Last week, Cigar Inspector had the pleasure to interview Abe Flores. Flores is the co-owner of the Blue Star Cigar Factory in Tamboril, Dominican Republic. And the owner of the PDR, A. Flores 1975, and Flores y Rodriguez brands. As well as El Criollito and El Trovador.
Welcome and thank you for making time for this interview and I’m smoking one of your cigars. Now, an oldie. First of all, how did you get into the tobacco industry? You aren’t second generation, third generation. So you’re sort of a newcomer. Well, you’ve been there for years, but you came into the industry without any tobacco background, right?
I grew up in Fula Bonao, Dominican Republic. My grandfather was a grower of tobacco, cigarette tobacco, Andullo, and coffee. So I grew up with tobacco in the farming aspect. Manufacturing, not really, mostly just farming. We smoked a lot of tobacco from our farm, but I always had a passion for tobacco. For me. I always liked tobacco. Everybody in my family smoked, everybody. We always had cigars. We always had tobacco with us. We drink a lot of coffee, we smoke a lot. So when I came to the United States, I went to school. At first, I was an aspiring musician. Then from there, I tried to pre-med. I ended up doing M.I.S. This Computer Information System. It’s kind of a computer science major. And that’s what I studied. When I got out of school, I got into the high tech business. It was right around 9/11 when everything went bad and there weren’t any jobs. I wanted to do something that I liked. Before that, I would sell cigars that my cousin would bring from the Dominican Republic. He lived in Manhattan and he worked a lot of restaurants in Midtown. He was selling a lot of cigars. Yeah, like little side business. So he would send me cigars for me to sell. Sell to my friends, musicians, teachers at school. I mean I that’s how I made extra money. Plus gigging and all that stuff. So I wanted to, you know, I had a passion already for it, and I really wanted to get into it. I tried calling a few companies to get into the cigar industry. I couldn’t find anything. Eventually, there was a company called Tinderbox. Tinderbox was a very big company, franchise company like McDonald’s, but for cigars. They had their own stores, but they also had franchises and at one point, they had almost 400 locations nationwide. They were the largest. I mean, when Tinderbox used to show up at the tradeshow, they commanded floor. People respected them. An army of store owners and power. One company pretty much had a huge buying power. So I went to an interview for them. I want to learn about tobacco. And also I got tired of working for the software companies and these dotcoms that will last two or 3 years and then boom: go out of business. So I wanted to change and I went in for the interview. I went in as the director of marketing to build a website. To launch a webshop. So that’s how I got hired in the beginning. I just pretty much focused on building the site, marketing the site, doing all the e-commerce. The call center, the accounting modules, the inventory modules. I managed all that data. I was pretty much the tech guy for that. Eventually, as time went by, they had a buyer. The guy was a nice guy but all the owners will come down to see Tinderbox. Our warehouse and they’ll see me. I had a big whiteboard with all the campaigns. Like what I’m going to do, what promotion and stuff like that. My office was always in the beginning, over the entranceway. And it was the Vice President and it’d be me as a director next to his office And then in the back will be the buyer. So everybody had to walk by my office and my assistant. They’ll see me and say, “Hey, who are you?” I’m the second in command here. They start becoming my friends and then eventually they said “you know a lot more tobacco than the guy who’s buying them. And I would say ” I grew up on the farm. I know about fillers. I know about fermentation. I know about binders, wrappers, I know about seeds. But you know, I’m in the middle of selling cigars right now.” So eventually, I realized that and I started making private labels. Flying down to factories to do projects. All these projects were working out. I decided to take that on myself. I got another assistant to help me with marketing. And it worked out. The company grew more. That division grew very well until I decided to leave. I really wanted to do something for myself. And then I met Juan, Isidoro, and Luis Rodriguez who had a small factory in Tamboril. They also had a location in New Orleans and they offer me a partnership. Pretty much that’s the story I came down. I started working at a little factory with five-six people.
And that partnership, I imagine those are the Rodriguez in Flores y Rodriguez and they’re still involved in Flores y Rodriguez and PDR?
Only one is still there. The other two are retired. One of them got a brain aneurysm. So he was hospitalized, he almost died. I bought him out. And then the other brother, you know, retired, so I bought him out. So I only got Luis, he has a small share of the factory. Not the brands but the factory. And that is just pretty much all me now.
You mentioned you were an aspiring musician. Do you still make music?
I guess I do. I still make music.
On an amateur level or more than that?
