Historic Tampa buildings don’t come more iconic than El Reloj, the 114-year-old red brick cigar factory whose clock tower rises above the Ybor City Historic District.
The last cigar factory left from the 150 here a century ago, El Reloj is a monument to Ybor’s past glory. And this landmark still thrives in Ybor today. As the home of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., the country's oldest family-owned premium cigar maker, El Reloj welcomes 15,000 visitors a year for tours, cigar tastings, cigar rolling classes and other events.
One-hundred and eighty people work here, hand rolling cigars, making cigars by machine, leading tours and working the ground floor gift shop and museum. Craig Hylton, who works in the museum and gift shop, walks to a framed photograph of the J.C. Newman team posing on the steps of the renovated factory. He begins pointing to employees who have been with the company “10 years…20 years…30 years.” Hilton says those long-term employees stick around because the Newman family, now in their third and fourth generation of ownership, treat their people well.
A tour group gathers on the ground floor of J.C. Newman's El Reloj cigar factory in Ybor City. The renovated, historic factory gets 15,000 visitors a year for tours and events.
The Newmans also take care of their family and company legacy, and Ybor’s legacy as the “Fine Cigar Capital of the World.” That legacy and history are showcased in the first episode of the docuseries “Hand Rolled,” which debuted in late 2023. A follow-up to the 2019 documentary of the same name on the cigar industry, the episode of “Hand Rolled” spotlighting J.C. Newman features interviews with members of the Newman family, historian and author Gary Mormino, Tampa historian and former judge E.J. Salcines, Cigar Aficionado magazine Executive Editor David Savona, Carlito Fuente of the Arturo Fuente cigar company and Jeff Borysiewicz, the president and founder of Corona Cigar Company and the founder of Florida Sun Grown, which supplies J.C. Newman with Florida-grown tobacco for some of their signature cigars.
In another move honoring the company and Ybor’s legacies, the Newman family have built a small park, Cigar Workers Park, across the street from El Reloj. There’s an illuminated fountain, a pavilion built from wood salvaged from a pre-Civil War tobacco barn in the Florida Panhandle town of Quincy and traditional Ybor pavers. The family dedicated the park to the hundreds of thousands of workers who have been part of the cigar industry in Ybor since 1886.
Walking back in time
While J.C. Newman factories in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic ship tens of millions of cigars a year, only 100,000 are made annually at El Reloj. In an upstairs room, workers hand roll cigars the same way company founder Julius Caesar Newman did after the Austrian-Hungarian Jewish immigrant borrowed $50 from his mother to start a cigar business in Cleveland in 1895. Another room is filled with the buzz of machinery as workers make cigars on machines J.C. Newman purchased more than 90 years ago.
“It’s like walking back in time,” says third-generation owner and President Eric Newman. “We’re making cigars on the cigar machines my grandfather bought in 1930 as a labor-saving device. There’s nothing in this country made by a machine that’s made the same way it was 90 years ago. There’s been technology, modernization, computers. But you’re walking back in time seeing the same machines making cigars today that were making them 90 years ago.”At El Reloj, workers roll cigars on machines J.C. Newman founder Julius Caesar Newman purchased in 1930.
In a basement aging room, neatly stacked bundles of cigars fill the shelves. In here, premium brands like “The American” are set to age for a year or more. Across a hall, the cigar vault holds artifacts like the last sack of pre-embargo Cuban tobacco and “the world’s oldest cigars,” which date to 1857 and were recovered from a shipwreck discovered in 1988 160 miles off the South Carolina coast.
Every floor of El Reloj is an homage to and history of the fine cigar industry in America, As the country’s oldest family-owned fine cigar company, and one rolling cigars in a factory built in 1910, Eric Newman says no one's better suited to carry on that history than the J.C. Newman company.
“We’ve been through two pandemics, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cuban embargo, smoking bans, excise tax increases, federal regulation - but we’re still here,” he says. “We have a story to tell. Nobody has a story like ours.”
A story to tell
That story begins when teenage Julius Caesar Newman and his family arrive in America in the late 19th century.
J.C. Newman President Eric Newman chats with a worker hand-rolling cigars.
