Our Story: La Tienda Turns 20

Don Harris | September 2016

When I look back on my Navy career, I have so many warm memories of seagoing life and foreign ports. The best was being with the Spanish people in their homeland. From the first, I was attracted by their inclusiveness and commitment to family.

Early in my career, my wife Ruth and I traveled frequently to Spain to get to know these warm and gracious people. In the 1970s I was stationed in Rota and lived in the beautiful sherry town of El Puerto de Santa Maria. During this time Ruth gave birth to our third son, our own native born Spaniard. We spent much of our free time traveling with our sons throughout Spain, especially the rural areas where the people were in sync with the seasons. 

In my book, The Heart of Spain, I include many stories of people we met through the years in Spain. They taught us that the foundation of any worthwhile relationship is the willingness to sit down together and share a meal, or to talk about life over a glass of wine at a tapas bar. Many of the products we have brought to America originated in that kind of personal interaction.

When I retired, our family settled in historic Williamsburg, Virginia - a handsome and orderly English town restored to its 18th-century beauty. However we missed the symmetry and beauty of Andalucia and her Moorish tiles. We decided to introduce a touch of Spain to our home, and looked until we found a source of tiles from Valencia. I was so excited that our search had been rewarded that I wanted others to gain from our research. 

We opened a ceramic tile shop, offering these bright and vibrant tiles to our local community. Meanwhile we launched our first website in 1996 (just a year after Amazon began selling books), offering these same tiles to customers across the country. We soon discovered that authentic Spanish ceramic tile was difficult to sell and even harder to ship! Yet at the same time, this new medium, the Internet, prompted an enthusiastic response from Spaniards living throughout the U.S. I am sure many were homesick Spanish expats longing for a piece of home.

Meanwhile, older brother Tim started a company taking tee time reservations, and was one of the first dot.com entrepreneurs in the country. Tim helped our nascent company with technology in his free time, while Jonathan was teaching himself how design and communication could reach a potential audience. A key was to determine what Spanish products customers would want. It clearly was not azulejos (tiles) in any quantity.

The answer was jamón. Tim came home for supper one day and suggested to Jonathan, “Why don’t you post a picture of a Spanish ham on our website and see if there is any interest?” This was when technology, design and product clicked.

There was an immediate response. Soon, more than one hundred people signed up to hear when we would have jamón, which at that time was prohibited from importation to the U.S. 

At the time, the Toledo-based company, Navidul, was working to export to the U.S. There were myriad new hurdles. The USDA wanted to place cooking instructions on each dry cured Jamón Serrano. Thankfully an Italian inspector stepped in and said that, like prosciutto, it did not need to be cooked. Later I had to drive to Washington, D.C., with samples of Spanish Serrano and Virginia smoke-cured country hams in the of backseat of my car to convince an official at the home office of the Department of Agriculture that mold on the jamón was a sign of aging, not spoiling (they sent a sample to Nebraska for testing to be sure).

While we worked with our Spanish partners to clear away these obstacles, we sent a monthly update to our enthusiastic Internet responders to keep them posted on our progress. That is how this newsletter began! (You can read twenty years-worth of stories on our website.)

This started a dialogue with Spain enthusiasts across the country. Many asked whether our family could source other Spanish favorites such as paella rice, extra virgin olive oil, chorizo and more. Some wanted sentimental products such as Nenuco bath cologne for their babies, or the familiar scent of a bar of Heno de Pravia soap. 

So we made friends with the small community of Spanish importers and food producers across the country and worked with them to provide such items as premium Spanish olive oil and handcrafted Manchego cheese. The Spanish importers were always helpful, and willing to sell us small quantities of goods. True to Spanish values we have made lifelong friends with some of them. 

Finally, in 1998, the very first Serrano hams were approved for sale in the United States! At first, we hung hams from the rafters in the basement of my home, next to shelves holding jars of piquillo peppers, Marcona almonds and paella rice. Jonathan and I did all of the packing and shipping ourselves. I remember a UPS van backing into our steep driveway so that we could load four or five shipments into the back.

During the next period of time, our small business grew quickly, requiring us to relocate almost every year. We went from our house to a suite above a dentist’s office, with 20 steps for the delivery person to negotiate with a hand truck full of boxes. Next we had a storefront where we lined the hallway with shelves of goods and stored perishables in second-hand refrigerators. After that we moved to a modest unheated warehouse space, and the next year to a building Tim found for us to buy, quite a ways out of town. The cinder block office building was less than impressive (once the ceiling tiles fell down while we were working!), but the important component was a separate, ample and air-conditioned warehouse. 

By this time, Tim had joined La Tienda full time, along with our wives and a few employees. This young team was tested during hurricane Isabel of 2003. Isabel was severe, causing closed highways and no electricity for two weeks! Tim and Jonathan were away in Spain, and Ruth and I were marooned in our house with a downed tree blocking our street.

On their own initiative, our employees saved the day: they found several of their neighbors in the foodservice industry who were willing to help out by providing refrigerated space in their own establishments at various places around town. They located a generator to buy and installed it, and when they were done, they even came to check on Ruth and me to make sure we were safe. We were touched by their loyalty and teamwork, and one couple owns several flourishing restaurants here in town over 10 years later.

We continued to work on growing our list of artisan products, traveling across Spain to visit producers. We added hundreds of new items, and we reached a size where we could import directly. But one product was still elusive – Jamón Ibérico, the crown jewel of Spanish cuisine. This very special ham can only be made using pork from indigenous black Ibérico pigs. Because there was no USDA approved slaughterhouse for this breed, the hams were not available in the U.S. We decided to start offering pre-orders, hoping to prove to our Spanish suppliers that there was a market for this premium ham here. 

The response was overwhelming - hundreds of customers placed a deposit of $199 each for the privilege of receiving the first Ibérico hams to reach our shores. Our effort even made front page news in The Wall Street Journal! Finally, in 2007, the family curing house Jamones y Embutidos Fermín made history by being the first exporter of Ibérico hams to America.

We now have hundreds of wonderful suppliers in Spain, most of them small family companies committed to sharing the heritage of Spanish cuisine with the world. From our humble beginnings in my home basement, we now have a warehouse where our great team carefully packs and ships hundreds of boxes every day. To this day, we count on our wonderful customers and suppliers to help us discover new foods and cookware from Spain. We are continually grateful to everyone who has helped La Tienda grow and thrive.

The company is still a labor of love for our family. Our two oldest sons continue to shepherd the family business, and we all live in the same neighborhood. Amongst them, our three sons have given us six beautiful grandchildren, two boys and four girls. Our youngest son and his wife are in the U.S. State Department Foreign Service, having just moved from Madrid to Costa Rica. They keep involved as much as possible, and we look forward to visiting them soon. 

Thanks to our great customers, our fine employees and our local community, La Tienda is now able to import directly from Spain, ship from a modern warehouse and welcome people to our retail shop and tapas bar in Williamsburg. We try to honor our commitment to family, which is so basic to the Spanish way of life. We know virtually all our producers by name, and during the past twenty years have greatly enjoyed visiting them where they live and work in Spain. We thank you for supporting our mission to help support and share the wonderful artisan traditions that are at the heart of the Spain we love.

Tu amigo,