Reflections on Spain
La Tienda, Then and Now
When our family founded La Tienda fifteen years ago, Ruth and I imagined we were putting together a cozy mom-and-pop business in our retirement so that we could work together with our sons while sharing our love for Spain. The first days of La Tienda began with our son Jonathan working in our basement every day, learning all about the new world of the Internet.
It was winter when we stacked our first inventory of jamón Serrano in our basement. I still recall loading a few hams at a time into my SUV, and driving to our local UPS package service for delivery to our customers. While waiting for the hams, our first customers requested other Spanish favorites, such as extra virgin olive oil, Manchego cheese, tins of bonito tuna, their favorite sauces and special paella rice. At our first 'office' over a dentist's office, we stored all of these items on shelves we fashioned from 2x8 planks resting on cement blocks!
As La Tienda began to grow, our son Tim was able to join us full time. He brought invaluable experience about Internet commerce he had gained from three years running his own dot-com. The two brothers and I are still working together every day.
Today we have a climate controlled warehouse where all of the great products from Spain are kept in optimal condition. We send out hundreds of orders every day to homes across the country. The 2x8 shelves and the hams stashed in the garage are now an amusing memory.
How did this amazing story unfold?
I see two factors that closely intersect. First is that for years, I fostered our family's appreciation of all aspects of the people and their way of life in all corners of Spain. Second, with the advent of the Internet, our deep knowledge and enthusiasm for Spain and her food could be widely shared.
Ruth and I have been involved in Spain and her culture for most of our married lives. It began when, as a newlywed Navy chaplain, I discovered the people of Spain on my first Med Cruise in 1965. Over the years Ruth and I, and later our family, have enjoyed meeting hundreds of farmers and craftsmen who take pride in making things the traditional way. What a joy it is to meet them personally, and to break bread together.
However, we have not just been travelers. Our youngest son, Christopher, was born in 1975 when we lived in El Puerto de Santa María, next to the naval base at Rota. At the time, his older brother Tim was attending El Centro Inglés, a Spanish/English primary school. Later Tim returned to Spain to spend a summer with a Spanish household in Sevilla. Their brother Jonathan spent two months between college semesters walking the 400-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route – all the way from France, and returned there on his honeymoon. Chris returned to spend a summer in La Coruña.
Our enjoyment of Spain continues to grow. It is amazing to think that few people, even those who live in Spain, have visited more areas of Spain than we have. However, none of what we have accomplished could have happened without the advent of the computer and the emerging technology of the Internet.
In 1968, I had a frustrating experience, which drove home to me the value of the computer, which was just then coming on the scene. I was a young Navy chaplain stationed at the Coast Guard boot camp in Alameda, and needed to understand the emerging youth culture of the San Francisco Bay area. Therefore, I asked the recruits – what better resource – to provide a confidential account of their personal behavior and values.
It was invaluable material, but regrettably, there was no mainframe computer capable of analyzing the data. I had to wait for several years before I could deliver my stacks of keypunch IBM computer cards to UNIVAC, one of the first computers at Stanford University!
Entering the world of Internet commerce was a natural progression for our family. As Ruth and I raised our inquisitive boys, we always kept an eye on the computer culture. In 1984, we bought our sons, Tim, Jonathan and Chris, a Coleco ADAM Commander computer. It operated on a tape drive with 64K RAM, and had a dot matrix printer. It came along with a $500 college scholarship, which never came to fruition since the company was bankrupt within a couple of years.
Many of you may remember the early days of computers with dial-up connections, 8", 5.5" and 3" floppy discs; freezing screens; annoying multiple crashes. It was the summer of 1995 when Microsoft launched Windows 95 and Internet Explorer to navigate the World Wide Web. In 1995, Amazon sold its first book on the 'worldwide bookstore.' A little over a year later, in 1996, our family launched LaTienda.com.
When we got together as a family to launch La Tienda, our eldest son Tim, who majored in Latin American Affairs, was employed by a classic ham company in Smithfield, Virginia. Our second son Jonathan was a sculptor fresh out of college, and their younger brother Chris was finishing his degree, with a minor in Spanish. All three of them graduated from The College of William & Mary.
