Cigar Profiles

A Conversation With Nicholas Melillo

| By Gregory Mottola | From Mark Wahlberg Q&A, September/October 2023
A Conversation With Nicholas Melillo

Nicholas Melillo to open an office on a tobacco field, even if it didn’t make the most economic or logistical sense. The dream was put on hold when he spent more than a decade working behind the scenes for Drew Estate, gaining experience and learning the ins and outs of tobacco, but he never lost sight of his long-term goal. Melillo finally went off on his own and today, his Foundation Cigar Co. is headquartered on a tobacco farm in Ellington, Connecticut, in the Connecticut River Valley.

Born in New Haven, the 45-year-old Melillo naturally has an affinity for Connecticut tobacco, and while his cigars are made in Nicaragua, he’s very close to the broadleaf and Habano-seed tobacco found in many of his blends. Foundation started in 2015 and has since produced many high-scoring brands such as El Güegüense, The Tabernacle and Olmec, all of which bring a bit of world history into the branding. Cigar Aficionado managing editor Greg Mottola went to Melillo’s colorful office in Connecticut during harvest season to talk about his operation and what it means to be in such a unique position.

MOTTOLA:  Most of the industry is headquartered in Miami or somewhere in Florida. It’s so much closer to the cigar-producing countries. Why are you all the way up here in Connecticut?

MELILLO:  I’m from Connecticut for one. And Connecticut grows some of the most unique and flavorful tobacco in the world. Growing up with the history of Connecticut tobacco, it was always my dream to open up a cigar company right on a tobacco field, so this is a dream come true.

Q: Wouldn’t it make more sense to be in Florida?

A: One hundred percent, from a tax perspective, from a convenience perspective. And most of the cigar companies operate out of Florida for these reasons, but this being my home state, I thought it was important to establish our offices here. There’s history here and it was important to have my team here seeing the process from the beginning.

Q: How big is the farm?

A: This is a 300-acre farm in total. We’re operating out of the old housing barracks for shade growers.

Q: You’re up here on a farm owned by Dunn & Foster, but to be clear, you are not a tobacco farmer.

A: I am not a farmer. I’m knowledgeable of the farm, but my expertise comes after the tobacco has been harvested, in the curing bars, fermentation, sorting and selecting. And blending.

Q: How much of that is done here in Connecticut?

A: The tobacco is grown, harvested and cured in the barns. Then packed into “farmer bundles,” which are bundles of about 25 pounds. Those are then shipped in refrigerated containers to, in my case, Nicaragua. Sorting and selection take place overseas in Nicaragua. Nothing is fermented here.

Q: Nothing?

A: We do what’s known as a “box sweating” here. Up to 10,000 pounds of tobacco will be taken into a sealed room. Heat and humidity are pumped into these rooms for about a month or two. It gets up to 110 degrees.

Q: Is that a form of fermentation?

A: No. Box sweating helps to set the colors of the leaf after coming out of the barn especially for wrapper-grade tobaccos. Uniformity is one of the biggest factors. The leaf has to be perfect. That’s the challenge in the curing barns, to get color consistency.

Nick Melillo
At his office in Connecticut, Melillo rolls up some small fumas of broadleaf to assess the quality.

Q: Foundation is a cigar company and not a tobacco company, right? You don’t sell or broker tobacco, do you?

A: No. I am facilitating the purchasing of broadleaf from Dunn & Foster for A.J. Fernandez, who makes some of my cigars. Then I’m buying the finished product, the cigars, from A.J.

Q: So, you don’t buy any tobacco directly from Dunn & Foster?

A: No.

Q: Let me understand this. You’re still selecting what you want in Connecticut before it goes to A.J. Fernandez’s factory in Nicaragua, but he buys the tobacco. And then you purchase the cigars from Fernandez made with that same tobacco that you chose? Is that how it works?

A: Correct.

Q: Isn’t that an unusual situation?

A: Yes, but I have the best of both worlds. I don’t have to deal with the Nicaraguan government, the payroll of the factory.

Q: What are the other advantages?

