La Tienda, Then and Now

Don Harris | September 2011

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 

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. was born. 

Jonathan taught himself web design, and arranged the display of Andalucian tiles in an attractive format for our 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, 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.

Su amigo,