Upon my retirement in 1988 we moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, perhaps the town with the most English ambiance in America. To make our new home our own, we embellished it with many fond mementos of Spain. Among our elaborate renovations, we decided to install classic Andalucian tiles in the bathrooms, kitchen, dining room and our fireplace surround.
As you might imagine, we found it a challenge to locate any authentic Alhambra design azulejos in the United States. When we finally did find a source, we filled our house with such beauty that we wanted to share our good fortune with others in America who had the same appreciation for Moorish tiles.
The challenge was that these Spain enthusiasts were not concentrated in any one area, but rather scattered over the continent. The timing was perfect: through the new technology known as 'The Internet,' we could get out the word to everyone instantly. LaTienda.com was born.
Jonathan taught himself web design, and arranged the display of Andalucian tiles in an attractive format for our LaTienda.com website. One day his brother Tim came home from his job at the country ham producer in Smithfield with a brilliant idea. It was prompted by the experience he had serving as an interpreter for a Spanish Serrano ham producer who was visiting the plant.
His idea was to have his brother post a picture of a jamón Serrano next to the rows of tiles, with a question: "If we could find these jamones would you want one?" What a question to ask a group of people who were predisposed to the Spanish culture! Within days we were receiving enthusiastic messages from across the country, and it became clear that azulejos may be one thing but jamón was quite another. We were on our way.
Next, we needed to encourage a Spanish producer to bring jamón Serrano to America. So we spent the next Christmas season over in Spain on a quest to identify a receptive company. It all worked out amazingly well, and by the end of 1997, LaTienda.com delivered the very first jamón Serrano to an Internet customer in America.
While our potential customers were eagerly awaiting news of jamón Serrano in America, they also asked if we could get their favorite Spanish products for them – ranging from Cola Cao and Nenuco, which brought back memories of their childhood, to aged Manchego cheese and bacalao salt cod. We have been adding products ever since – we are up to nearly 1,000 at last count. I have always kept our customers posted with a monthly newsletter – the predecessor of this note I am writing to you today!
Ruth and I are very grateful for our family, most of all. In addition, it is satisfying to see how our small dream has turned out to bring both joy to our customers and encouragement to several hundred families in Spain. We are also proud to have helped to introduce the idea of Spain to America along with other trailblazers such as chef José Andrés.
We are humbled that our small mom-and-pop business has grown into the largest purveyor of Spanish food in America. By staying true to our values, we strive to help preserve a way of life in Spain, which is unencumbered by the demands of the mass-market. We support our friends in Spain so that they may continue to make their traditional wholesome products. It continues to be a wonderful journey and we thank you for your support.
"After to traveling to Barcelona last Fall to attend the Catacurian cooking school, we wondered how we would ever find the authentic ingredients we were using in class back in the USA. Our instructor Alicia recommended La Tienda, which is now my lifeline to the great foods we experienced on our trip. Great products, fast service and fair prices! What more could you ask? Thanks La Tienda!"
"Dear Rick, What a wonderful affirmation of what we are trying to do. I am delighted. Do you ever wander down to Williamsburg? It would be fun to get together at our store on Jamestown Road. I think you will like it. Abrazos Don "
"Don – You and your sons have done a tremendous job over the last 15 years growing your business. It has been very enjoyable watching you grow from a small internet site to a company that shows up in the magazines in read (Men’s Health, Food & Wine) and the Public Television shows I watch. I wish you many more year of continued success bringing the best of Spain to America. Larry Sanchez"
"Thanks a lot Larry, Now if only the Red Sox will shape up -- I am not amused with their cliff hanger approach to life. (I grew up in Belmont and had family in Brookline and went to Fenway Park often as I was growing up). It is so rewarding to work with my sons each day (we will meet for lunch in a couple of hours!). Thanks a lot for your appreciative encouragement. If you ever meander down to Williamsburg, come see me at our retail store, It would be fun to chat. Abrazos Don "
"Dear Don, I enjoy your articles more than you know. This Wonderful country needs more creative people like you to start a business based on a sincere Love of a place and what they are doing. I, too love Spain and it's foods, my favorite in the world. I am also very appreciative of Spain's art and artists. Ramon Pujol is one of my absolute favorites and I have many of his original paintings of his obviously beloved Cadeques, on the Costa Brava. He was born in Olot, Catalonia, Spain. Your food takes me all over Spain even when I cannot go..Thanks you for remaining as you are."
