rare and infrequent in today’s business world.  Our mission at Crowned Heads is to resurrect those values  through the consistent quality of our cigars, and in how we take care of our retail partners.  

CB: How would you describe your current lineup of cigars, and its niche in the market?

Jon: Our cigars (“Four Kicks”) are rich, balanced, medium in body, and full in flavor.  We blended Four Kicks to be a flavor profile that can be appreciated by the novice smoker and seasoned cigar enthusiast, alike.  I think that a ‘niche’ is something one carves out over time; since we shipped our first cigars in November 2011, I think it’s too early to say we’ve cultivated a ‘niche,’ per se.  Right now, I’m just happy when I hear or read that someone’s tried and enjoyed our cigars.

CB: What were some of the challenges you faced when you switched from your role at CAO and Swedish Match/ STG to your new role at Crowned Heads?

Jon: That ‘switch’ was such a liberating feeling that I think it far overshadowed any ‘challenges’ I faced.  It was a new lease on life and a chance at a ‘do-over.’  I suppose that in retrospect, if there were any real challenges, overcoming the association of being a part of CAO and carving out a unique and new position within the industry may’ve been a challenge.  That said, I can honestly look back over the last 13 months and feel good that we were able to achieve just that.  To be clear, I look back upon my 14+ years at CAO as a very special chapter in my life and I have fond memories of both my time there and the people with whom I was fortunate to work with.  No regrets whatsoever.  But I’ve moved along and the ‘new’ CAO has moved along, as well.

CB: Starting fresh and creating your own company from the ground-up in the industry must pose some unique challenges, especially in the current boutique saturated marketplace. What has been one of your greatest challenges to date?

Jon: The biggest challenge to us was finding the right ‘fit’ for us on the manufacturer level.  From day one, Mike (Conder) and I agreed that the focus had to always be on the product–not the marketing, advertising, etc.  I think the misconception is that creating a cigar brand is simple; you just contact the factory that’s making the cigars with the highest ratings, pick a blend and go.  Contrary to that, we spent the first 6 months of Crowned Heads analyzing manufacturer opportunities, visiting factories, meeting with factory owners, and really finalizing where we would best fit in terms of going forward.  It truly was time well spent as we could not be happier with where we are at (Tabacalera La Alianza, S.A.).  

CB: Your first line “Four Kicks” came out to much acclaim and was a collaboration between you and Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. Can we expect your new lines for this year to be a continued collaboration between you and Ernesto again, or are you going to use different manufacturers for each line?

Jon: Working with Ernesto has been an amazing experience.  I sum it up as saying that I earned my undergrad degree over the previous 14 years of my experience in the cigar industry, and now with Ernesto, I’m working on my graduate degree.  I’ve learned a great deal about tobacco, selection, evaluation, processing, fermentation, and blending from Ernesto.  On top of all that, he’s just a true gentleman and a good man.  I know Mike would agree with me in saying that we wouldn’t want to work with anyone else.  So to answer your question, yes we will continue working with Ernesto and Tabacalera La Alianza on Four Kicks and forthcoming projects.

CB: As a follow up to the question above do you have plans for a more vertically integrated company where you have your own factory and packaging operations or do you plan to keep in line with your current model?

Jon: During the early months of Crowned Heads, we explored the possibility of starting our own factory.  We came to the conclusion that in order to do that properly, someone really needed to be at the factory 24/7/365.  Mike and I both have strong family ties here and neither of us were ready to up and move to Nicaragua, Honduras, or the Dominican Republic.  At the end of the day, we feel strongly that we have a great business model as it stands right now; that is, combining Ernesto’s 40+ years of experience with tobacco and cigar-making with our 40+ years of experience with the marketing-sales-branding side of the business.     

CB: From your days at CAO what lessons or experiences have you learned from that shape your current approach to creating and maintaining brand consistency and loyalty?