“My grandfather was born in 1875 in Austria-Hungary and came to America in 1888 in search of the American Dream,” Eric Newman says. “Thirteen years old. Comes with his four brothers and two sisters and settles in Cleveland. There’s a big Hungarian district in Cleveland. His brothers become tailors. That’s what immigrants did, they made clothes. He didn’t want to make clothes so his mother paid a cigar maker $3 a month to teach her son how to make cigars. So he became a good cigar apprentice in 1890. There’s a big recession, in Cleveland that laid off all the cigar makers in the mid-1890s. He’s sitting at home one day. His mother wore the pants in the family and would go to the grocery store every day. There’s no refrigeration, no electricity, so you have an icebox. She tells the grocer, ‘I buy all my groceries from you how about you buy cigars from my son?’ He comes home with an order for 500 cigars. In 1895, my grandfather borrows $50 from his mother, buys two bales of tobacco and converted the family barn into a one-man cigar factory. My grandfather was a great talker, a better talker than I am. He got an order for 10,000 cigars from a local saloon, an order for 25,000 cigars from Cleveland’s largest wholesale grocery. He got so many orders he couldn’t make them all himself so he got some other buddies to come work for him in May 1895. Life was great.”
Obstacles and struggles follow. They include the burgeoning cigar company quickly being thrown out of the basement of the family home when the canned vegetables stored there start tasting like tobacco. But J.C. Newman perseveres through the Great Depression, labor issues, price hikes, tobacco supply difficulties and a slew of other problems.
In 1954, J.C. Newman purchased El Reloj from the Regensburg Co., which had ceased its operations in the factory in 1952.
“Grandpa J.C. moved the business from Cleveland to Tampa in 1954,” Eric Newman says. “Tampa at one time had 150 cigar factories, fine cigar capital of the world. At the time we moved here, there were still 10 big family-owned companies making Cuban cigars. Cigars with Cuban filler, Cuban binder, Cuban wrapper. Life was good.”
Then, came the embargo banning almost all trade with Cuba after Fidel Castro’s government nationalized U.S.-owned Cuban refineries without compensation.
“That was the beginning of the end of the Tampa cigar industry as we know it,” Eric Newman says. “Other companies sold out, moved offshore or closed down completely. We’re still here.”
J.C. Newman survived and today thrives. Significant steps along the way include J.C. Newman’s son Stanford Newman and Stanford’s sons Bobby and Eric Newman borrowing money to purchase the business from 13 other family owners. J.C. Newman's Gene Haines in the aging room of El Reloj.
“My relatives got the money and my sons and I got the debt, but we also got the opportunity to turn the company around,” the late Stanford Newman frequently said of the transaction, according to the company website.
The Newman family also forged a friendship and key business partnership with the Fuente cigar family. Under their arrangement, Arturo Fuente makes Cuesta Rey and Diamond Crown cigars for J.C. Newman and J.C. Newman handles some U.S. distribution for Arturo Fuente.
Today, the Newman family is in its fourth generation of ownership, with Eric’s son Drew Newman, who’s also the company’s general counsel, now a co-owner alongside his father and uncle. Eric Newman says ideas like hand rolling cigars at El Reloj following century-old techniques and opening the renovated historic factory’s doors to the public for tours and events have come from Drew.
“He wanted to do it, we’re doing it,” Eric Newman says.
A J.C. Newman Cigar Company worker fills a box of premium cigars. "The American" is one of the signature cigars hand-rolled at El Reloj.
Looking ahead, the company plans to pursue another Drew Newman idea that brings together Ybor’s past and present - renovating Sanchez Y Haya, the long-vacant former boarding house for El Reloj workers south of the factory, into a bed and breakfast with a ground-floor cafe and cigar lounge.
That future project is another way to carry on Ybor’s cigar legacy.
“Detroit makes automobiles. Napa Valley has wine,” Eric Newman says. “Cigars make Tampa different than any other city in the country.”
For more information, go to J.C. Newman Cigar Co. To view the documentary episode on J.C. Newman, go to Hand Rolled: J.C. Newman Co.