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Industry Legend Don Kiki Berger. Every industry has legends. Some unsung heroes, some famous names. A few names that will remain in everybody’s memories forever, most will fade away over time. Some that have left us, some still alive. These legends all played their part to make the cigar industry what it is today. And they deserve to be remembered, to be recognized for their achievements. That’s why Ministry of Cigars is creating a series of articles about those legendary figures in the cigar industry.

Don Kiki Berger is no longer with us. He passed away from a heart attack in 2014, after battling with kidney failure before. His kidney problems went so far that his wife Karen donated a kidney to Don Kiki. And together they opened a kidney dialysis center in Esteli, Nicaragua. His legacy continues though, with his widow in control and she’s expanding the Berger name and reputation.

Poland, Cuba, America, and Nicaragua

At first glance, these countries have little in common. But not for the Berger family. The father of Enrique “Kiki” Berger, Max is born in Poland. But in the early stages of the Second World War, when Hitler invaded Poland, he was smuggled to Cuba. And that’s where the tobacco bug bit the Berger family. Max Berger established himself as a tobacco grower and cigar manufacturer in the Oriente region of Cuba. It’s also where Kiki grew up and as a child helped out of the fields. 

But in 1968, years after the Cuban revolution, Max looked at the future. He saw what Castro was doing. And he feared that his young son would potentially be sent to Angola to fight for the Cuban funded revolution in Africa. So he decided to pack things up and move to the United States. He had to leave for a new home country again, the second time that an evil government forced him to relocate. It also ended the family’s involvement with tobacco.

Ministry of Cigars - Industry Legend Don Kiki Berger

Cigar boom

But the love for tobacco was instilled in young Kiki. So during the cigar boom of the 1990s, Don Kiki went to Nicaragua and started a factory and a farm. Tabacalera Esteli, with the 200 acre Vegas farm right next to it. He also purchased a farm in Jalapa, near the Honduran border. At the factory, he made cigars for many of the cigar brands that emerged during the boom. But later on, his focus was on his own brands such as Cuban Crafters and J.L. Salazar y Hermanos. And in 2009 also on the short-lived collaboration with the Argenti brothers Berger & Argenti brand.

But those brands aren’t what Don Kiki is most famous for. It isn’t what makes him an industry legend. His Cuban Crafters Megastore in Little Havana, Miami is what makes him a legend. The huge retail outlet is a wine bar, a cigar shop with a lounge. But it’s also home to a classic barbershop. And what Don Kiki did before anybody else was striking deals with tour operators. Tour operators would and still bring busloads full of tourists to the shop. Tourists with disposable income who would buy anything that they couldn’t get their hands on in their home countries. Cuban Crafters is just as legendary as the man himself. On our trip to Miami, Cuban Crafters is always a place to see and meet people from the industry. With complimentary Cuban coffee. It’s there where we had the pleasure to meet the man himself and for years we wore the guayabera with the Cuban Crafters logo he generously gifted us.

The legacy

With Don Kiki’s passing, his widow Karen rose to the occasion. As a Nicaraguan lady from the epicenter of the tobacco industry, Esteli, she has tobacco running through her veins. And she’s relentlessly building the brand. Several blends with the Don Kiki name emerged, just like her own K by Karen Berger. She’s also building an international distribution network so the cigars are available in several countries such as Israel. If Karen Berger continues on this path, she might have an Industry Legends article dedicated to her hard work in a few years’ time. But for now, we keep it to Industry Legend Don Kiki Berger.

Ministry of Cigars - Industry Legend Don Kiki Berger

Previous articles from the Industry Legends series:
Don Pepin Garcia
Richard Meerapfel
Benji Menendez
Alejandro Robaina
Henke Kelner

Photo credit header photo  Ilse Orsel on Unsplash. Other photos kindly provided by Karen Berger

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