Jon: What I took away from my previous years in the cigar industry was a firm belief in focusing on the quality of the product first and also in treating your customers as you would expect to be treated yourself.  I also realized that it was important going forward to create an ‘umbrella’ company image under which we would have the freedom to create unique and different brands, as opposed to being locked-in to having to have every new brand have thematic consistency with the previous ones.  Crowned Heads is like a band and Four Kicks is our first album/CD.  The next release will ‘sound’ (look or taste) nothing like Four Kicks.  

CB: What do you want a customer to walk away with after smoking one of your cigars?

Jon: If someone purchases our cigars–I’m grateful and would like to say ‘thank you’ for supporting our brand.  If they enjoyed their experience with Four Kicks and feel they received not only their monies worth, but also had an hour or so of a relaxing and satisfying escape from their daily life, then I feel our mission was accomplished.

CB: Lastly, are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?

Jon: Mike and I are going to the factory with Ernesto this month to work on blending a new size extension to Four Kicks.  This will be the fifth size in the line and we’re targeting an April/May release.  We’ll also be continuing to work on a new blend that we’ve been playing with since last October.  The blend is actually for the second Crowned Heads brand that will be released in 2013; however, our goal is to release one size of the brand this year at the IPCPR show in August.  Production of this one size will be limited to approximately 25,000 cigars in 2012, and will be made available first to our original ‘starting 66’ locations we began with in November 2011.   

We just want to thank Jon and the folks over at Crowned Heads for taking the time to talk with us and for helping us create the following contest below. Crowned Heads is an exciting company and one to watch out for this year as they expand their portfolio and customer base. We look forward to the months ahead as Crowned Heads continues their conquest of the cigar industry one smoker at a time. Read on to find out how you too, can win some Crowned Heads’ Four Kicks Cigars, XL shirt, and trucker cap.

*****Contest Rules & How to Enter: Entering the contest is simple. All you have to do is ask a question in the comment section and the best question will win a response from Jon Huber himself, and a four pack of the Four Kicks cigar, an XL shirt, and a trucker cap. You can enter as many times as you want, but only the most engaging and thought provoking question will win, so good luck! Contest ends on Saturday, February 10th, 2012****

 

22 Comments

  1. DougBryant February 6, 2012 at 1:48 am - Reply

    Excellent interview! I doubt my questions will be the most thought provoking but I am very interested in these cigars. I’ve asked all of my local B&M’s to try to get them for the last couple of months since I heard of you but so far no go. I just liked the FB page and I’m going to check the website to see if you have a list of retailers in my area.

    So, for my question, I was wondering what the blend is comprised of for the Four Kicks and if you feel they could benefit from some extra aging in my humidor once I manage to get my paws on a few. I’m sure they will be very good right from the start but certain blends really smooth out with a couple of months of TLC on my end. Knowing the EP Carillo’s as I do I’m sure it will be very tasty and flawlessly constructed of some very fine tobaccos.

    I’m going to look to see if anyone has reviewed them yet. My friends and I do an informal taste test of our own on any new cigars any of us comes across. Everything is more enjoyable when shared with good friends!

  2. DougBryant February 6, 2012 at 1:53 am - Reply

    Excellent interview! I doubt my questions will be the most thought provoking but I am very interested in these cigars. I’ve asked all of my local B&M’s to try to get them for the last couple of months since I heard of you but so far no go. I just liked the FB page and I’m going to check the website to see if you have a list of retailers in my area.

    So, for my question, I was wondering what the blend is comprised of for the Four Kicks and if you feel they could benefit from some extra aging in my humidor once I manage to get my paws on a few. I’m sure they will be very good right from the start but certain blends really smooth out with a couple of months of TLC on my end. Knowing the EP Carillo’s as I do I’m sure it will be very tasty and flawlessly constructed of some very fine tobaccos. Also, which vitola do you feel showcases the flavor profile of the blend the best?