A: You have your finger on the pulse of crop selection. Understanding what farms will be of higher quality and what will work best for your production. I can see that from the beginning to the end for Foundation products.

Q: Which brands of yours are made with Connecticut tobacco?

A: Tabernacle, Tabernacle Havana Seed CT No. 142, Charter Oak Maduro and Matapa. These are made by A.J. Fernandez but blended by me.

Q: How involved are you in the blending process? You hear about cigarmakers just producing generic blends, A, B or C, and the client picks one. Is that how it was with you?

A: No. I started blending between 2003 and 2005 spending many hours experimenting and learning where a lot of these flavor profiles were coming from in cigars that I loved. Usually, I sit in a room with all the tobaccos that I’ve personally 
selected and I have my chaveta and my rolling table and I personally roll all of my blends. That’s how they start before getting to the production floor.

Q: You share office space with Dunn & Foster, so the two companies are pretty close. How did that happen?

A: In 2003, I was walking through a tobacco warehouse in Nicaragua and crossed paths with Jon Foster and we struck up a conversation. Where are you from? Connecticut. Where are you from? Connecticut. Two foreigners from the same place.

Q: But you had an office on a tobacco field before, and it wasn’t owned by Dunn & Foster.

A: No. It was on one of the first Connecticut shade farms in Windsor. That was in the old family house of the Thrall family on a 40-acre farm. The Thralls were also one of the first families to grow tobacco in Connecticut.

Q: Why did you move?

A: The land was being sold because it was for dual use. Some land is earmarked for 100 years of farming. Other land has dual zoning so you can actually build large facilities such as an Amazon distribution center.

Q: Why do you say Amazon?

A: They’re up the street. Thrall sold two pieces of land to Amazon. Where my 
office was, they’re prepping to sell to another industrial-style company.

Q: Let’s talk about your time with Drew Estate. When did you start with them?

A: March 2003. When I left in 2014, I was vice president of international operations. Before that, director of tobaccos and production.

Q: What does that mean?

A: My main responsibilities were purchasing of all tobacco, monitoring of all fermentation, blending, production planning, shipment and all quality control.

Q: There’s no way you came into that job in 2003 knowing how to do all that.

A: [Laughs] I jumped in the deep end.

Q: Who taught you?

A: Many different amazing people. Gustavo Cura of Oliva [Tobacco Co. in] Tampa was one of my main mentors. We were purchasing tobacco from them from the very beginning. I was 24 and Oliva Tobacco saw the potential of Drew Estate. At the time, Drew Estate was a fraction of the size it is now.

Q: How did you end up at Drew Estate in the first place?

A: I started at a cigar store in 1996. Then I learned of a brand called La Vieja Habana and I was in charge of bringing new brands into the humidor and I brought this brand into the store. Not long after that, we did an event on a Saturday and I met Jonathan Drew. Jon and I exchanged email addresses. I was still at Quinnipiac University studying international business. We kept in touch. After school I wanted to travel. I moved to Rome after I graduated in 2000 and worked for the Vatican helping pilgrims from all over the world during the jubilee. I came back to get my masters but found it too difficult to sit in a classroom, so I traveled to France, Spain, India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China and Japan.

Q: Did you stay in contact with Jonathan Drew?

A: Yes. He made me an offer when I was in Japan. I think he realized that here’s a guy who will probably come to Nicaragua. He was right. I went down in 2003. I thought I was just visiting, but he made me an offer and said I had to start now. I lived there, the majority of my time until 2015.

Q: Why did you leave Drew Estate?

A: It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. They treated me great and I had a great salary. It was the FDA and the idea that you wouldn’t be able to introduce new brands after a certain cut-off date. The thought of never being able to start my own brand was very scary.

Q: Were you there when Drew Estate was purchased by Swisher International?

A: No. I left about a year before, but I was still a small partner in the company.

Q: So, what happened there? Did Swisher just cut you a check?

A: Correct. I used that money to start Foundation.

Q: You realize you violated a cardinal rule of Wall Street: Never use your own money.

