“Have you seen this room?” Abe Flores, owner and founder of PDR Cigars, has an excited expression on his face as he opens the door next to his office. “There aren’t many people who have a rehearsal studio in their factory, right?” He picks up an electric bass and starts plucking. His studio is fully equipped with a drum kit, four keyboards, guitars, bass, amplifiers, an upright bass, recording equipment and, of course, a seating area with large ashtrays. “I started out by putting a rolling table in here. I added couches, a sound system and then I thought, why not put some sound isolation on the walls and make it into a rehearsal studio where we can hang out and smoke cigars? So I did that.” Music has played a very important part in Abe’s life. So important that his goal at one point was to be a professional musician.
It all started with a high school language teacher in Salem, Massachusetts, when Abe was 14 years old. “The lady who taught English-as-a-second-language was from Chile. One day she took us into the auditorium. I was blown away by all the instruments. When she asked me if I wanted to take one home with me I freaked out. I was just a poor kid from the Dominican Republic and she was telling me I could choose whichever one I liked!”
A little more than ten years prior to that, it was decided that Abe’s father would move back to the family’s native country with Abe and his sister to open up a convenience store. His mother would stay in New York to work at a clothing factory and send money home. “I think they felt that New York was too dangerous at that time, [there was] too much crime and drugs,” explains Abe. However, Abe didn’t end up with his father in the capital, Santo Domingo. He and his sister moved to their grandparents’ farm in the mountain region of Bonao, where, at a young age, he had to help out on the farm. He was not too thrilled about that.
“What kid likes to get up at the crack of dawn to ride a mule up a mountain and harvest whatever was grown that season? We did what we had to do to put food on the table. Every year we spent a month with our dad [in San- to Domingo] and, once, even a whole school year, and I liked that a lot better. But it was hard for him to manage the store and take care of us.”
Instead, Abe had to learn how to kill animals. “I can kill a chicken. That’s okay, but my grandma gave me a pig to raise and when it grew up she told me to kill it. It was awful. I still have a picture of me riding that pig. When I got older, my grandfather taught me how to kill a cow with a machete, and that’s a lot harder. The only thing you have to do with a pig is drain it of blood, and I couldn’t kill it properly. All my cousins had done it and they were watching. I cried and the cow cried. It was not my kind of life.” Abe’s grandparents grew many things on that farm, including tobacco. So, like many other big cigar makers, he grew up around the plant.The only difference was that he hated it and never wanted to see a farm again when he returned to the US at the age of 14 with his father and sister . “Never again, I said. I was so happy to go back.”
This time they ended up in Salem, Massachusetts, and that day in the auditorium, he finally chose the cello. “I actually wanted the upright bass, but I couldn’t figure out how to take it on the bus to and from school.” From that day on, Abe wanted to be a musician. He played in the school orchestra, saved up money to buy an electric bass, started a heavy metal band and then got into jazz. In the end, he got a scholarship to go to the University of California, Berkeley.
His father wasn’t quite as excited, though. “He just said no,” recalls Abe. “I actually had a full photography scholarship to Mass Art [Massachusetts College of Art and Design] as well, and we visited the university. When he saw all the hippies there he just told me to get a ‘regular’ job. He also said no when I wanted to be in the air force. He himself was pretty high up in the military during the Trujillo [Dominican dictator, 1930-1961] era, but he didn’t want that for me. Like everyone else, he was forced. At that time, you had just two options.”
So Abe went to medical school instead, but the music stayed with him and prevailed. Due to carpel tunnel syndrome he had to stop playing the cello, but double bass was still no problem. When he formed the band Edable Gray his music career really took off. “I wasn’t very good at English at the time, so I misspelled ‘edible.’ The other members thought that was funny so we kept it. Anyway, we had a singer and a rapper and played a mix of rock, soul, R&B and funk. We released two albums. They’re still available on iTunes and Spotify, actually.”
The band had a pretty good run, playing with a lot of bigger bands, like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Blessid Union of Souls, and Kinky. But as with many bands, egos started to come into play. So when the singer decided not to show up for a gig one too many times, the adventure was over. “The label had told us they’d drop us if it happened one more time, so they did,” explains Abe. “We tried to perform with only the rapper, but it sounded horrible, so I decided that was it.”