I don’t know. I think it’s on a professional level. I mean, you can find my last album on Spotify, iTunes, Google, Amazon. It’s called Blue Star collectives. The factory is called Blue Star. It’s actually musicians from here from Santiago, who are very professional guys that play with the likes of Juan Luis Guerra. My guitar player is a huge producer here in the Dominican Republic. My trombone player, he travels all over the world for a lot of major artists here in the Dominican Republic. He’s also a major producer. I met them smoking cigars. And, and one day I asked them to smoke cigars at the factory. I always had a little studio. We just started jamming now and then. Within two years we came out with a CD.
PDR Cigars, you said the factory is called Blue Star. How big is the factory and how many cigars Do you produce a year just to get an idea of the size of your operation.
The building is 40,000 square feet. Before the pandemic, we had about almost 500 employees. Now, because we had we were shut down for a while and we had to downsize a lot. We didn’t know how long this is gonna last. Now we slowly open again. We have about 200 employees, but the factory can hold about 600 employees.
And how many cigars do you produce in a normal year? Not in 2020, but 2019 how many cigars did you produce?
5 million. In 2019 5 million. This year. I don’t know.
How many of those are for the international market, because you’re doing well in Europe compared to a lot of other brands.
The reason why I think I’m doing well here because I focused for the past seven, eight years on Europe. A lot of brands think that they can go to Intertabac once or twice and find a distributor and that’s it. It’s not that easy. You have to go and shake people’s hands. You got to go and do events. You got to find a way to do some sort of tastings for people. To meet people and people want to meet you. There are years that I go to Europe more than 10 times. Italy is a huge market that we introduce with ITA. ITA is a distributor over there like they’re the largest. There’s Habanos and then after that is ITA. ITA does Davidoff and they have La Aurora. Then they had no other premiums other than they picked up me. They have over 100 reps. They just do premiums. It’s not just having the right distributor. We attacked it very well in the sense that before we even introduced my product, I went to Italy three, four times. Just to do events for Procigar. Just to people to get to know me. Just for people to smoke my cigars and introduce myself. That’s how they build interest into so when the cigars came in, they sold you know. El Criolitto was a great success. Good price, good cigar. A cigar that we blended for Spain that that really has taken off a lot in Europe. Spain, Belgium, Holland. We sell a lot of El Criollito in Holland, 7×70 somehow. Out of all the brands I sell in Europe, the El Criollito, and then the half Corona tins sell best. That’s pretty much what sells the most. Then you got the CVR and the limited editions, Grand reserves in boxes of 10. Things like too but pretty much El Criollito and the tins. You know, that’s really what the Europeans want.
Oh, yeah. Those things. I don’t know if I’ve told you, and for the readers and viewers of this interview, I used to work in the Netherlands for Abe’s distributor. The moment those tins came out, man. The first 80 accounts I went to were 100% score. And that’s the only cigar that I ever had a 100% score on 80 accounts. That sold like crazy. We did a lot of events in the Netherlands together as well.
Yes, we did. But actually, we’re coming out with a new one. This is an El Criollito tin.
Cool. So that was supposed to be launched at Intertabac, I guess.
Yeah, supposed to be. It was supposed to be launched at Intertabac. This is a size called puritos. It’s kind of like primero size for. This is a 34 by four and a quarter, so a little bit longer. A tin comes with six puritos. The Half Coronas come in a tin as well. That will be in the market in Europe soon.
And then it’s waiting for Habanos to copy that. You guys copied off each other for the Upmann/A. Flores tins as well. I was on the trademark website today and I noticed that there are a few unused trademarks. El Vinyet and Vivaldi. Any plans for those?
I went to Cuba about six years ago. I was walking down the streets in El Vieja Habana and then this lady with lithographs approached me. You know how when you’re in Cuba these ladies are selling lithographs, like all old paper, prints, and stuff like that. I saw three brands I liked, old Cuban brands. So one was El trovador. The other one was El Ciollito. The last one was El Vinyet. So it was a series I was going to do. I did El Trovador. I did El Criollito and the next one was going to El Vinyet. It was going to be like a wine series. Just like a Chateau, a Roja. We were going to do one size, one blend, that you can match to a certain wine. it was going to be like a cabinet box. Like a wine box, wrapped in a nice cloth And with a little band you know. El Viyet Roja, or Crianza you know, things like that. More like Spanish wines. And unfortunately, just because of COVID I just haven’t been able to finish the project at all. So we’ll see.
Maybe something for 2021
Yeah. Vivaldi is a brand I trademarked for a friend of mine. It’s a brand that has been around for a long time. He just never got it to get trademarked. And I did it for him. So that’s, that’s not my brand. It’s just something I did as a favor to help him out. So it’s just so we can get it registered. We were trying to get all this stuff for the FDA. But now that you don’t have to worry about premiums it doesn’t matter. The only thing we have to worry about flavors.