"Hi Sue, What a fabulous comment -- thank you very much. If you like my writing, do you know that I have just published a book, The Heart of Spain, which is full of articles and pictures I have taken through the years. I think you would like it a lot -- and I can send you a signed copy. I am not familiar with Ramón Pujols. Do you have a website I can go to see his work? I will have to go and look him up when I return to Spain next winter. Abrazos, Don"
"Wonderful story, Don. I still have fond memories of touring your Toano warehouse with you (August, 2004, I believe) and coming home with a large sampling of your inventory! Best wishes for the continued success of Tienda.com."
"Hola John, Thanks for your note. You will love our new retail store in Williamsburg. It is located in a century old building which used to be a famous potter's studio. Come see us -- it will be fun to get together again. Abrazos, Don"
"As far as I know, yours is the most comprehensive seller of Spanish food products in the USA. I can especially appreciate having such diverse products available to me: First, because I am of Spanish ancestry on my mother's side, and Second, because I spent two and a half years in Spain (1960-62), courtesy of Uncle Sam! Congratulations to you for operating a unique and successful business for over fifteen years. "
"Dear Raymond, Thanks a lot for such a ringing endorsement! You are just the person I had in mind when we started Tienda. I am curious as to where Uncle Sam sent you. 1960-62 is very early for an American presence. Su amigo Don "
"Just wanted to say thank you for sharing such a personal family story.. I can feel the love for Spain, food and between the family members in the article.. ♥"
"You are welcome. Heather. Family is so essential for a fulfilled life! I have written a book this year called Heart of Spain:Families and Food which follows this theme. It is full of pictures and stories of Spanisdh families. I think you would like it. I would be glad to autograph it should you want to purchase a copy. Cordially Don"
"Your story is an inspiration. The perfect example of entrepreneurship and how this country developed to be the "American Dream". I'm a native of Panama and moved to the US in 1990 as a military wife. We've been your happy customers for at least 10 years. I love buying all the Spanish foods I remember eating back at home. We wish you much success."
"Thank you, Sandra I am glad we are able to bring a little bit of home to you in your new home in the United States! If you ever visit Williamsburg, be sure to look me up at our retail store. It is a great old building full of Spain! Abrazos Don"
"What a great story. Reminds me of the book "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. A confluence of circumstances, along with passion, and a lot of dedication to purpose. A recipe for success, hope my paella is successful too.Buena suerte!
D. Vail "
"Hi Don, Yes, it was an interesting confluence of events. The key is to keep your inquiring mind open in this changing world. I am not talking about catching on to every new trend, but rather integrating what you see into your personal value system. It is fascinating to see how life unfolds. I wish you and your family the very best. Don"
"Don, I am retired as a USAF LT. COL in 1992. I have made one purchase from La Tienda. I have wondered for years what is so special about Serrano ham, why it requires a special cutting block, does it taste a lot like Smithfield ham and does it require refrigeration?"
"Hi Mike, Why don't you come over to our Williamsburg store and I'll give you the skinny. I am there Thursdays through Saturdays, for sure. Bone-in Jamon Serrano is a dry cured ham, and therefore needs no refrigeration. I is often put on a stand for easier slicing. Since many times it is on the counter for random treats. Smithfield ham is also dry-cured, but because of this climate, it requires seven times the salt. As you can see it's really quite a different product. I like it in small doses, but the Jamon Serrano is sweet and tasty. I hope to see you soon! Don"
"This is a great story --- thanks for sharing. :-)While in Canada, we had the chance to get some Spanish favorites from LaTienda. Now we wait for the time when shipping to South America will be viable.
