This article appears in Volume 4 – Issue 4 of SKUNK Magazine.
IN THE 1970s, Bambu was America’s favorite rolling paper. The cover of the 1972 Cheech & Chong album Big Bambu looked liked a pack of papers and even included a huge sheet inside. In 1978, the movie poster for Up in Smoke was yet another take on the Bambu logo and packaging.
But then came the “Just Say No” ’80s – an extended anti-drug period that included laws banning the sale of bongs and rolling papers in many stores. Bambu was not spared this indignity.
“We were the number one paper until Reagan came into office and there were all of those paraphernalia laws,” says Sarah Saiger (the granddaughter of Bambu’s original owner), who is single-handedly rebuilding the company’s distribution network and street cred. “They actually made us put tobacco with our products for a while, which is really horrible.” By the time Michael Spielfogel – Saiger’s grandfather – died in 1990, Bambu had lost its dominant place in the paper business.
“When we were number one, Zig-Zag – as I understand it – had 500 sales guys,” Saiger explains. “They went store to store, state to state, and put Zig-Zags in the stores. Zig-Zags are a great paper. Bambus are a great paper. When you put them in a store, people are going to use what’s there. We weren’t out there pushing our distribution. Now we’re back out there doing that and we’re finding that people are loving Bambu and really excited to see it back.”
Bambu’s product line is fairly simple: the classic 1 1/4 and Big Bambu pulp papers; the same sizes but in hemp; and nine different flavored papers in beautifully designed packs. “Everybody loves the hemp papers,” she says. “But we don’t have it out there enough. To me, it’s one of the best papers.”
Bambu reintroduced its flavored-paper line in 2006, nearly five decades after “we did the original flavored papers back in the 60s.” Saiger contends that some of her competitors’ papers “just don’t have a great flavoring on them – but who am I to say what people like and what they want to buy?” What she does know is Grape and Peach are Bambu’s top-selling flavored papers.
It’s a long way from Bambu’s original paper, which was made in Spain for the printing of Bibles and dates back to 1764. Since the company is more than two centuries old, Bambu’s history is a little murky. “In the late 1800’s it became a smoking paper,” Saiger states. She has no idea where the Bambu name comes from, but says the package was designed in 1876 and that the gentleman on the cover wearing the Panama hat and smoking a cig (or joint) is known as “The Winking Spaniard.”
Michael Spielfogel and his brother owned a cigar store in Brooklyn, New York in the ’50s and ’60s. “That’s how he got into the business,” Saiger offers. “In the process of doing that, he started distributing Bambu papers. He loved the brand and he smoked, so he ended up buying the name.”
Pretty cool granddad, huh? “He always said that he’d rather his kids smoke weed than drink,” Saiger says with a big smile.
Spielfogel – the man who brought Bambu to the U.S. – would have approved, as Saiger and I take a break from the interview and step outside for a few hits of kind bud. We’re at the Bambu headquarters in Westbury, on New York’s Long Island. It’s a non-descript office building without a company sign (better to keep a low profile), which is the way Saiger’s grandmother – also named Sarah – prefers it. Pushing 80, Spielfogel took over the company when her husband passed away 18 years ago. Despite her sweet demeanor, Grandma likes to stay in the background and let her boisterous granddaughter represent the company. Saiger spends most of her time trying to open distribution and marketing doors.
“I do everything,” she says. “I do trade shows. I do presentations to get into trade shows. I talk to people. I take people to dinner. I explain to them exactly what we’re doing, why Bambu is a great paper. Most of them really know – they just want to know where the hell we’ve been! I tell them it’s a family business and that my grandma’s maintained it, but she hasn’t really had the urge to go out and sell it. And I love to sell it.”
“I’m on a plane every other week, traveling around, getting distribution,” she adds. “Bambu’s a big name, so I’m going to big distributors. And they’re picking us up and taking us on. I just got back from a trade show in Massachusetts where I sold Bambu papers to 100 convenience stores.”
Even bigger news is that Saiger and Bambu are the subjects of a reality-TV show, currently being filmed by the same company that produced The (White) Rapper Show for VH1. “The focus is me and my life in my circles and my family’s business, how crazy my office is, my struggles with anything,” Saiger says. “They’ve been dying to do this for a long time. They have a hair girl and a makeup girl that follow me around. It’s crazy. They interview everybody I meet with. It’s really time-consuming. You have to do things over and over. I’m really funny in front of the camera, I guess.” So in addition to Bambu papers showing up at 7-Elevens, look for Sarah Saiger promoting her beloved company on a cable station soon.
Just don’t call it a comeback.