A: I was thinking about taking on investors, but I didn’t want to lose a good portion of the company before it started, so I ended up using all my own funds. I had investors ready to go, but I was going to lose 30 percent of the company to start. I wanted to be in control of my own destiny.

Q: Do you think there’s any Drew Estate influence in the art and packaging of Foundation?

A: Definitely. It was a huge part of my life. To say that there’s not some influence would be untrue.

Q: But you’ve made it your own.

A: Everything I do at Foundation is something I’ve been passionate about in my life since before Drew Estate. History. Culture. Drew Estate changed the traditional style of packaging and went nontraditional. I like to pay homage to traditions and add my own modern flair to it.

Nick Melillo

Q: It seems like you did that with Tabernacle. Talk about the branding behind that.

A: When I started smoking cigars, I was learning about Ethiopian history, which changed my perspective on the world because I grew up during the ’80s and all I knew about Ethiopia was starvation. I started talking to different types of people and learned about 3,000 years of Ethiopia that goes back to Solomon and Sheba.

Q: Who’s depicted on the band?

A: Emperor Haile Selassie, who was the 225th emperor of Ethiopia. The image on the band is from his coronation in 1930.

Q: If Tabernacle is a homage to history, then couldn’t your Olmec brand be thought of as a homage to anthropology?

A: Yes. I consider the Olmecs to be some of the first cigar smokers. San Andrés outside of Veracruz is the main tobacco region. The San Andrés negro is one of the oldest seed varietals in the world. Because the Olmec civilization is the mother culture of Central America, it predates the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. They weren’t discovered until the 1930s when they found these colossal heads.

Q: Those two brands are made by A.J. Fernandez. What about your debut brand, El Güegüense?

A: That’s made at TABSA [Aganorsa Leaf]. I really wanted to display my love for Nicaraguan tobacco and because I lived in Nicaragua for 13 years, I wanted a 100-percent Nicaraguan blend.

Q: What’s with the name? Kind of hard to say. [It’s pronounced wuh-when-say.]

A: Very hard to say. It’s not even a Spanish world. It’s Nahuat, the indigenous language of Nicaragua. It means “the wise man” in English, and is actually a dance and play recognized by UNESCO. Of course, I knew nothing about this before moving to Nicaragua, but you see the imagery in Nicaragua. The root of culture is language so I thought it was important for people to see the word even if they couldn’t pronounce it.

Q: An El Güegüense earned a spot on Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 list for 2016. Did that effect your sales?

A: Definitely. To be recognized by Cigar Aficionado and not being known by anyone—I was behind the scenes for most of my career at that point—a lot of people started learning about Foundation and the brand.

Q: Between both factories, how many cigars are made for Foundation each year?

A: About 4.5 million.

Q: And let’s talk about the tobacco that grows around here. What does Connecticut offer that you can’t find in Nicaragua or Ecuador or Honduras?

A: Broadleaf and Havana seed. It’s earthy. There’s sweetness, body and strength that is unique to this valley.

Q: Do you think that it blends well with Nicaraguan leaf?

A: There aren’t many happy marriages. Nicaragua and Connecticut are one of the best unions.

Q: Did your company grow during the Covid cigar boom?

A: Definitely. From 2020 to ’21, growth was about 30 percent. From ’21 to ’22, around 35 percent.

Q: That’s pretty significant.

A: Yes. This year, we’re looking at between 20 to 25 percent. We could probably grow even faster, but these are the rates I feel comfortable with.

Q: How did you come up with the name Foundation?

A: I have to give credit to my Italian pipe-maker friend, Massimo Musico. He started a local pipe brand called Foundation by Massimo Musico. I’d spend every day in that pipe shop in Rome. We became really good friends. When I was going through trademarking names, I saw it wasn’t trademarked in the U.S. I asked him what he thought if I used foundation as a cigar company. He said it would be an honor. To me, the foundation of every cigar is the tobacco, the materials. So, the word plays on a lot of different levels. The curing and quality of the leaf, that’s where it starts. I’ve built up so many great relationships, I feel that I’ve built a strong foundation. 

cigar-profiles foundation-cigar-co

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