The new tins of El Criollito, are they’re going to be released in the USA as well.
I know a few weeks ago we were chatting on Facebook how COVID-19 affects your sales? Because you do a lot online you do a lot of Europe when sales weren’t so bad.
For us, COVID has affected a lot in the sense that our production had to go down a lot. Nothing was happening for a lot of months. Recently more things are starting to open up. Europe is open up so we’ve just shipped out some big orders to Germany, Italy, and Belgium. Spain we just shipped out some more. They’re picking up again. I don’t know what’s going to happen for the rest of the year but at least we got some orders out. Where we would do an order every two months now tt’s been almost eight months. You know what, seven, eight months with nothing. COVID came in right after pro cigar and everything got shut down. So for the USA brick and mortar are still slowly getting back. Internet sales have gone up a lot. So pretty much the business that I do for the catalogs, that’s gone up a lot. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of production. We’re now trying to get rollers in the factory. We have to also do the social distancing. We have to invest a lot of money and barriers and stuff between the tables and things like that. So right now I’m doing this to spacing out. My factory can hold any given time 70 pairs. That’s 140 people. So right now if I separate them with a certain space that’s 35 pairs. Right now I have 25 pairs. So I’m trying to get to 35. If I get to 35, then I have that distancing with six feet between the rollers. Just taking the two guys in the middle out and having the big space in the middle. They’re far apart. I’m taking it in levels. So once I get it there, then I’ll see what happens. If the government allows me to bring more people than I’ll bring more people in. Then I’ll start investing and putting in more barriers. But right now, there’s a huge boom online. Brick and mortar sales are okay. I’m not saying I’m up I’m a little bit down for the United States for regular sales brick and mortar sales. For online sales, it was dead. But the orders that we’re getting, I can’t produce so fast. It’s insane. And then Europe. Europe is hopefully back 100% in the next few months.
From what I hear from Europe, especially Western Europe, they’re doing quite alright. Life is pretty much okay. So we covered America, we covered Europe, how is your presence in Asia and Africa?
In Asia? We were invited to the Chinese festival. There was a group of people from China tobacco that came down to valuate factories. They came out three or four times before their festival. They picked a few factories from Pro cigar and they invited them to come down. So me Fuente, Jochi, Litto, Ram Rodriguez went. From that group, they picked a few who got permission to sell into China. So Fuente, me, La Palma, Carrillo, la Flor Dominicana were approved to sell into China. We’re shipping now the shipment for China
And other Asian countries? Malaysia is a big market and I think I saw some PDR there. In Thailand, we have a mutual friend that that does cigars there. But how about other Asian countries?
Now that’s it pretty much it. I got to Thailand, Malaysia was doing something with Cigar Malaysia. I think he buys it from Marc from Belgium. He buys small amounts. I tell most of them, you know, if it’s a small order, if we’re talking about 40 to 50 boxes, just buy from our Belgian distributor.
Does Marc do your European warehousing?
He does most of my European warehouse.
It is a smart move to have European warehousing.
He pretty much controls most of it except large orders. Italy buys in such a big quantity that they rather just buy it directly. They also buy from La Aurora. So they just combine a shipment. It makes no sense for them. But for other countries, small countries, they buy from Marc..
That makes sense. And a lot of companies do it that way. Longfiller Company, your Dutch distributor used to do that for Oliva before they got bought over by Cortes. They are doing it for my father and Tatuaje now. Alec Bradley does it through Germany through German distributor. AJ Fernandez does it through his Slovenian distributor. It makes sense it saves costs for everybody. The recent FDA court ruling, huge impact.
Yes, a very big impact.
What do you think will be the effect of that?
I think, once things start slowing down, you’ll start seeing a lot of new brands coming out again, now that this is lifted. The only thing they’re cracking down on is flavors and short fillers. Not cracking down hard as cigars are low on their priority. So that’s the only thing they want. You know, grandfather’s, substantial equivalency, all that stuff. When COVID starts going away, you’re gonna start seeing a lot of brands coming out again at IPCPR and Intertabac. But you’re gonna first start seeing more new stuff coming out of the major factories now that it can produce whatever they want.
So where do you think that would create another mini-boom?
I think it will be another one. Everybody right now is too scared. They’re smoking in their house. Once you open all the social floods, people are gonna be consuming. People are gonna be getting together. Now people aren’t gonna want to go out. So I think we’re going to have a nice little pop happening in 2021. Hopefully.