    I’m going to look to see if anyone has reviewed them yet. My friends and I do an informal taste test of our own on any new cigars any of us comes across. Everything is more enjoyable when shared with good friends!

  3. hcc2012 February 6, 2012 at 6:59 am - Reply

    This past weekend I attended an event at Draper’s for a rather prosperous cigar maker. Toward the end of the event, the owner of Draper’s sat down with this cigar maker for a Q&A session. The discussion kept leaning toward questions about the FDA and whether there is any regulation of the cigar industry right now. This particular manufacturer applauded himself for being “truthful” and did not hesitate to call out those who “romanced” terminology, blends, and details about their cigars. So my question is this: What would be your solution to regulation: A. Self-regulation; B. An Independent Panel of Regulators who know the industry; or C. A combination of the two? I feel he had a point, no matter how bluntly he put it, that sometimes the consumers are paying $9-$10 for a cigar and don’t know what’s actually in that cigar.

  4. acigarsmokerpeter February 6, 2012 at 9:05 am - Reply

    Another great interview, I really am loving these. Four Kicks is one of the cigars I truly enjoy so it is fun and interesting to find out more about the people behind it. As for a question: Jon how would you like to be remember within the premium cigar industry among consumers and industry peers?

    Peter G

  5. ptyler February 6, 2012 at 9:09 am - Reply

    My question is around their amazing use of social media to create buzz for the launch of the product…it has been quite impressive to see how much attention Crowned Heads has generated for itself and the launch of Four Kicks within social media circles (particularly Twitter). Why do they think their campaign was so successful and what advice would they have for others in terms of generating that kinda of awareness and hype for a new product or company using these various social media channels?

  6. PaulBuza February 6, 2012 at 10:38 am - Reply

    Anthony, thank you for another informative interview!

    Here is my question(s).

    The Crowned Heads brand has been on my radar for nerly a year now, seemingly before a manufacturer was chosen, let alone a blend bieng developed. To what do you credit the buzz leading up to your Nov. release, and can you talk a little about the developement timeline, from when you came to an agreement with Ernesto to handle your production through the blending, aging packaging etc…

    Wow, I guess I got carried away.

  7. tigerfan18 February 6, 2012 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    Great Interview,

    Being a somewhat newcomer to the cigar industry, I just happened to stumble across Crowned Heads, trying to educate myself and learn what I could, I found out that they were based in Nashville, and being a native Nashvillian, I was immediately drawn to the brand as well as other Nashville based business’s, (Yazoo Brewery etc) and have been keeping up with them as much as possible, catching myself checking their website and twitter daily.

    My question is, how has being located in Nashville helped/ hurt your brand and to what extent would a location of a company play in a business such as yours.

  8. MatthewPeeWeeReese February 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Jon, the name Four Kicks was inspired by a song in your heavy rotation at the time (which is my favorite KOL song by the way). What music is in your heavy rotation currently, and what influence does music have on your creative process with cigars, if any, beyond the name?

    Thanks for making a great cigar.

  9. swede214 February 6, 2012 at 9:29 pm - Reply

    Good interview, enjoyed it. My question: How did the name ”Four Kicks” come about.

  10. jy617 February 7, 2012 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    I recently read a review of the Four Kicks, and it peaked my interest. Seeing you are based out of Nashville, I was wondering if Memphis is a possibility of cities where these will be sold? If not, where would the nearest B&M be where I could pick one up?

  11. JRobustoGrande February 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm - Reply

    Will Crowned Heads play the same kind of Music with each new blend? Or do you see the new music taking on dimension and expanding into other styles?

  12. kalven February 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    If you could use tobacco from any country (including Cuba), in a blend for a new cigar, what would you try for filler, binder and wrapper?

  13. BaylorJohn February 9, 2012 at 9:28 pm - Reply

    Great Interview! My Question: There are a lot of boutique cigar makers out there that seem to have one problem in common-distribution to meet the consumer demand (blend shortages, time necessary for production, etc…). What steps are you taking to ensure your brand doesn’t encounter similar issues?