¡Saludos desde Brazil!"
"Hola Ricardo! It is nice to hear from you. Do you have any suggestions for favorite products from Brazil that we could add to New World collection? Thanks for keeping track of us. Abrazos, Don"
"Don and Family,
After reading your Introduction I had pangs of envy. Wow! What a great family business you have built. I also retired from the Army in 1982. I spent about 8 years in Europe...France.. Metz and St Nazaire to Heildeberg, Munich,Berlin, Naples Italy,etc. In 1977, I packed the family in our 1967 Chev station wagon and took off from Heideberg to Madrid. Spent two weeks in the Barcolona and Madrid areas. Best damn food and people in Europe. Fell in love. Great wines and sherry. We ate like Kings. I joined your La Tienda last year....and dream with every issue. Enjoy your life and the one you have built for your kids..... you are a true Treasure.
Robert J. Wells
Edgewater Florida "
"Dear Robert, Thank you for taking the time to write, and especially for your wise advice. Ruth and I are grateful for the blessing we have received vis a vis our family. Time is short -- just think I retired from the Navy in 1988 --that's 24 years ago! We enjoy our life with our kids and grandkids who live down the street from us. What a joy. I just got back from enjoying a bison burger with my sons Tim and Jonathan. Do you have family nearby? Your friend,Don"
"Don, great story! I did not know I had so much in common with you. I too served in the US Navy and that's where I discovered the same fondness for Spain. I did 6 Med cruises and Spanish ports were always the favorite. I was never stationed at Rota, but like most Med sailors I spent some time there. I fell in love with Paella when we pulled into Benidorm on my second med cruise. One day after I retired I had a craving for that favorite Spanish dish and and found your website. Now I get all my supplies from you guys. It's just a bonus that you're a two hour drive if I ever need to get paella rice on short notice. "
"Six Med cruises!!!! What a greet privilege. What ships were you on? I married Ruth on Thanksgiving weekend in Long Beach CA. We flew across the country to Washington where I anticipated a two year tour with the Ceremonial Guard at Arlington National Cemetary. But after two months the Navy had other ideas and assigned me to the seven ships of Destroyer Division 222 heading for the Med from Norfolk. Ruth was stuck in an unknown city with piles of packing boxes ans I went sailing away. I must admit I felt very guilty leaving my bride --especially when the Med cruise was fabulous with unending new ports! That was when I discovered Spain. Our first port was Palma de Mallorca, although the liberty options for the crew were restricted by Franco's conservative government. It seems that the submarine crew before us were caught running naked on the beach! But of course as a chaplain I have lots of entertaining stories about sailors. Do come and see us in Williamsburg. I am usually at our great store (in a hundred year old potter's studio) on the weekends. Don"
Reflexiones en Español
Cuando nuestra familia fundó La Tienda hace ya quince años, Ruth y yo pensamos que, tras la jubilación, estábamos creando una pequeña empresa en la que poder trabajar junto a nuestros hijos y con la que de alguna manera compartir nuestro amor por España. Los primeros días de La Tienda se desarrollaron con Jonathan en el sótano a diario, aprendiendo sobre el nuevo mundo de internet.
Era invierno cuando empezamos a apilar los primeros jamones serranos en nuestro garaje. Aún recuerdo cargar en mi vehículo unos cuantos jamones a la vez para llevarlos al servicio local de mensajería de UPS y enviarlos a nuestros clientes. Mientras estábamos a la espera de jamones, nuestros primeros clientes iban solicitando otras delicias españolas como aceite de oliva virgen extra, queso manchego, conservas de bonito, algunas de sus salsas preferidas y arroz especial para paella. En nuestra primera 'oficina' en el piso superior de la consulta de un dentista, almacenamos todos estos productos en improvisados estantes de tableros de 2x8 sobre bloques de cemento.
Una vez que La Tienda comenzó a crecer, nuestro hijo Tim pudo unirse a nosotros a horario completo. Aportó su gran experiencia en comercio a través de internet que había adquirido durante los tres años en los que dirigió su propio dot.com. Los dos hermanos y yo continuamos trabajando día a día.