As medicine wasn’t really doing it for him and the internet boom was in the making, Abe decided to get into the tech business. At the same time he was selling cigars to his coworkers on the side. “My cousin got me into it. He worked at an Italian restaurant in New York and he used to go down to the Dominican Republic and bring back cigars to sell to his customers.” He was also the one who gave Abe his first taste of premium tobacco, in what would turn out to be a very dramatic day. “I was 16 and we were on vacation in the Dominican,” Abe explains. “We were all at a river, swimming and barbequing on the rocks when someone suddenly saw some white fuzz coming down the mountain. The river was flooding. It was almost like a tsunami, so we took the kids and got out of there. Later we read that three people were killed.”
He started working in online advertising, when a job at Tinder Box, an online cigar store, opened up. “Google started doing what we were doing cheaper, so the company I worked for began closing down. I was offered to move to California, but because I was smoking cigars, someone told me to look for job with a cigar company. I got a job building their website. Eventually, people like Rocky Patel showed up and wanted to see what I had done. At the same time, the buyer at Tinder Box wasn’t carrying his weight, so I told them I could do his job. They fired him and I started dealing directly with the customers. I traveled to all the factories and started learning.” Suddenly, Abe was in the cigar business.
“Before I left Tinder Box I started working with the three Rodriguez brothers, who owned a shop in New Orleans called Don Leoncio. Their cigars were okay, but inconsistent; nothing special.” Abe Flores developed the Pinar del Río brand for the company, but after five years he’d had enough. But the brothers didn’t want him to leave. “They didn’t know what they were doing,” Abe explains. “People were stealing cigars and tobacco from them and I couldn’t continue. I made more money building websites, but they told me I could have my own factory and do whatever I wanted.
Luis was the only one of the brothers who listened to me, so I asked him to move to the Dominican with me. He’s still with the company and part-owner of the factory.” Abe Flores, the newest member of the Dominican cigar association, ProCigar, then launched the successful PDR brand under his own name, and a few years later he moved in to his current factory and bought out the other two Rodriguez brothers. “At this point, Jochy Blanco (Tabacalera Palma) really helped me out. He gave me a factory and tobacco, and told me to pay him back when I had the money.
Why the PDR brand was so well-received was probably a combination of packaging, the price point and, of course, the quality of the cigars. It all just clicked. We had more consistency once we got tobacco from Jochy, or maybe it was just easier for people to pronounce the name?”
Today Abe uses three different wrappers, Criollo 98, Corojo 99 and Habano, with Dominican fillers, and, if he has a signature of his own, it’s the Piloto Cubano filler. “All my premium premium cigars have at least half or a whole leaf of Piloto in them.” Although he is driven and never gives up, according to Abe himself, on several occasions he almost did throw in the towel. “A lot of people do it, but it’s the easy way out, and something in me told me to go on. I thank God for putting the right people in my path at the right time. Jochy was one of them. Besides giving me a building and tobacco, he taught me how to deal with legal things in the Dominican. There’s a lot you need to know if you want to avoid law suits in this country. If you forget to pay social security for an employee in the US you can always fix it, but here you get sued right away, even if it’s just two pesos missing.”
Getting to where he is today has, in other words, been a crooked path, but somewhere among those twists and turns Abe has also achieved a lot of personal goals. He did, after all, become a professional musician, even if just for a while, and he still uses his artistry in his job. “I design everything – bands, packaging and boxes. I make art, and people smoke it.” Today he’s happy just jamming in his studio, and he has learned a lot along the way. “I was always the band leader, so I learned how to manage people. That’s something they can’t teach you in college. You have to experience it.”
The same goes for his childhood and the time at the farm that he hated so much back then. “My grandfather was a very driven individual and it has made me driven too. Certain people have everything handed to them, and when I see that, I’m thankful for my experience. It was hard, even militant, and I hated it, but we worked together to get food every day. It’s part of my persona now. I keep moving that ball up the hill.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Autumn Edition 2016. Read more