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    Matt Booth Room101 Interview

    Originally featured in Volume 14 Issue 4

    Cigar Press – It’s been a long time now since we did your first interview in the cigar industry, back with Volume 3 Issue 2. A lot has changed since then with craft brands and it’s been proven they aren’t going anywhere.  But this was a big move for Room 101 Cigars getting bought by Scandinavian Tobacco. 

    Matt Booth – This is the equivalent of skateboarding going to the Olympics.  It’s a validation of something that has long since deserved it.  People have forever known that skateboarding is an artform. Tony Hawk is a top athlete and anyone who follows it knows that.  In the past it had the reputation for being for thugs and derelicts. It’s long since grown out of that.  Guys like me were the derelicts of the business. I think when we started, at the time we were collectively as a unit, creating a totally new segment of the cigar market.  We were viewed as a fad or an annoyance to the big guys.  They looked at us like we were going to go away. But then a couple years later they were like, shit, what happened to all that market share these guys took from us.  Copying us doesn’t work no one took it seriously.  So now this is the first craft brand that has been acquired by Scandinavian.   Go to the source and buy it. It’s what the Alcohol companies do.  They invest in creators because they know that their machines can make these brands greater or larger than they could have done alone.  They need to plug in new and different things to keep themselves growing.  Davidoff and I weren’t the best partners.  General is a different mentality, they aren’t getting in their own way. They know it’s a space they don’t understand but Booth plays here and he does it well so we’re just going to have him run it. 

    CP – You are still in control of the brand and what goes on with it?

    MB – At the end of the day I don’t own it anymore and I need to accept that. However, I was retained to direct the brand in every way shape and form.  They delete from my shoulders the weight of logistics, financing and all these different things. Now I can focus solely on design, series creation, what we’re going to release, how we’re going to program it in the market, how I’m going to link up with their sales, etc.  Everything I can do better than spreadsheets and that end, I’m still going to do it.

    CP – What are some things that you can do now that you couldn’t do before?

    MB – I think the key benefit is this: I was in a daisy chain of failed relationships.  I was constantly looking for investors, which could possibly lead to losing control of my brand and ownership in turn.  I took on strategic partners who could provide fuel in one way or the other or logistic support, just to help put the picture together so we can function. The problem with that is that no one ever treats something that is not theirs like they would treat their own stuff. When this conversation with Scandinavian started, I said these guys have to buy it. They have to buy it so they can treat it like it is their own.  They also have to be on the hook for the purchase. I know that will rattle down on some excel sheet where they need to make up for it. It drives accountability.  Room 101 started in my apartment on Melrose and Genesee and will forever be my baby.  I still, by the way, retain all ownership and management and the name in all other categories.  It’s still a brand effort across multiple goods that I’m still piloting.  I just now have a very advanced and sound partner for Room 101 Cigars.  My brand has found it’s home in one category. 

    CP – How do you pick what factories make your different brands and are you still going to have the freedom to do that?

    MB – I’m going to work with William Ventura because they have this sophisticated, Davidonian, sexual touch to cigars even with a brand like Farce Maduro. If AJ Fernandez made the Farce Maduro that shit would blow your doors off.  It’s two different types of broadleaf, Nicaraguan Criollo and San Andrés Maduro.  It’s a simple blend but very potent.  The way Ventura treats their tobaccos as well as the people they source from, the tobaccos have been aged out to the point where there is more sophistication and balance. I always refer to that cigar as Danny Trejo. He was a 22 year old man and would stick a pencil in your neck. Danny Trejo (now 78) is cool, making movies etc, living his life.  Someone’s licensing his name in L.A. Now there is Trejo’s Coffee, Trejo’s Tacos, it’s actually pretty funny. I go to Joya de Nicaragua and they’d make something that is intrinsically Joya de Nicaragua. I go to AJ, they are intrinsically AJ.  I build on this broad spectrum of experience because you can take the same components and ask everyone to make it and they would turn out to be totally different products.  If it’s made in someone else’s kitchen it’ll taste different. Now if we patch into General, it allows me to continue on that thought train and attitude towards blend composition. Now they can add even more depth.  I know where all these guys are strong and weak so I can cherry pick, even flavor direction where if I know I want lightning spice through the nose, or robust flavors that are super sassy I’m going to have AJ make it. If I want the next Davidonain Connecticut I’m going to have the Ventura’s make it.

