JACKSONVILLE - Many of you know that Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the contiguous United States. But our city also holds other world-class distinctions. All this week I'm profiling some of the "Landmark Legends" in the River City.
In this edition, we start with one such landmark in the Springfield area that holds the distinction of being the world's largest cigar manufacturing plant
Swisher International stuffs, cuts and wraps, 13 million cigars each day at its plant off the Martin Luther King Parkway near Springfield. Drive by and you can often smell the tobacco from a business that got its start a long time ago.
Carl Swisher, the founder's grandson, moved the company's headquarters from Ohio to Jacksonville in 1924 because our town was close to tobacco fields and shipping facilities. Back then, King Edward cigars were a big hit, named after King Edward the 7th who reportedly smoked 12 cigars a day. Swisher called them the friendliest cigar you every smoke. The old King Edward water tower is still on the roof of the plant today.
During the depression, businesses of every type were devastated by the economy but the cigar business was booming. Swisher was hiring employees by the hundreds. "They were selling King Edward cigars for ten cents a stick. or a cigar and they ended up marketing two for a nickel. All through the depression they continued to grow the business," said Swisher CEO Tom Ryan .
And grow they did. A Swisher employee came up with the idea of Swisher Sweets by taking the scrap left over from making King Edward cigars, adding sweeter and creating another brand. "Almost from day one the brand was successful and even right now it's the largest brand in the world," says Ryan. Swisher employs 800 workers like Orlando Emery who has worked here for 37-years. "Good salary, vacation, longevity, money everything," said Emery.
Others, like Swisher carpenter Bobby Bagley, literally grew up at the plant while his mom worked the assembly line. "We were in the nursery upstairs. my mom worked here and we stayed in the daycare up there. We had a lot of fun. Played on the roof," said Bagley.
In the 90's, the popularity of cigars took off. Arnold Swarzenegger was on cigar magazine covers. Premium cigar bars were opening everywhere and Swisher's less expensive products benefitted too. "From about 1993 to 2009 we saw growth every year of about five percent. I think one year it was about ten percent," said Ryan.
35 percent of mass market cigars today are flavored. Grape, peach, and black cherry cigarillos are among the popular sellers now. Often criticized for marketing to young people, Swisher says it has sold flavored cigars since it came up with the Swisher Sweets brand 50 years ago. "It's not to attract kids to the product. It's something that we have done all along. It basically is just to offer a variety to consumers who are smoking cigars," said Ryan.
Earlier this year, Swisher announced it would have to lay off 150 employees at the Jacksonville plant. That's because some of its cigarillos are now being produced in the Dominican Republic due to a new federal government excise tax. Also, labor rates are a bit lower there.
Swisher says taxes and regulation have flattened out profits. But one of Jacksonville's long-time employers expects the sweet smell of Swisher to be around for many years to come.
First Coast News