I hope to see a lot of new cigars. For me as a cigar geek whenever there’s something new, I want to try it. So new stuff is always exciting for me. But on the other hand, a lot of countries are starting to implement plain packaging. Singapore has implemented it since July 1. The Netherlands is going, January 1, 2022. more countries are doing it. Does that worry you?
It does. I mean, I didn’t know about the Netherlands. That’s kind of sad because the Netherlands is a country where they enjoy the packaging. They enjoy innovation. So it’s really sad that that’s going to go away. I’m doing that right now for Canada, and we’re selling a lot still. I think once you are you have a build brand, people are going to still smoke it. And they’re going to go across the border if they want a box. They buy a box from a country that has it normally. That’s what’s gonna happen. Once a country does that, the neighboring countries, they’re the ones that gonna make all the Money. Trust me. Luxembourg, people want to go to Luxembourg to buy cigars. They’re going to go across the board to Belgium, and Luxembourg to get whatever they want. Just so they can have a cigar with the bands and the packaging they want. They’re going to still buy PDR with the plain packaging, maybe one or two, but they’ll buy a box across the border. That’s what I think.
But on the subject of packaging. You used to use a lot of copycat Cuban rings, but in the last few years, you’d be redesigning and revamping, moving away from that. I know we had this discussion in the back a few years ago. I said that your cigars didn’t need that they were good enough not to copycat off of the Cuban rings. You just said I’m doing it because it’s funny. What changed your mind?
Well, the thing is, for me was more an homage to some of the traditional stuff. The 10th anniversary was something that I really want to bring back. That type of band. And then I did, then Cuba came out later with it. For me, I try to get as close as possible to what Cuba what used to be, what the blends used to taste like. You talk to one of the best retailers in Spain in Madrid. I go there to his shop. And he will pull out stuff for being like 8, 10, 12 years ago, and I’ll smoke it. It’s amazing, you know, so I think I think what Cuba used to do was amazing. I’m not saying they don’t still do great stuff.
I will say that, no problem.
I think when they do something right, it comes out great. And I’m saying and you know, for me it was more an homage thing. I’ve gotten to a point now that I want it to come out with a whole new look unified look for PDR. The thing is people used to get confused between PDR and Abe Flores. Now if you notice, the logo now has both our names. It has PDR and Abe Flores together. So it’s that’s one unified image. And I think, by me doing that I had to rethink the presentation of the company. We decided to do a foot wrap band on our cigars. So it has a more unified look. So when you have more cigars on the shelves, like 10 of my boxes across the wall completely look different. So for me to have a more unified message, a better message about my brand. I needed to revamp the whole look and feel of the company. I still have a little bit of an old school look, but it has a modern twist. I think I still am giving some sort of homage to the old school, but it has some more of a modern look. I don’t know. That’s the way I feel.
You’re talking about the rebranding and the renaming. I noticed that on the new Connecticut River Valley. It used to be a Flores y Rodriguez and now just say a Flores 75 am I correct?
So that changed a little bit as well. About the FDA you mentioned that they’re going after the short fillers and flavored cigars. You have a line with a coffee-infused cigar, the PDR roast cigars. Does it worry you that the FDA is going for flavors? That perhaps the line is on the chopping board to get rid of the FDA. Or you might discontinue it not the have to deal with them?
The thing is, we did our submission for the grandfather rule. The thing is, they say submit and we did. So we’re submitting and gets approved or not, you know, we’ll see what happens. We don’t know yet. They may chop it, they may not chop it., if they chop it, and we’ll stop making it. Or we only ship it out to Europe. I just shipped a whole bunch to Germany and Belgium. We’ll just keep on making it for Europe then. I’m not too worried about it. I don’t think premium flavors are something that they’re too worried about. They even stated premium handmade cigars are low on their priority. They asked me to submit to the FDA and they still haven’t responded to 90% of the stuff they got. That’s part of the reason why they said we don’t want to deal with it. Because they had so many applications that they said “we can’t take it”. That’s what happened.
If it was like cigarettes like 10 brands.
Cigarettes are three or four companies. And that’s it. When they saw all these companies submitting, I mean even the smallest factory and smallest brand has 200 SKU’s. So all these companies submitting so many applications. The website got overloaded all the time, was shut down, they couldn’t take it. So I think that’s part of the reason to say let’s just leave this shit alone. Let’s just go after the machine-made companies. There are only three or four. And that’s why the CAA tried to do what the CAA did. (MOC: the CAA tried to get the same exemption for flavored and machine-made cigars too) They got denied because FDA is like well we can handle these guys. Because there’s only four or five of them. They can visit four or five locations. They cannot visit 10,000 locations throughout the world. It is impossible.