    CP – When craft or boutique brands get purchased by larger companies people are afraid of what will happen to the brand instead of looking at what new opportunity may be presenting itself.  So what would you say to people who are worried or think you sold out?

    MB – One of the linchpins of this deal, in the deal making process, was a shared vision that I had to remain as the creative director.  I mean I think that’s a fair concern because, say eight years ago if they acquired it they would have destroyed it. There has been a complete shift in mentality in their executive level of leadership. Their focus companywide is premium tobacco.  These guys have learned from previous mistakes. Not to that that they’ve learned what to do but they’ve learned what not to do. My stance was that I’ll entertain the idea but the only way it’ll work is if we keep this brand true to its core, effectively, empower it, not wash over it with the brute force of the company because that would also destroy it. You have to stay with the same manufacturing partners, we have to keep the same pathway to market and the way that we touch our consumers. We have to protect it from malicious discounters.  Instead of trying to open 2000 new doors, let’s try to open 200 additional doors to my existing account base. People will treat the brand right and we can expand. I mean I was a one man gang and there is only so much I can do. There are still markets in this country that you wouldn’t even know that I was still in the cigar business if you went into those shops, but if you go elsewhere in the country and speak ill of me they’ll come over the counter at you. My top thirty accounts aren’t even customers of General. Well, weren’t previously customers, other than like one.  But the numbers I’m putting up with those guys are significant. Some of them even at the level of what Davidoff would do with a really strong appointed merchant. That all comes from relationships and I work with people who reciprocate. Full reach around situation.  I support them and they support me.  We do healthy business with each other. The only change is that the brand is going to get stronger and you’ll have access to all of our stuff. I’m going to have the ability to be untethered from the weight of having day to day operational stuff although I will direct it and be involved.  My main focus now will be the product and the brand.

    CP – So people can expect the same cigars they fell in love with and even more to come.

    MB – 100%. This is the best thing that could have possibly happened to our brand at this stage in the game. I’ve been through high highs and low lows. I rebuilt the brand on my own from things that would have destroyed more competent players.  When anyone saw us in Version  1.0 weren’t on the inside, they wouldn’t see how I contributed to the projects.  They’d say I was a Davidoff brand and I was just some face guy.  It would have been impossible. If anyone is paying attention and can see past the tip of their nose they can see that. They didn’t buy the brand because it’s garbage. They bought it because they see the potential and partnership benefits with me that they can’t do on their own and likewise for me. They can provide a level of stability and support for my brand that I could have probably never in my life time accomplished.  

    CP – I don’t think people are going to go anywhere.  Your brand followers love you and what you do.  All the feedback for the most part was pretty positive.

    MB –  You’re going to kick up dust at that level and not get some venom. but I immediately went to a lot of the core cigar hangouts and told them exactly what I just said.  The media may say one thing but I want you to hear my words. People fabricate their own reality or read between the lines when there is nothing to read. It’s just what’s really going on. They all very much appreciated that and I think that helps to settle some nerves.  I mean some of these people have tattooed my logo on their hands and body and have invested a great deal of personal energy, time and money in our products. Now this happens and they’re like, what have I invested in? Is the rug about to be pulled out from under me as a brand loyalist?  So I have to come and say this is the best thing that happened for them too. For the brand, my family and my family includes my fans so it’s a win for everybody.  We did get a little shat spitting but for the most part it was heartfelt. Most of the other people don’t know what they’re talking about anyway. And they aren’t even supporting our brand, so suck it.

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