Atsiniki Cigars is developing real community by discovering common ground
Words by Trip Owens
Photos by David Braud and David Bailey
Charles Robinson has a voice not unlike his wares. Warm. Smoky. Crackling. We’re on the phone. You can hear his smile. He calls me buddy.
I’ve known him ten minutes. He’s my friend.
He tells me a story: his.
Reverence, respect, and relationships aren’t generally words that typify something like tobacco. Though associated with everything from social status to physical health in the American zeitgeist, the roots run deeper for Charles.
For him, tobacco is a tool. A gateway. That perspective means his company, Atsiniki Cigars, isn’t a business, but a means to an end.
To share tobacco is to forge a bond. The rhythmic pull-puff-blow of a cigar is to share in the same breath between brothers. Walls come down. Lives are changed. In a word: relationships.
“Our motto is ‘Discover common ground,’” he says. “Regardless of the differences between us, be they religious or political, if we spend time together we can find something in common. That’s where real community begins.” And Atsiniki’s vendibles are just the gateway to that connection.
But to understand this mindset, it’s important to understand the man. Because the story of the company is the story of his life.
Without intention or agenda, just by being who he is, Charles curated a coterie of cultures while founding his company. The key people involved each come from a lineage, the melding of which begets the approach of reverence, respect, and relationships: reverence for the materials, respect for the craft, and relationships with the users.
Hakchuma was nigh on sacred to the Native American people. In days past, it was utilized for a full spectrum of uses. Currency at times, sacrifices at others, and still other times as medicine. It was the linchpin for peace meetings or solicitations for supernatural aid, acting as a medium between man and God. “When we pray with a pipe, the smoke dissipates into the air as if our prayers are going to the Creator”, says Charles. Every draw had a purpose. Bridging the gap between the natural and supernatural.
Charles hails from the Choctaw Nation. A hardscrabble life, affording him few luxuries. And that created a drive in him to excel. His initial pursuit: the almighty dollar. “I grew up very low-income, and at some point I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to make a lot of money. I’ve got to be the one in my family that breaks out and sets the world on fire—to take care of my family.’ ”
In that pursuit, his career took him all over: sales in Oklahoma, music in Tennessee, basketball in Europe. He found a wife and had seven children. He even got to perform in a Tim McGraw music video during his career with Glen Campbell.
But, after a few years and an enneagram test (he’s a two), he discovered that what fulfilled him wasn’t money, but people. It made sense to him. “When I was in sales, I found myself spending way too much time sitting in my client’s office, just getting to know people. That’s where my true passion was.”
His desire to care for others drove Charles to create Red Road, a humanitarian and ministry-centered nonprofit that focused on aiding Native American reservations. He was now operating in his strengths but was still met with a fair share of challenges. “I spent more time raising money for the work than I was actually doing the work,” he admits. And that drove him crazy. “I didn’t want to be that guy that walks into a room and everybody hides their wallets. I erred on the side of not asking for enough money from enough people.”
And so began the search for an alternative revenue stream. But cigars weren’t his first choice. “It never once crossed my mind to be in that industry.” That came at the behest of Luciano Meirelles.
Nicaragua. The air is steamy. The soil, volcanic. In the streets, the people are sipping rum and even the children are puffing on “puros.” The nation is fat with tobacco. Bursting with generations of knowledge. Its epicenter, a poor town in a poor city in a poor country--Estelii.
Meirelles owned a cigar manufacturing plant in his native country of Nicaragua and was preparing to relocate it to the town of Esteli in hopes of creating more jobs and boosting the economy.
Meirelles’s compassion meshed well with Charles’ and endeared them to each other. Once he understood Charles’ heart to invest in his tribes and the obstacles he faced, Meirelles suggested that they “blend some cigars in order to bankroll Red Road.” Charles loved it.
He traveled to Luciano’s country in order to tour the facility and make connections, learning more about its industry and the wealth of knowledge it contained.
And through Luciano, Charles met Arsenio.
Cohiba had been rolled in Cuba long before it was commercialized. The crude versions of cigars rolled in maize or palm leaves intrigued none other than Christopher Columbus and sparked the roaring tobacco trade with Spain. In 1676, the first factories started production. And in 1959, revolution ignited.
Before he knew it, Charles was staring into the leathery, lined face of a living legend. Arsenio Ramos had smoked cigars since age 10. He was now 82.
Ramos was one of the few who remained in Cuba after the government embargo in the 1960s drove many manufacturers out of the country to Nicaragua. In his time, Ramos worked for the Cuban government. Creating some of the country’s signature tobacco blends, and rolling cigars for Fidel Castro on occasion, he was legendary in the eyes of Cuba. And in that moment, he was wholly focused on Charles.
“He was fascinated by Native American culture,” says Charles. “I was the first native he ever met. So here we are in this room with almost a dozen people. And everyone is vying for his time because he’s this legendary cigar guy. But all he wants to do is talk to me about Native American stuff.”
The connection they made became the final piece of the puzzle for Atsiniki.
As Ramos didn’t speak English and Robinson didn’t speak Spanish, their discussions funneled through an interpreter. And after an hour of talking, Charles asked the interpreter to make a request.
“I asked if Arsenio would be willing to blend some cigars for us.” The translator was appalled. “Do you know who this guy is? This is not a casual ask.”
Charles persisted. The room went quiet. Ramos beamed. “He said, ‘I’d be honored to blend your cigars.’ ”
Ramos became the invaluable hot spring of information for the company and blended three different cigars for Atsiniki in an effort to create connections with others. Cigars are simply the facilitator of relationships. “In a cigar room, I may be sitting next to a janitor on one side and a CEO on the other, but that doesn’t matter.” While sitting with each other amidst the whiffs of scent and snatches of flavor, status sits on the sidelines.
Those connections are his drive to grow. More blends and more storefronts mean more opportunity to meet people. “I hope that their time with our cigar brings them a level of peace and relaxation and helps them grow in their community with people.”
I don’t want to hang up, but we’re almost done.
Charles is preparing to go have lunch and smoke some cigars with friends.
It’s supposed to take a couple of hours.
I thank him for his time. That smoky voice says that if I need something, I can call. I believe him.
We hang up, and my face hurts. I’ve been smiling the entire time.
Atsiniki means “storyteller,” and it is Charles’ Native American name. It fits.