Oh, I wouldn’t mind. I wouldn’t mind that job visiting cigar factories all day long for the FDA.
Yeah, well it would take you five years to visit most of them.
Then I would finally make it to your factory, which has been on my list for a long while. You also make a lot of private labels. You make some cigars for Gurkha. You make some cigars from Bugatti. You make El Coyote for Marc, your Belgian distributor. Are there any brands that are left out, other major brands that we know that are made at your factory?
There’s another one in Spain called El Samman. That one is done with my distributor Jaime de Juana in Spain. Then we do some small-batch stuff here and there for certain people when we get called for stuff. I’ll make small runs for certain for a company. For Viaje, I still make a lot of small-batch stuff a couple of times a year. We’ll do a small run 400 boxes 300 boxes of something. I’m still doing those types of things. Whatever comes out with skulls bones. I still do it. Other than that, I’m not working with too many folks. Right now, it’s, it’s really hard to allocate a lot of production for a lot of people. So if it’s a small run, I can do it. But if it’s a huge company, I really can’t, because I don’t have the capacity right now at this moment.
And how does a private label work? Do you Blend for them? Do they blend themselves? Do they use your tobacco book, your tobacco library? Do they bring in their tobacco? How does it work?
It works differently with every person. I like it when they’re here. And then I usually ask what profile they’re looking for. They will tell me I want something spicy or something creamy, I want this and that. We’ll start from the bottom up. I’ll start putting fillers together from my tobaccos that we have an inventory. Then we’ll go from there to binders to wrappers. We tweak and tweak and tweak until we come up with a blend that they’re happy and I’m happy to produce.
What are your future plans for PDR? You’re now only a producer. Are you looking into growing your own tobacco like your grandfather used to do?
Yeah, I’m hoping that I can start doing that you know. It’s hard because of the situation that we have right now with COVID. I’m hoping that in the next few years, I’m able to start farming on my own. That is the next step that I like to do. So it’s hard right now because we don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, we think everything will end but we thought all this stuff was gonna end six months ago. We don’t know if this could last another six months to a year.
Is your family still growing tobacco?
No, when my grandfather died and my uncle pretty much retired. What we do is we use the land to lease it. So they use it for cattle or beans. We still have people growing coffee on it. But the tobacco portion of it they stopped doing that.
So is that something you’re also looking into PDR or A Flores coffee?
I would like to do coffee that would be my dream but unfortunately, it’s one thing at a time. I can’t do it all.
There are a few cigar manufacturers that do that.
Yeah, but the thing is if I’m gonna do something I want to do it right. What I want to do is, what I had ready actually, was to come up with rum. I already had it. I already had packaging. Already had the blend, Already had the barrels picked and everything. I was going to start bottling a limited edition rum for PDR. But then also COVID came in and then we stopped.
Now you’re speaking my language. If you ever want somebody from an international market, to try your rum I’ll give you my address. I’m drinking a rum right now. Because it might be 10 am where you are, but it’s 10 pm where I am. So I’m drinking a Cuban rum, Ron la progressive de vigia. It’s just a rum I recently discovered. A very nice Cuban rum. Um, well, those were my questions. Is there anything else you would like to say to the cigar smokers and the readers of Cigar Inspector?
Thank you for the support and thank you for all the years of following me. For supporting my company. Hopefully, we’ll make it through all of this. And we can all get together one more time at Intertabac and have a cigar and a beer.
How old is PDR Cigars?
PDR now is over 10 years old. About 12 the factory is around since 2004.
Alright, so those three years we can expect the 15th anniversary?
Yes, probably in a few more years, I could do the 15th anniversary a couple more years. If we’re still not in COVID
I think it will be over in a few months.
I’m hoping, but my fear is the next thing that comes after. The thing is, think about it, okay, the H5N1 virus came out. That’s just as bad. And that was 10 years ago. Nobody cared, you know, I’m saying this comes out and everybody stopped. You know, and I understand. You got to take care of people. So separate the people who are at high risk, and let the population go out. Don’t stop the economies. Stopping the economy, I just don’t understand why.
I hope that this is the last time we will see a virus like this in my lifetime. I don’t think so. But I think I think will be much better prepared. You know, I’ll make sure that I have enough stock of cigars at my place to, even if they lock us down for a year, I’ll still be smoking. And I hope everybody who has those funds can do that too. So we can all still enjoy ourselves. But thank you for your time. And I’ll send you some pictures of the plain packaging here in a minute.
Thank you, again. Thank you, talk to you soon. So hope to see you soon.