United Cigar Group: Quality, growth, love of the leaf—all together

Compressing this story into its allotted space presents a daunting challenge. When you begin to unravel the many threads that constitute United Cigar Group, you find the makings of a book—of several volumes, in fact. Owned by David Garofalo, proprietor of the New Hampshire cigar-store chain Two Guys Cigars, United Cigar Group brings a portfolio amounting to more than 20 cigar lines that it either makes or distributes under its brand—more than 200 SKUs, and still growing every year—including the very recognizable Firecracker.

United Cigars Historic Photo

United Cigars finds its origin at the beginning of the 20th century as a chain of cigar stores in the U.S. By 1926 the company had grown to nearly 3,000 shops. United was a business behemoth, distributing cigars for Consolidated Tobacco and American Tobacco. The company even acquired Marvel Comics. But by the 1980s the party appeared to be over for United. Cigars were in decline, and in 1986 the company saw its assets liquidated. Still, the name remained for someone to pick up and make a go of it. In 2010 Garofalo bought what was left of United and formally re-launched in 2011, at first purely as a distribution company, but also with an educational mission in the trade: “to improve the performance of the shop owners and employees and improve customer loyalty.” Partnerships with manufacturers to package and help create brands would follow. Today Garofalo delegates running of United to Oliver Nivaud, the company’s director of operations, and he gives great credit to Nivaud for United’s rising fortunes.

Suffice it to say that we will have to be a bit summary in our accounting of this firm; but one aspect that rises above the din of a thousand details is the sheer breadth of United’s offerings. The company seeks to market cigars through the full range of taste preferences and prices, from the $75 Byron 1850 Liricos to the $39 Atabey Benditos, all the way to the $2 Desperado. A single of United’s very attractive house brand, available in robusto, toro and Churchill, will run retail buyers about $7.

United Cigars | Red Anchor

Today the Red Anchor brand is taking center stage at United. Fast out of the gate, Red Anchor is already vying with the Firecracker as the company’s big seller. Red Anchor is a storied name in its own right, tracing its earliest production to 1772 in Holland, making it not only the world’s first boutique cigar, but indeed the oldest cigar brand on earth. Like the United Cigar name itself, Red Anchor had fallen on hard times and shut down, waiting for a company like United Cigars to acquire it and restore it to the glory of placement in premium shops.

So it was that in 2022, at the PCA trade show, United announced the reincarnation of Red Anchor with the Admiral, a 6” x 52 smoke brought to market in a release of 250 boxes, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Red Anchor brand name. Then, at this year’s trade show, United introduced four additional Red Anchor vitolas: Captain (5” x 50), Gunner (6.5” x 43), Commodore (7” x 55, coming out in October), and the event-only Cooper (4.5” x 43), all carrying a suggested price in the $20 to $25 range.

Marketing a name that goes back to 1772, says Nivaud, makes his job a lot easier. As he puts it, “Not only is Red Anchor a powerful name, but the image of that red anchor on the band is a striking symbol that grabs the consumer’s eye.” The people at United felt the Red Anchor brand had enough history and appeal to stand as a modern-day brand, and says Nivaud, “It was even more of a line that we wanted to focus on because of our relationship with cigar maker Henke Kelner and the Kelner family. Hendrik, Jr. and the KBF team have been great working partners.”

Hendrik “Henke” Kelner is a titan of the cigar world, who owns the Kelner Boutique Factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and whose family has its roots in Holland, like Red Anchor. The Kelner family makes Red Anchor cigars at its KBF factory and ages them for three months in Santiago before shipping.

United Cigar Company, headquartered in Hudson, New Hampshire, now carries about 350 accounts in the U.S. and claims to sell a little under a million cigars per year—just clearing the bar for “boutique” status. The company keeps nine reps on the road reporting to Nivaud, offering keystone pricing. He explains, “We avoid partnering with any deep-discounting company. We like to make sure that we hold true to the original M.O. of United Cigars, which was helping brick and mortar.”

Nashville, Tennessee-area business proprietor Dave Pearse of Franklin Cigar says he does especially well selling United’s Selected Tobacco cigars—premium products like the Atabey, Byron, Alfonso and Bandolero—which he calls “very, very special stuff, albeit limited in supply.” Pearse says his orders with United are always “timely, accurate and well packed,” and he adds that Oliver Nivaud “is fantastic to work with. He’s been to our shop a number of times and done events for us. Oliver is just awesome.”

Vartan Seferian, president at Ambassador Fine Cigars Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona, echoes this report, saying, “We go way back with United. Oliver takes good care of us, and I have nothing but good things to say.” Seferian says his business caters mostly to high-end consumers who love the Atabey, Byron, Alfonso and Bandalero lines. “Sometimes,” he adds, “we have to back-order, but not very often.”

United Cigars

It doesn’t take a lot of coaxing to get Nivaud to wax sentimental about the cigar industry, or about United Cigars. “The leaf unites us. I love the company I work for and the opportunity I was given, and that love is reinforced in the company name, United Cigars. United, we smoke—that’s our tag. It’s great to wake up every day and have the opportunity to do something that I love.” It is also true that whenever people of goodwill can unite in passion for a business, customers invariably share the benefits of their diligence.

Merchants wishing to share the benefits of doing business with United Cigar Group can visit the company website unitedcigargroup.com or phone 603.891.4022.

Photography courtesy of United Cigar Group. Story by William C. Nelson.

This story first appeared in PCA The Magazine, Volume 3, 2023. To receive a copy of this magazine you must be a current member of PCA. Join or renew today at premiumcigars.org/membership.