JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Why does a man like Omar de Frias give up a $200,000 a year job as a project analyst for NASA to go hawk cigars?
De Frias, owner of Fratello Cigars, was at Blue Havana II Cigars and Gifts (6320 Alpharetta Highway) to launch his latest cigar, the Fratello Navetta, dedicated to the people of NASA and was happy to explain why.
He spent 12 years at NASA, and for the last seven years he managed NASA’s science budget.
But the 39-year-old de Frias grew up in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic where cigar growers can be as big as rock stars or an astronaut in this country.
“I grew up next door to a cigar store,” he said. “I’ve been smoking cigars for 10 years. I love the culture of cigars and I love the business. It beats crunching numbers for NASA all to pieces.”
“So I decided to follow my dream.”
He borrowed $50,000 from his government version of a 401-k to bankroll the operation. First off, he began reading about the industry and making visits to cigar factories in Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic to learn the business from the ground up.
Developing the right cigar blend is a critical step, and de Frias spent a lot of time in Central America talking with potential partners, factories and industry experts.
When he was ready, he put up $5,000 for branding and jumped into production.
Then he spent another $10,000 for a booth to launch his first brand in 2013 at the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers trade show in Las Vegas.
It was a good place to roll the dice.
De Frias did well, catching on with three top retailers, including Nat Sherman, which put his brand on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
As it turns out, the company is carving out a niche in the cigar market. Based in Springfield, Va., Fratello Cigars is on track to sell $2 million in cigars this year, or about 250,000 cigars.
That is measured against a worldwide cigar business that is on track to reach 20 billion sticks sold by 2020. Yet even a little slice of a market that size can be lucrative.
“Yes, it was a little bit of craziness to get started in this business,” he said. “I began it four years ago when I was still working for NASA.”
His research taught him the best way was to develop one brand that would keep him “asset light” and reduce his exposure while he built it.
“Then in October of 2016, I quit because of the growth of my business,” he said.
Now he “hits the road every day” and he loves it. It has been a journey and a dream.
His premium Nicaraguan and Honduran tobaccos easily command $10 a stick and up. But it is a time-consuming job, going from cigar convention to convention always chatting up retailers.
Nevertheless, the work is paying off.
But de Frias still cherishes his NASA connection and has come out with a special line that is dedicated to space agency.
He has four brands now, from mild to full-bodied: Fratello Body Habano, Fratello Bianco, Fratello Oro and now this latest, the Fratello Navetta.
The Navetta (shuttle in Spanish) is his tribute to NASA which not only bankrolled his start, it was where he worked with pride.
The four blends are called the Enterprise, the Atlantis, the Endeavor and the Discovery – four space shuttles he helped put into space.