There are several cool cigar stores and lounges to hang out at all across the country, but one of my favorites is King Corona Cigars in Ybor City. Whether you’re a local or planning to vacation to the Tampa Bay area, you must include King Corona Cigars in your itinerary. Why is King Corona such an remarkable place? Well, first of all it is in the heart of "Cigar City" – Ybor City / Tampa, Florida. You can smoke inside or outside on the covered patio and enjoy people watching. They have wine, port, craft-beers and mass-market beers and of course espresso … and they even have food including authentic Cuban sandwiches.
They carry a broad selection of all the major national cigar brands, plus you can find locally made cigars, and their own line of King Corona Cigars, which we will be reviewing in the near future. There are on-theme gift items such as Panama hats, Guayaberas, Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Pomegranate Balsamic Vinegar – both imported from Italy, and fresh coffee beans. There’s a large lounge section with the mandatory plush chairs and dark paneling, which includes a flat-screen TV and even good old-fashioned hard-cover books.
The atmosphere of Ybor City exudes exotic old-world charm. There are brick lined streets overlooked by black wrought iron balconies, shops featuring hand made treasures, and plenty of authentic Cuban and Italian cuisine. Cuban coffee, café con leche, and cigars are everywhere. At the turning of the 20th Century, Ybor City’s population was made up of mostly Spanish, Cuban, and Italian immigrants. Tampa was no more than a mosquito-ridden fishing village of some 700 people when Vicente Martinez Ybor, a cigar manufacturer and Cuban exile, came to Tampa to establish his factory.
The cigar workers of Ybor City responded to Jose Marti’s plea for men, money, and arms for the insurgents who opposed Spain’s rule over Cuba. In 1898, thousands of U.S. troops arrived in the Tampa staging area as Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders prepared for military operations in the Spanish-American war. At the culmination of the war, the population of Tampa once again thrived. It was around this time that Brenda Garcia-Barco’s great-grandfather (on her father’s side) came from Cuba to roll cigars, and thus started the history of five generations in the cigar business that eventually evolved into King Corona Cigars. He started as a cigar roller, and then his son (Brenda’s grandfather), who learned to roll cigars when he was 8-years old, opened his own cigar factory in the 1930′s. It was referred to as Chinchal, which means a "small tobacco factory".
In the early 80′s, Brenda was working in the cigar business helping her father. At this time Ybor City was very depressed and dilapidated, but the factory with 15-cigar rollers (many in their 70′s, and one even 96-years old) pressed on. In 1985, Brenda’s husband, Don Barco started helping out with the business, at the time thinking it was just a temporary job. Ironically, even though Don Barco easily passes as a Spanish name, Don is actually a Florida-native gringo that married the Cuban lady Brenda, whose family owned the Tampa Rico Cigar Co.
When Brenda’s father was getting ready to retire in 1997, her and Don, minority-owners at the time, decided to buy the rest of the business. Before they could complete the purchase of the business a prime space became available on 7th Avenue and Don wanted to snatch it up before someone else did. He got the location, but couldn’t use the name Tampa Rico Cigar Co., so he decided on King Corona Cigars.
King Corona Cigars opened in early 1998, still in the business of producing cigars. Their local Ybor production couldn’t keep up with demand and they expanded production to Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Even though King Corona Cigars has been in business for 13-years, Don has been in the cigar business for 26-years. He says; "It’s gone by fast."
In more recent years, Ybor City has undergone a renaissance based on its designation as a Historical District. The festive atmosphere of restaurants and clubs attract diners and dancers every evening. King Corona Cigars is thriving as well. They keep very long hours, opening early at 8 am for the breakfast crowd, they stay busy the entire day, with a small lull around dinner time, and then kick back into action in the evening all the way till closing at 2 am on Fridays and Saturdays, 1 am on Thursday and midnight the rest of the week. Something makes me feel good about the fact that I can enjoy the ambiance of King Corona Cigars at nearly anytime of day. They are open for 18-hours and closed for 8. The late-night weekend crowd is spill-over form the clubs, which provides King Corona an eclectic clientele.
The retail business evolved in stages. Don recalls; "When we first opened, it was just cigars. Then customers started asking; ‘where can I get a good cup of coffee?’. So I opened up the coffee bar, and people started asking about wine, so we expanded into wine and beer, and then eventually decided to include food as well." I spent half the day at King Corona Cigars, having a great Don Barco cigar with an espresso in the morning, talking to Don, and then enjoying a Cuban Sandwich for lunch. In the nearly four hours I was there, the lightest the crowd ever got was about 10-people. I’m guessing they could fit 60 – 70 at capacity, and business is great. Don happily asserts; "In the face of this economic downturn, last year was my best year. I told my wife one day – I don’t know what we’re doing right, but let’s continue doing it."
Don believes in the social aspect of cigar smoking, and he certainly provides the conduit for it with his establishment. He states; "There’s something good about having a cigar at the end of the day, reflecting back, enjoying a coffee, beer, or wine … even better yet, having a conversation with someone. That’s why I only have one TV and it’s all the way in the back, because I want people to come in and get to know one another and talk to one another – to socialize. Cigar smoking is a great socialization tool."
As suggested in the beginning of the article, if you’re planning a vacation, or even a business trip to the Tampa Bay area, you must put King Corona Cigars on your list, as well as Ybor City in general. There’s lots to see and explore for the cigar lover. As a matter of fact, half of King Corona’s customers are tourists, and the balance is made up of loyal locals.
King Corona Cigars
1523 East 7th Avenue
Tampa, FL 33605