Navy chaplain's love for Spain sparked flourishing import food business

Daily Press


March 3, 2010

Mark St. John Erickson

Two credit cards, a Web site and a single product may not seem like the most promising way to start a business.

But when retired Navy chaplain Don Harris and his eldest son, Tim, began selling imported serrano ham via the Internet in late 1996, they tapped into a pent-up appetite for traditional Spanish food that has been nothing short of voracious.

Even more unexpected was the booming retail demand that crowded the tiny showroom they opened after moving their company — La Tienda, or "The Store" — into a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Toano in 2004.

As their online and catalog business prospered and grew to more than 700 products, so did the burgeoning stream of customers who walked through their door in search of Spanish olive oils, cheeses, hams and tuna.

That's why the flourishing family enterprise expanded again in December, adding not just a new and much larger retail outlet but also a prime location just outside Williamsburg.

"We never had a real store before now," says Harris, whose 3,600-square-foot building on Jamestown Road represents an ambitious foray into the world of bricks and mortar.

"But we had people coming from as far as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore to shop in our little warehouse showroom."

An alumnus and former Episcopal chaplain at the College of William and Mary, Harris got his first taste of Spain in the mid-1960s as a young Navy officer serving aboard a destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea.

His first port of call after crossing the Atlantic from Norfolk was the joint American and Spanish naval base at Rota on the Bay of Cadiz. A few years later, he was stationed there with his wife and growing family, whom he quickly moved into a nearby town — El Puerto de Santa María — famed for its food and proximity to the Andalusian wine country.

"Almost as soon as I walked off the boat, I said, 'This feels like home,'" he recalls.

"I fell in love with their culture — especially their strong sense of family. And after we moved there with the kids, the more we saw, the more we liked it — the towns, the villages, the different parts of the country. It was a real grounding."

So strong did those bonds become that — even after moving on to other duty stations — Harris and his family returned to Spain whenever they could for extended visits.

And they always stocked up on the traditional Spanish products they missed from their days in El Puerto.

"We'd come back with suitcases full of things we just couldn't find in the U.S.," he says. "Soap, cookies, tuna — everything. You name it!"

Not until after Harris retired from the Navy and moved to Williamsburg, however, did he consider importing the things he and his family loved and selling them in America through an Internet business.

His first product was not food but rather traditional Spanish ceramic tiles, which he and his wife had searched for long and hard after deciding to recreate a bit of their adopted culture inside their house.

Though that venture went virtually nowhere, it attracted a lot of attention from Spanish expatriates living in the U.S., Harris says. That's one reason why his son Tim, who was working as a translator for Smithfield Foods in Spain, suggested adding the country's famous serrano ham to the home page.

"We immediately got more than 200 replies," the elder Harris says. "They really wanted it. It's the emblematic food of Spain — and then they started to ask if we could get them other things."

Today, La Tienda stocks more than 800 items ranging from prized Iberico hams and Spanish sherries to olive oil, tuna, paprika, Galician bread and Manchego cheeses.

Though its customer base is still made up largely of Spanish expatriates, military and former tourists longing for a taste of the Iberian peninsula, about half are food lovers who have never been to Spain yet still recognize the rare culinary treats found in the Harrison's carefully selected stock of artisan and family-made food products.

Two brothers make one of their Manchego cheeses — and they buy their sheep's milk directly from the shepherds, Harris says. A single farm family and their neighbors supply the store with celebrated Spanish saffron, while one man and his family make all of La Tienda's jams and jellies.

"The whole philosophy behind this business is that families are important — and if we can find a way to support them with our business, we will," says Harris, who has handed over much of the company's daily operations to two of his sons and their wives.

"That's one of the reasons we've succeeded in Spain. People take us out to lunch to see if they can trust us and — when they see that we share the same values — they'll do business over a handshake. We don't have any contracts."

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