  14. Pat D February 10, 2012 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    You said your cigar is like a bands album. Which band/album would you compare it to?

  15. Pat D February 10, 2012 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    You said your cigar is like a bands album. Which band/album would you compare it to?

  16. JeffyB February 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm - Reply

    Great interview! My first question is: where do you see yourself, the company, and the brands 5 yrs, 10 yrs, etc. down the road? And a second: what’s your favorite drink with the Four Kicks?

  17. curmudgeon February 11, 2012 at 4:16 pm - Reply

    Great interview and article. Here are my questions: Coming from CAO and Scandinavian, you’re familiar with the economics of the big business of cigars. But now you’ve embarked into the world of boutique cigars. It’s obvious you’ve invested substantial time, money, and effort into creating a unique and superior product, but by definition, this cigar is limited in quantity and distribution, and which probably can’t be introduced at premium prices. How does a boutique start-up cigar company plan to become profitable and continue to produce small-batch quality? How would an investor looking into such an endeavor ever plan to have the initial investment repaid? It seems to me that such an endeavor would be limited in its profit potential, while being full of the substantial risk of being swallowed by the giants. What is the actual profit game plan of a boutique start-up cigar company?

    Alternatively, what exactly is the best cigar blend for exploding cigars? Is there some tobacco that wipes off my friend’s face easier than others?

    And if you could choose one famous TV star as your cigar spokesmodel, would it be Ginger, Maryanne, or Genie? Which one would look better with a Four Kicks in their mouth? Just curious.

    P.S. Love the sticks!

  18. Nvizble February 12, 2012 at 7:32 am - Reply

    Considering the current growth in the boutique cigar industry, how does this impact the quality of tobaccos going forward, and your ability to produce different profiles on a consistent basis? Will the “big guys” dominate the supply side of the industry and compromise your sourcing? Will you be forced to vertically integrate your production as a matter of control? How do you see this impacting pricing and the consumer’s overall experience?
    Thanks!
    Michael. [email protected]

  19. CigarBrief February 13, 2012 at 9:15 am - Reply

    @TheCrownedHeads #contest winner to be announced soon, with accompanying response by Mr. Huber.

  20. CigarBrief February 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    From Jon Huber:

    OK…first off, there were some EXCELLENT questions posted. Would love the opportunity to someday sit down and answer each and every one in detail (maybe a video Q&A down the road??)….

    I picked one–could’ve picked a half-dozen–that you can designate as the ‘winner.’ I believe this was posted by ‘BaylorJohn:

    Great Interview! My Question: There are a lot of boutique cigar makers out there that seem to have one problem in common-distribution to meet the consumer demand (blend shortages, time necessary for production, etc…). What steps are you taking to ensure your brand doesn’t encounter similar issues?

    Jon Huber (Answer): Our philosophy towards distribution has always been the same since the beginning; that is, we let the tobacco dictate the growth and expansion of our retail distribution. Specifically, we look at the tobacco first–then review the tobacco with Ernie (Ernesto Perez-Carrillo) in order to determine exactly how much time we think the tobacco needs, how much yield we should expect from a particular pilon, etc., etc. From that point, we have a better perspective of number of cigars in the shipment versus how many we have already on backorder, and then, how many new accounts (if any) we can open. I think you run into problems when you do things in reverse, i.e., open ‘X’ number of accounts and then expect your production to match those numbers. Further to your question, we know that in order to have longevity in this business you need to literally ‘invest’ in tobacco. I think you can only get so far by going to Nica (or Honduras or the DR, or wherever) every 3 or 4 months with pre-orders in hand and purchasing enough cigars to fill those orders. At some point, you have to invest in your product; be proactive as opposed to reactionary. We view tobacco inventory as an asset and we are in excellent shape for 2012 and going forward.

  21. HenryChang March 21, 2012 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    Cool interview

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