An oasis for cigar lovers
Gony Herrera, owner of Cigar Oasis in River Forest, IL enjoys a cigar while hanging out in his shop. Herrera whose family fled Cuba, has brought Cuban flair to his shop. | Adam Alexander~For Sun Times Media
Cigar Oasis offers a variety of cigars for any palette.
Owner Gony Herrera boasts more than 50 brands in the 10-by-10 humidified room.
Boutique blends: Oliveros, LTC, La Gloria Cubana, Bauza [an old Cuban brand], La Aurora, Macanudo and Dunhill.
Favorites: Liga Privada, Alec Bradley, E.P. Carillo, Don Pepin, Fonseca [all lines], ACID, Camacho, My Father by Jamie Garcia, Rocky Patel, Casa Magna, Gurkha Room 101, Nester Miranda. Recently, Tatuaje, and Torano’s full line
“We have customers from all economic backgrounds and cigars [$3.50 to $25] that reflect their tastes,” Herrera said.
Cigar Oasis is at 7619 Lake St., River Forest. Call Cigar Oasis store (708) 366-1290. Store hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Updated: May 10, 2012 11:35AM
With the clothes on his back and a pair in hand, Gony Herrera fled Cuba in 1970 with his family.
At age 12, he couldn’t fully process the political situation of Communist Cuba.
But he never forgot his love for cigars.
Years later, Herrera followed that passion and opened Cigar Oasis in River Forest, providing a haven for cigar aficionados to relax with a quality cigar and be among good friends.
Growing up in Cuba
Herrera’s family went back four generations in the town of Colon [100 miles southeast of Havana in the Matanzas Province]. His mother’s side was two generations removed from Spain.
His grandfather Gonzalo farmed 150 acres of citrus and sugar cane with a few other families. It was enough of living to send Herrera’s dad, Evergito, the youngest of nine [six of whom stayed in Cuba], to medical school in Havana.
To offset his education costs, Evergito would purchase four bundles of 25 cigars each from a small factory for two dollars twice weekly. He would sell them for 10-15 cents to kiosk owners.
The majority of male population smoked cigars, buying them in wheels of 50 or 100 from small and large factories. Top cigars were 25 cents which made them quite affordable. Montecristo, Bauza, Romeo & Juliet, Partagas and H. Upmann were the most popular.
Graduating medical school in 1952, Evergito returned to Colon and worked in the town’s only hospital as an anesthesiologist and surgeon. With a three smokes-a-day habit, he’d get a wheel of 150 cigars to keep supplied.
By 1963, Fidel Castro began to implement his laws. His agricultural reform allowed the state to take 80 percent of landowners’ property.
Evergito was given a rigid schedule. Doctors who refused to comply were sent to work in the fields full time.
Understanding Castro’s regime wasn’t going to change, thousands of Cubans emigrated. Evergito was told he couldn’t leave until there were enough doctors to replace him. He waited seven years.
When the family finally was ready to move, they were not allowed to take money, pictures or belongings with them.
“For my dad, family came before anything else,” Herrera said.
Evergito’s college roommate, who was the driver for Switzerland’s ambassador in Havana, sent Evergito’s medical diploma to Switzerland and then to Venezuela to provide proof he was a physician. His uncle Luis Herrera, who lived in Caracas, Venezuela, bought round-trip tickets to Madrid where the family waited three months until their paperwork was complete.
After taking 17 tests, Evergito became certified and opened a maternity clinic with seven other doctors in Caracas.
Gony Herrera lived in Caracas with his family until 1978 when he found his way to Chicago.
His own store
By 1989, Herrera was working at the Maywood Fire Department as a fireman-paramedic and raising two sons.
But he hadn’t forgot cigars.
As a teenager, Herrera would steal a few cigars from his dad’s humidor. When he got caught, a brief beating ensued.
Now as an adult, Herrera would occasionally take the train into the city, buy a few La Auroras at Iwan Ries and walk over to the JazzMart.
By the early 1990s, Herrera put together a plan to open a cigar store. When two other investors dropped out, he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“I wanted a place where people feel at home and there’s respect for the customer,” said Herrera.
His second wife, Connie, whom he’s been with since 1993, gave Herrera the impetus and business model to go ahead and follow through. They renovated a 750 square foot spot on Lake St., in River Forest.
After three months converting the area, it was ready to go. The first couple years, he had two shelves stocked with Macanudo, Oliveros, Fuente and other labels.
“Gony has a passion for the business and the ambiance of the shop is what makes it special,” said Mike Perales, a cigar broker. “He’s developed a great niche.”
Herrera admits he wasn’t sure if he’d make it past the first two years.
At the end of the cigar boom [1992-1997], many manufacturers were not opening accounts to new shops.
A trip to Miami turned fortuitous when he came across La Tradition Cubana owner Luis Sanchez. Hearing he didn’t have any cigars, Herrera headed out the door, when Sanchez stopped him,
“Where you from?”
“Chicago,” Herrera answered.
Inquiring further, ‘Where are you really from?’
A conversation followed and a friendship by two ex-pats was cemented as Sanchez opened an avenue to other quality smokes.
In the first few years, Herrera had on-the-job training smoking countless sticks and learning from manufacturers what would work best at his shop. By his third year in business, he began to turn a profit.
But his greatest achievement was getting the blessing of his father. Evergito, who passed away seven years ago, made several visits to Chicago.
“My dad really loved the store because he got to see it develop from day one,” said Herrera.
Herrera passed on a diligent work ethic and love of family to his sons Danny, 30, a lawyer in Chicago and David, 25, who is in the health care industry. Both apprenticed at Cigar Oasis beginning after high school graduation and through college.
“A lot of times my dad would drive the ambulance all night then come into the store and work there all day,” said David.
Back to Cuba
After four years of prodding by his wife, Connie, Herrera decided to return to Cuba in August of 2010. Upon landing in Havana, he was interrogated for three and a half hours which is a standard practice for many returning Cubans.
Stopping in Colon, he met with a best friend, Juan Valdez, who remembered his birthday. Growing up a half block away from Herrera, the two were inseparable.
“That was the best birthday I ever had,” he said. “We spent a lot of time catching up.”
Valdez, 52, had enrolled in medical school in Havana, but when they found out he wasn’t a member of the communist party he was falsely accused of theft and expelled and spent two years in jail. He’s earned a living as a butcher.
There were a number of enjoyable evenings with relatives in the capital city.
“When it comes to family we put everything aside,” Herrera stated. “Seeing family is worth everything.”