Hoy en día contamos con un almacén climatizado en donde todos los productos provenientes de España se almacenan en óptimas condiciones. Cada día enviamos cientos de pedidos a hogares repartidos por todo el país. Los estantes de 2x8 y los jamones apilados en el garaje son sólo un divertido recuerdo.
¿Cómo se desarrolló esta maravillosa historia?
Existen dos factores íntimamente relacionados. El primero es que desde hace muchos años he fomentado en mi familia la estima por la idiosincrasia española y por su diversidad de formas de vida. El segundo es que con la llegada de internet, nuestro profundo conocimiento y entusiasmo por España y su gastronomía podían ser extendidos de una forma más amplia.
Ruth y yo hemos estado implicados en la cultura española la mayor parte de nuestra vida de casados. Todo comenzó en 1965 cuando recién casado y siendo ya capellán de la Armada, descubrí a la gente de España en mi primer destino en aguas del Mediterráneo. A lo largo de los años Ruth yo, y luego nuestra familia, hemos disfrutado conociendo a cientos de esmerados labradores y artesanos que elaboran sus productos a la manera tradicional. Es todo un placer conocerlos personalmente y partir el pan junto a ellos.
Sin embargo, no hemos sido exclusivamente viajeros. Nuestro hijo Christopher nació en 1975 mientras vivíamos en El Puerto de Santa María, ciudad cercana a la base naval de Rota. En aquellos tiempos, su hermano mayor Tim asistía a El Centro Inglés, un colegio bilingüe de Primaria. Años más tarde Tim regresó a España para pasar el verano en un hogar sevillano. Su hermano Jonathan pasó dos meses de vacaciones peregrinando los 1.000 kilómetros del Camino de Santiago desde Francia y a él volvió en su luna de miel. También Chris retornó para pasar un verano en La Coruña.
Nuestro amor por España continúa creciendo. Es sorprendente pensar que es poca la gente que, incluso viviendo en España, haya visitado más de sus regiones que nosotros. No obstante, nada de lo que hemos conseguido podría haberse hecho realidad de no haber sido por la llegada de los ordenadores y la pujante tecnología de internet.
En 1968, viví una desalentadora experiencia que me hizo darme cuenta del valor de los ordenadores que, por entonces, acababan de entrar en escena. Yo era un joven capellán destinado en el campo de entrenamiento de Guarda Costas en Alameda y debía comprender la cultura juvenil emergente en el área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Así pues, les pedí a los reclutas-qué otra mejor fuente- que me proporcionaran un listado confidencial de sus conductas y valores personales.
Se trataba de un material de valor incalculable, pero desgraciadamente, no existía ningún marco informático capaz de analizar todos aquellos datos. ¡Tuve que esperar varios años antes de poder entregar mis montones de tarjetas perforadas de IBM a UNIVAC, uno de los primeros ordenadores de la Universidad de Standford!
La entrada en el mercado a través de internet fue progresión natural para nuestra familia. Mientras Ruth y yo criábamos a nuestros inquisitivos niños, nos mantuvimos siempre atentos a la cultura informática. En 1984 les compramos a nuestros hijos Tim, Jonathan y Chris un ordenador Coleco ADAM Commander. Funcionaba con una cinta magnética, 64K de RAM y tenía una impresora de matriz de puntos. Se vendía junto con una beca de 500 dólares para la universidad que nunca se hizo realidad puesto que la empresa quebró un par de años más tarde.
Muchos de ustedes recordarán los comienzos de los ordenadores con conexiones por línea conmutada, disquetes flexibles de 8, 5,5 y 3 pulgada, pantallas que se congelaban y molestos fallos de aplicaciones. Corría el verano de 1995 cuando Microsoft lanzó Windows 95 e Internet Explorer para navegar en la red. En 1995 Amazon vendió su primer libro en su "librería virtual." Un poco más tarde, en 1996, nuestra familia lanzó www.tienda.com
Cuando nos reunimos como familia para lanzar La Tienda, nuestro hijo mayor, Tim, ya se había licenciado en Asuntos Latinoamericanos, y estaba empleado en una empresa jamonera de Smithfield en Virginia. Nuestro segundo hijo, Jonathan, era un escultor recién salido de la universidad, y su hermano menor, Chris, se encontraba terminando su licenciatura con especialidad secundaria en español – los tres cursaron sus estudios en William & Mary College.
