Success did not come overnight for Erik Espinosa. Today, the mention of Espinosa Premium Cigars may make you think of its well-known factory, La Zona. It may also make you think of its popular premium cigar brands like Warhead, Laranja, Murcielago, or the 601 Reserva Limitada. Suppose you’re relatively new to the world of Espinosa. In that case, you’ll likely have discovered this brand through its partnership with Emmy award-winning celebrity restauranteur Guy Fieri. These factors make up Erik Espinosa’s climb to notoriety, and his brand’s breakthrough success, but these are not necessarily the reason for the accolades and achievements. Erik Espinosa owes many of his accomplishments to his ability to build strong relationships.
Initially, it may seem strange to discover that Erik Espinosa’s big focus within his business is on relationships. Long before Espinosa Premium Cigars existed, Erik Espinosa did some of everything in the premium cigar space. He worked in a warehouse; he was a sales representative for several well-known brands. Espinsoa also held the sales manager position at different companies before becoming an independent rep. These jobs gave Erik Espinosa the experience he needed to be successful, but not the stability and financial security required to thrive.
“One day, I won salesman of the year. I got a bonus check and a pink slip at the same time,” he explains. “I said to myself, you know what, I don’t understand this. There’s no such thing as an overpaid salesman when you’re on commission.”
Rather than seeking another sales job, he chose a different route. In Erik’s own words, he says he was “forced” to make a business move. His son was going to college, and he had a family to support. In his previous positions, he worked hard to build up other companies, yet he felt he had nothing to show for it. He made good money but needed to guarantee long-term job security. Though it was a gamble, he started his own cigar company.
When Espinosa Premium Cigars first started, Erik’s team primarily consisted of his son, Erik Jr., and Hector Alfonso, who handled the blending and product development. Early on, he relied on both to help him identify problems and areas that needed extra attention and acted on their recommendations. Over the years, new members have joined the team and have taken on tasks that align with their experience. Erik Espinosa’s job has always been to provide his team with the tools and resources they need to succeed and complete their jobs. This approach has allowed the Espinosa Cigars brand to scale and grow year after year. Another factor contributing to Espinosa’s success story is the relationships Erik has built and fostered over the years.
Acting Out of Necessity
With so many great cigars on the market yet so little shelf space, Erik Espinosa understood early on just how competitive the premium cigar business was and why he focused so much on relationships.
“People tend to smoke cigars from the people they like. The more people around the country you reach, you meet and rub elbows with, and who like you, the more they will seek your cigars. They are the ones that are going to try your cigars. There are thousands of cigars to choose from. Why will they smoke this one over that one? He who promotes the most is most likely going to win.”
In a business world dominated by social media, Erik Espinosa prefers a more personal approach to handling his business relationships. He gives his number to almost anyone and encourages them to call him if they need to reach him about anything. This isn’t a number to his office phone; it’s his personal cell phone, and if you call it, you’ll hear him on the other end. One thing you’ll learn about Erik Espinosa is that he is not the type you’ll find stuck behind a computer all day. In fact, his office is devoid of a computer. Instead, you’re likely to find him behind his desk on his phone, reaching out to retailers and friends daily to not only talk business but to catch up with them about their lives and families. If it’s your birthday and he finds out, he’ll call or text to wish you a happy birthday. Even though his company sells cigars, Erik Espinosa will tell you he’s in the business of relationships.
Relationships also drive the manufacturing side of Espinosa’s business. Just as he felt he had no choice but to start his own cigar company to achieve success, Erik also says he was forced to start his own cigar factory, La Zona, located in Estelí, Nicaragua.
“When I first opened Espinosa, I had to wait my turn for when the manufacturer wanted to make my cigars. That’s another thing I had no control over. So I said, you know what, I’m opening my own factory. It’s not something I wanted to do. I was forced to. I’m glad I did it because I like to be in control of everything that I do.”
Having a factory allows Espinosa to make cigars for his own company and enables him to work with others seeking a manufacturing partner. Collaboration has challenged Espinosa as a company and Erik as a businessman, strengthening both. Another relationship that has bolstered the Espinosa name and brand has been Erik’s work with Guy Fieri and his premium cigar brand, Knuckle Sandwich. Fieri and Espinosa met through a mutual acquaintance. At first, Espinosa was hesitant to get involved in this project, knowing that celebrity-fronted cigars typically failed. Fieri’s work ethic and hands-on involvement in the process put Espinosa’s fears at ease. Espinosa signed onto the project, which has earned both him and Fieri many accolades since the first Knuckle Sandwich release last year.
Doing the Math
The Premium Cigar Association trade show is where the power of relationships shines for Espinsoa. The annual premium cigar-focused trade show continues to be an important event for Espinosa, who attended his first PCA (then RTDA) trade show in 1998. Here in 2023, when asked why the show matters to him and his company, he says it comes down to numbers.
“This is our trade show. You’re paying for one ticket to see hundreds of stores. The math is there. I reach out to everybody at the show, even at the bars where we all mingle. At PCA, you build relationships. If I didn’t attend the show, I would have to buy hundreds of plane tickets to reach the same number of retailers. You do the math,” he explains.
For retailers that have told him they can’t afford to attend PCA’s trade show, he bluntly responds, “You can’t afford not to go. This is our trade show; this is our livelihood. You never know who you’re going to meet. You build relationships by going to the show the same way we build relationships with retailers. Retailers build relationships with us manufacturers. It’s tough to do it on your own without these relationships.”
Espinosa Premium Cigars is sponsoring this year’s opening party, where lots of networking will take place in the spirit of relationship building that’s driven Erik Espinosa’s career. Those attending PCA this year can also expect the debut of the ninth release of Warhead, an appearance from Guy Fieri himself, and more surprises Erik says you’ll have to attend to find out about.
This story first appeared in PCA The Magazine, Volume 2, 2023. To receive a copy of this magazine you must be a current member of PCA. Join or renew today at premiumcigars.org/membership.
– Photography by Jerome Berry/Iconic Smokers. Story by Antoine Reid, content director at Premium Cigar Association (PCA). You can reach him at email@example.com.