Taste of Spain

Southern Living


March 31, 2008

Don Harris's passion for Spain turned into a family affair and a successful business.
Nick Patterson

Don Harris loves Spain so much he brings it home with him one piece at a time.

He shares this obsession with family and friends through his retail business-La Tienda: The Best of Spain in America in Toano, Virginia.

People who live near the unadorned storefront near Williamsburg may not even know it's there. But Spanish immigrants know "the shop"-which is what the name La Tienda means. Others who appreciate Spanish food and culture as much as Don have discovered it too.

Many of Don's customers - 80,000 a year buy from his Web site - are equally committed to introducing Spanish culture to Americans. Those customers include high-end establishments such as Blackberry Farm, celebrity chef Mario Batali, and famed Spanish chef Jose Andres of the Washington, D.C.-based restaurant Jaleo.

"The Harris family has a tremendous passion for Spain and Spanish food and wine, and they have turned that passion into a suc­cessful business," Jose says. "No one can doubt the role La Tienda has played opening the American market to Spanish products."

Espana Exported-- Among the 600-plus products La Tienda carries, none was more eagerly awaited than the Jamon Iberico, a ham made from Spain's black pigs. The ham literally melts in your mouth, but its price tag is what may leave your jaw dangling. Depending on which variety you choose, Jamon Iberico runs $800 to $1,600 per ham. And it's sought after by those in the know.

Until recently, it's been illegal to sell Jamon Iberico in the U.S. because of USDA regulations. But late last year, the venture called Fermin USA, which includes Jose, Spanish producer Santiago Martin, and investing partners Rogers Collection, succeeded in importing Jamon Iberico. Now La Tienda, which had a waiting list of 400 buyers eager to get their hands on the hard-to-come-by hams, is one of the few places you can buy it.

"As one of the major retailers of Spanish products in America, we expect La Tienda will sell plenty of our Iberico ham to American consumers," Jose says. "My chefs at Jaleo order many Spanish products from La Tienda. We have an ongoing conversation about products that are available, products we want. La Tienda also was very supportive during the filming of Jose Made in Spain, my new show for public television. We work together because we all share the same mission of bringing the best of Spain to America."

Amor Por Espana -- The arrival of the ham represents a dream come true for Don, whose affection for the country began years ago when he was stationed there as a chaplain in the U. S. Navy. "We loved the warmth of the people," Don says. The atten­tion lavished on family and social occasions in Spain, which often revolve around food, also captivated the Harrises.

When Don retired, he and his wife, Ruth, built their home in Williamsburg and began trying to recapture that way of life. The result is a business in which the Harrises work alongside their sons and their families dealing in "all Spanish, only Spanish" goods.

They began with Spanish tiles and incorporated them into their own home, before trying their hands at importing and selling them through the Web site they created in 1996. "We started getting a response from Spaniards in the states," Don says.

Meanwhile, son Tim brought the idea of importing Jamon Serrano, a pink pig that's less expensive than those that wind up as Jamon Iberico but still prized in Spain and also legal in the U.S. When they put a picture of Jamon Serrano onto their Web site, the response was huge. That led to customers recommending other Spanish food items and eventually to the creation of La Tienda.

"We started with no money," Don recalls. "We were trying to devise something to do together. At the beginning, Ruth and I thought it would be just a nice little cottage industry. It turned out to be far more."

Foodie Nation -- The shop filled a need as Spanish immigrants in this country hungered for a taste of home. "Spaniards are very food-oriented," Don says, adding that conversations over meals big and small dominate daily life in Spain. "These social interactions with food are very important to them. So when they come to the U.S. - it's not. People eating sandwiches at their desks. People eating fast food. They felt very lonely, and that's why there was a great response."

Responding to that need, La Tienda grew and expanded repeatedly into larger and more suitable locations. Now the store stocks mostly food and wine, as well as kitchenware, ceramics, gift baskets, and cookbooks. Don maintains an online newsletter, telling stories of Spaniards living in traditional ways, alert­ing customers to new products, and per­petuating a link between cultures.

Culture of Home -- Similar changes have finally made the Iberico "super ham" importable to America. As important as that is to the bottom line and to the hundreds who crave the delicacy, La Tienda is about more. The success of the business depends on continually reflecting an appreciation of Spanish values, Don says.

"The virtue of traditional Spain is their commitment to children and families and support of one another," Don says. "Our appeal is that we're very knowledgeable of Spain and Spanish products. The people who we get the products from are colleagues and friends. So the whole tone of this is fam­ily. People like that. We like that."

La Tienda: The Best of Spain in America: www.latienda.com or 1-800-710-4304.

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