The Founder Series — Interview with the founders of Artisan Leaf
On this interview, we cover the amazing product of three creators — George Newsome, Reggie Harrison, and Sebastian Correa — the genesis of the idea and the challenges of working with natural tobacco leaf. Artisan Leaf is producing all kinds of products from bar tops to wall panels to leaf ashtrays.
All Things Cigars: Who are the faces behind Artisan Leaf and how did you get together?
The three owners of the company are George Newsome, Reggie Harrison, and Sebastian Correa. George and Reggie met in the ’90s while both were working for Standard Commercial Tobacco Company. Work took them to various countries around the world where they experienced much in the world of tobacco from growing, cropping, curing, grading, processing and selling. They spent time in the tobacco fields of Honduras and enjoyed plenty of locally grown cigars while there. George and Sebastian met in Miami in the early ’80s after Sebastian’s family arrived in the US from Chile. Sebastian spent time in the US Army overseas before returning in the mid-’90s to North Carolina. George stayed in the tobacco industry and has diversified his tobacco-related businesses. Currently, in addition to his leaf tobacco brokerage business, he is the owner of a premium cigar shop as well as a co-owner of a wholesale distribution company.
All Things Cigars: Your product is very much unique. Can you tell us what is the concept behind it and how did you come up with the idea?
Artisan Leaf, LLC was founded in Wilson, North Carolina by 3 friends in 2014. One of these, George Newsome, runs a leaf tobacco brokerage business. During a remodel of his business office and sample room the idea came up to try and make a bar top using natural leaf tobacco with the surface coated in epoxy resin. It worked, looked beautiful and generated a lot of conversation and appreciation. After 2 years, that bar spurred us into starting a business making different products utilizing real tobacco leaves in the construction and designs. It has been interesting to see how the product has been accepted in the market and the growth potential. Although traditional/historical use of tobacco-related products is on the decline in the USA and doesn’t get much favorable attention these days, our products have been well accepted and appreciated so far by a variety of customers. We haven’t yet encountered any other businesses in the “decorative tobacco” industry, so a huge challenge for us is promoting the existence of our line.
“The other seemingly strange order we’ve had is a casket that we covered for a local funeral home who provided us with the piece and asked if it could be done. It might have been the strangest except we’ve gotten used to it as we are now fabricating those on a fairly regular basis.”
All Things Cigars: Are you a business-to-business oriented product or a direct to consumer?
Currently, we still have open sales channels to both consumers and retail store sales partners. Our long term goal is to work with furniture manufacturers as a component part maker of their products (e.g. tobacco leaf panels that would fit into a coffee table top or in the door panels of a sideboard cabinet). We are still actively looking for long-term partners wanting to use real tobacco leaf products in their products. At the same time, we do a lot of custom work where we produce bars, wall panels, decorative pieces, and wall sconces. We have some smaller “off the shelf” items like coasters and leaf trays that are sold online and at some regional retail shops.
All Things Cigars: How did you come into the cigar world?
Artisan Leaf utilizes real tobacco from all different types of tobacco. In the 5 years, we have been in business, we have made products using flue-cured, burley, cigar leaf, oriental and dark fired styles of tobacco. The most popular styles are the flue-cured, burley and cigar leaves. The natural beauty of the cured tobacco leaves is appealing to those who have an affinity for tobacco as well as those who have no connection whatsoever. The cigar leaf products represent a very sophisticated high-end look that fits very well in upscale cigar lounges and bars. As such, a defined distribution channel for Artisan Leaf is cigar smokers’ home bars/lounges as well as upscale cigar bars/lounges.
All Things Cigars: It is quite amazing the work you do with tobacco leaves, can you tell us more about the entire process? Do you use leftover tobacco on your products or do you have special crops just for it?
Because most of the look we try to achieve on our products, we are tasked with sourcing leaves that are well preserved with a minimum quantity of holes, tears, and other imperfections. We obtain these leaves from farms around the world. In North Carolina, we are able to visit the barns as the flue-cured tobacco is coming out of the curing barns and select the leaves we want to use. Other styles, such as our cigar leaves come from other countries like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua so we are somewhat more at the mercy of what is selected for us. Fortunately, crop management in those areas is still mostly handled by hand and produces quality leaves that meet our needs.
All Things Cigars: What was the strangest order you had so far?
One of the oddest pieces we’ve made so far was covering a wood protection rail on a customer’s pig cooker. He took the 10-foot wooden rail off of the cooker, brought it into us and we custom “leafed” it for him using his tobacco leaves. The other seemingly strange order we’ve had is a casket that we covered for a local funeral home who provided us with the piece and asked if it could be done. It might have been the strangest except we’ve gotten used to it as we are now fabricating those on a fairly regular basis.
All Things Cigars: We feel that the way you treat the leaves would be a perfect match to a humidor, have you ever considered building one?
We have experimented a bit with humidors. For us, the ideal is to refinish an existing humidor that could use a makeover. As mentioned before in the example of Artisan Leaf being a component in a company’s furniture line or product, the best would be to partner with a humidor manufacturer that could send us the tops or whole boxes and have us cover them in leaf. We specialize in the production of the leaf covered surfaces not making quality humidors.
All Things Cigars: How can people order your product?
It depends on what is being ordered. Our smaller “off the shelf” items are available online via our webstore and Etsy. When a customer is interested in a custom piece it is best to contact us via email.
All Things Cigars: It seems that it is kind of a trend to customize everything in cigar items. Is your product customizable?
We are a small manufacturer and therefore we are very open to custom orders and do them all the time. Not only can we make the products to order, but we can also add company logos or other copy/pictures to products upon request.
All Things Cigars: How do you get around the ban that social networks create to tobacco-related products?
Early on it was a bit of a roadblock for us, especially on Facebook. The algorithm used to deter/prevent tobacco-related products was unable to recognize that our products are not typical of the industry. It took some time for us to actually reach a person who could hear our story and determine that our tobacco isn’t harmful to anyone and is therefore no different than any other furniture product. After getting that fixed, we haven’t had any issues whatsoever.
All Things Cigars: What is your biggest market?
Currently, our biggest market is the Southeastern US, specifically in the historical tobacco belt states. We are constantly working to branch out beyond that region on a larger scale and think that those that appreciate cigars are a great opportunity for us to do so.
All Things Cigars: Thank you for this interview and for opening the doors of your company to us. Wish you all the best.
Thank you for giving us this opportunity and for the great work you are doing for the cigar community!
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