Pioneering work in Costa Rica

Zechbauer's anniversary cigar comes from the "Switzerland of Latin America"

Managing Director Mirko Pettene in conversation

MUNICH – Zechbauer, the specialist trading company, has been active in the tobacco and cigar business since 1830. Headquartered in Munich, it decided to bring a premium Costa Rican cigar onto the market to mark its anniversary. "It was one of my best ever professional decisions," recalls Mirko Pettene, who manages the specialist cigar shop Max Zechbauer (pictured right), in a DTZ interview.

As well as being the Managing Director of the specialist cigar shop Max Zechbauer Munich, you’re also a world-renowned expert on cigars. How did the small tobacco country of Costa Rica come onto your radar?

Mirko Pettene: What I sought was the best possible venue in which to produce a new and exclusive cigar brand. So I mulled over all the countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, which I’d spent the last two decades visiting. My mission: To find a family-run company in a stable setting that could meet and maintain our quality standards for the long term. We got burned several times before and the last thing we wanted was to risk losing our investment again, due to political unrest, mismanagement or corruption.

So that’s why Costa Rica got the vote?

Yes, that's why I chose Costa Rica. And looking back, it was one of the best career decisions I ever made. Zechbauer: Pioneering in every sense of the word. When it came to producing own-brand products in the "Switzerland of Latin America", we were first comers.

So we've even given up an entire shop window to cigars from Costa Rica. What was the response like?

Well, when we rolled out "Zechbauer Royales Premium Cigars"; sales in the premium cigar segment jumped by over 25 percent. And as for how the newest of our own-brand products made it big in next to no time, both in Germany and overseas, some thanks must go to the Zechbauer headquarters as well as the Cigar Shop, plus our VIP Lounge in the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski Munich. Our online content and the events we put on, domestically and overseas, were also key parts of the mix.

Why did Zechbauer choose a cigar "handmade in Costa Rica" to mark its 190th anniversary last year?

From the outset, my first choice would have been a special premium long filler made by Davidoff. Not least given close to half a century of working together. Unfortunately, I didn't get the answer I’d hoped for to my request. So, spurred on by the success with the Royales, I plumped for teaming up with our Costa Rica partner to create the "Zechbauer Royales 190th Anniversary". And how fortuitous that proved to be - we got a tobacco that was as rare as it was exquisite. It wasn’t long before we had to double our order.

How did you come up with Royales as a name for the new flagship cigars?

Seeing as it was our anniversary, I wanted to do something to mark our exceptional history. Zechbauer has been producing and distributing tobacco and cigars since 1830, now in the seventh generation. 1886 saw our company appointed "Royal Bavarian Purveyor to the Court". Numerous European ruling houses also ordered from Zechbauer, including the court of the Russian Tsar and the Vatican and it's this gilded history that inspired Royales, a majestic brand name to match.

The new Zechbauer premium line is produced in the Vegas de Santiago manufactory. What sparked this collaboration?

When I met their Swiss boss, Marc Niehaus (photo, right) in 2010, I felt opportunity knocking right away. And the very same year, we started the blend for a break-new-ground cigar. One with enough flavour to topple the previous 75 Zechbauer Premium Own Brand off top spot. I spent seven years painstakingly giving the Royales project my all, supported first by Marc Niehaus, then Werner Casagranda, who joined the team later. The marketing idea we devised was to offer seven tobaccos from different growing countries and in the same number of formats. We then opened it out wider to include a vintage cigar, the "190th Anniversary" and three samplers, as well as premium "Chiquititas” cigarillos.

When did Costa Rica really emerge on the cigar map as a must for cigar connoisseurs?

It was 2017 at the latest. A year I will never forget. At the InterTabac show, I walked off with the "Davidoff Golden Band Award Europe" in the top "Depositor of the Year” category, then came a surprise win for Marc Niehaus, awarded the "Cigar Trophy" by "Cigar Journal" in the "Best Cigar" category. All of which rubber-stamped Costa Rica as a go-to cigar venue for tobacco lovers for the first time. And it reaffirmed for me that that time was right for our premium brand in 2010.

What kind of challenges have arisen in doing business with Costa Rica during COVID times?

Well, the number of flights plummeted and likewise, the supply of tobacco and boxes from various countries. But it opened up a great opportunity for me. In March 2020, before the first lockdown in other words, I just managed to fly out a shipment of Royales cigars worth 200,000 euros on the last plane from Costa Rica. That saved our online business. Thanks to these Royales, we could meet our delivery commitments, while COVID-19 saw other brands fall away.

Are the coveted "Chiquititas" cigarillos still on your bestseller list?

The Chiquititas are our first hand-rolled premium cigarillos. For this purpose, I took out the two Ligero tobaccos from the filler, for a subtler smoking experience. The elegant black ten-lacquer cases are made in China. Incidentally, "Chiquititas" is the title of a song by the legendary pop band ABBA - one of my favourites back in the day. Those among us of a certain age will surely remember it. This song was also key to ABBA’s breakthrough, including in Latin America. When I indulge in this cigarillo, which takes me back to that most listenable of songs from my youth, it cheers me up no end and I start replaying my favourite pop music in my head.

Does the demand you see in the Zechbauer online shop reflect a similar customer interest in Costa Rican cigars to what you see in retail sales?

Well, Royales cigars now make up almost half our online sales. Because, quite simply, they are unique and unrivalled. Other cigars are easy to find. Habanos, however, are a rarity.

Do the Royales in the Zechbauer Cigar Lounge at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten also have exceptional presentation?

When I leased the shop and lounge premises, I did so envisioning the chance to showcase the Royales to an exclusive global audience and promote the internationalisation of the Zechbauer name in the process. It goes without saying - the Royales have an aura and turn every head; framed by the finest accessories and the best cigars in the world.

The interview was conducted by Gabriela Greess