Tras jubilarme en 1988, nos mudamos a Williamsburg, Virginia, que quizás sea la ciudad con el ambiente más inglés de todos los Estados Unidos. Para convertir la casa en nuestro nuevo hogar, la decoramos con muchos recuerdos de España. Entre los cambios que llevamos a cabo, decidimos colocar azulejos clásicos andaluces en los cuartos de baño, cocina, salón y contorno de la chimenea.
Como pueden imaginarse, se nos hizo complicado encontrar cualquier tipo de azulejo de auténtico diseño de la Alhambra en los Estados Unidos. Cuando por fin encontramos el suministro, llenamos la casa de tanta belleza que decidimos brindar esa fortuna a otros ciudadanos de Estados Unidos que compartieran nuestro aprecio por los azulejos moriscos.
Entonces se nos presentó un reto: estos entusiastas de la cultura española no se encontraban concentrados en ninguna zona en particular sino que, al contrario, se hallaban desperdigados por todo el continente. Aprovechamos la oportunidad del momento: a través de la tecnología conocida como 'internet,' podíamos hacernos visibles a todos de manera instantánea. Así nació LaTienda.com.
Jonathan se convirtió en un autodidacta y aprendió a diseñar páginas web y a presentar los azulejos andaluces en un atractivo formato para nuestro portal de LaTienda.com. Un día su hermano Tim volvió de su trabajo en la jamonera de Smithfield con una brillante idea que se le ocurrió tras servir de intérprete para un productor de jamón serrano español que visitaba la planta.
Su idea era añadir una fotografía de un jamón serrano a las de azulejos con una pregunta: "¿Le gustaría comprar uno de estos jamones si se los pudiéramos proporcionar?" ¡Era la pregunta que los entusiastas de la gastronomía española estaban esperando! En el espacio de unos días recibimos mensajes llenos de entusiasmo de diferentes puntos del país, y nos dimos cuenta que los azulejos eran buena idea pero el jamón era mucho mejor. Estábamos en el buen camino.
El siguiente paso era disuadir a un productor español para que exportara jamón serrano a América. Así que pasamos las siguientes Navidades en España buscando una empresa dispuesta. Todo funcionó de forma increíble y para finales de 1997 LaTienda.com entregó el primer jamón serrano a un cliente de América gracias a internet.
Mientras nuestros deseosos clientes esperaban noticias sobre el jamón serrano, también nos solicitaban sus productos españoles favoritos, desde Cola-Cao y Nenuco, que evocaban recuerdos de su niñez, hasta queso manchego viejo y bacalao. No hemos parado de añadir productos a la lista desde entonces – ahora ofrecemos alrededor de mil productos. A la vez, siempre me gustó mantener informados a nuestros clientes publicando un boletín mensual – ¡el predecesor de esta carta que ahora les escribo!
Ruth y yo damos gracias sobre todo por nuestra familia. Pero también es muy satisfactorio ver cómo nuestro pequeño sueño se ha revelado un deleite para nuestros clientes y un gran apoyo para varios cientos de familias en España. Nos satisface haber colaborado a introducir el concepto de España en América junto a otros pioneros de la idea como el chef José Andrés.
Agradecemos con humildad que nuestra pequeña empresa se haya convertido en el mayor proveedor de comida española de América. Permaneciendo fiel a nuestros valores, nos esforzamos por ayudar a conservar una forma de vida en España que se sustenta en gran parte gracias a la demanda del mercado de masas. Apoyamos a estos amigos españoles para que puedan continuar elaborando sus tradicionales productos naturales. Nuestro recorrido continúa siendo maravilloso y les agradecemos su apoyo.