La Tienda, a Family of Passion and Foods from Spain

Foods from Spain


August 1, 2012

A myriad of Spanish foods on the web
Rosa María González Lamas/©ICEX

In 1996, Bill Clinton was re-elected President of the United States and José María Aznar initiated his first period as Spain’s Prime Minister. That same year, Dolly the cloned sheep was born, and American consumers were for the first time able to purchase jamón serrano in the United States. It all began with a simple clever question: whether anyone might be interested in ordering a Serrano ham. That is what asked on its first website, a location in cyberspace they quickly began to fill with the flavors of the foods from Spain. Internet was just beginning to blossom those days and La was keen enough to get on a vehicle that soon attained the speed of Formula 1.

I wished La Tienda had existed in the late eighties when I lived in Washington, DC and a recently-opened La Taberna del Alabardero was one of the rare temples of Spanish cuisine in the city. Back then, when there was very little Spanish jaleo in the US capital, Internet was a rather unknown communications instrument, and there hardly were any other means of getting a paellera than bringing one straight from Spain. It did not take long before that began to change.

Some years later, Internet made its incursion in our lives and soon transformed the business scenario, becoming an ideal solution to reach consumers across the continental United States. La Tienda’s founders were smart to envision these possibilities, taking good advantage of a platform that opened the door not only to that cherished Serrano ham, but also to an untapped universe of other Spanish foods.

Tim Harris, co-owner of La, says to that his primary interest when founding the store in 1996 was to find a way to work collaboratively as a family, focusing on something they loved, which happened to be Spain.

“We actually began as a brick and mortar retail store selling Moorish tiles from Spain. I was working with a furniture company at the time and was integrally involved in launching their presence as the first furniture store on the Internet. It seemed to be a natural fit for me to apply that knowledge to our family’s business and to develop an Internet presence for products from Spain, because we really launched La Tienda to share our passion for the country,” he remembers.

In 1996 food from Spain was virtually unknown in the United States. Spanish chefs were just arriving onto the food scene, and only some mass-produced dry goods could be found in grocery stores in few metropolises with a strong Hispanic population. Labeling was also a challenge for the American consumer.

Luckily, Spanish nationals who lived in the United States quickly reaffirmed their interest in being able to purchase Serrano ham. “Respondents were mostly men with Internet access in their respective places of employment because at that time, Internet access was uncommon at home”, Harris adds on. Starting with that consumer base, La Tienda established a relationship with an importer in New York who brought in the Navidul and then the Redondo Iglesias ham brands. This is how La Tienda became the first store in the United States to bring Serrano ham directly to consumers. A great achievement considering it only was later that Spanish Ibérico ham and chorizo were first allowed in the United States.

The best of Spain

La Tienda began as a small shop staffed by only family members. Joining Serrano were some other dry goods as olive oil, piquillo peppers, or classical Cola Cao, along with some very traditional bath products. Today, La Tienda has significantly enlarged “family” and business, with a separate retail store, two warehouses -one of them in the Spanish city of Alicante (southeast Spain)- corporate offices in Spain and the United States with a crew of approximately 30 employees, and a product selection of dozens of dry and fresh goods, as well as specialized cooking and serving ware.

The store’s catalog is a path of pleasure that purveys a route of food directions to fulfill the delight of devouring a fascinating country. From the finest cured hams as Serrano and Ibérico, to other cured and fresh pork meats, sausages, authentic pre-baked breads from Galicia, an impressive display of extra virgin olive oils, a carefully chosen offer of favorite Spanish cheeses with designations of origin, plain and stuffed olives, traditional nougat and sweets, canned seafood, rice, spices as saffron and pimentón, fava beans, wines, almonds, peppers, asparagus or artichokes, there is an almost endless dimension of delectable Spanish pleasures that allow discriminating food lovers to embark on an imaginary journey through the sea and green lands along the Cantabrian Sea coast, the windmills of La Mancha, the bountiful rías gallegas famed for their sea flavors, the rice fields in the Mediterranean, the vineyards in Rioja, the olive groves in Andalusia, or the dehesas in Salamanca and Extremadura.

“Our mission is to support artisan producers in Spain and to help them preserve their traditional way of life. We are always on the lookout for authentic products made by small family companies, and also very interested in meats from humanely raised animals, so we look closely at the ethics involved in the production of goods,” declares Harris.

Ninety percent of the product portfolio is purchased directly from the producer, while the remaining ten percent is secured through US distributors. This year, La expects to ship approximately 100,000 orders. The store delivers products to the continental United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and even Europe. Florida, Texas, New York, California as well as the cities of Minneapolis and Chicago are La’s top markets.

To reach as many different consumer audiences as possible, La Tienda has launched various retail and wholesale marketing programs addressing specific needs of these market groups.

The Affiliate Program allows companies who own web sites to bring their visitors the highest quality Spanish goods through a link to La Once registered, all purchases made on La that were referred from affiliate sales will receive an 8% commission of the sales price.

Club Tienda is a free-of-cost program that offers very best deals to La’s most loyal customers. These may include new items the store considers adding to its portfolio or special prices on products not normally carried by the store.

La also has a wholesale program for culinary professionals. “We love working with chefs. Culinary professionals have purchasing habits and demands that differ from our typical customer. Chefs are keenly aware of food product trends and are wonderfully inquisitive about new products. They are a great way for us to find new products. They can either place bulk orders or purchase small quantities that we can ship overnight, to ensure freshness,” explained Harris.

The company also sustains continued communications efforts with its clients and prospect customers with regular e-mails, a Flavors of Spain monthly newsletter, a printed catalog, seasonal promotions, and a presence on social networks, which Harris considers vital, as they are a predominantly online business.

Further Expansion

In addition to its online market, La has a La Tienda, a retail store in Williamsburg, Virginia which opens Monday through Saturday. To foster a closer consumer contact, La organizes an annual Paella Photo Contest on Facebook and hosts a huge paella celebration at their retail store, where it regularly also conducts complimentary food and wine tastings, in great demand by prospect customers and central to La Tienda’s retail business.

After pioneering the sales of Spanish breads, Serrano ham and Ibéricos to the American consumer, and also leading the way in popularizing other products as Spanish saffron, Pimentón de la Vera PDO or Bomba Calasparra Rice PDO, La Tienda is now interested in Spanish mushrooms and a wider variety of pastry and bakery products, as well as in exploring the possibilities of importing game offerings as duck and venison, not yet legally allowed. Harris considers the interest for Spanish food will continue to grow because of an American interest in returning to authentic cooking with fresh ingredients, and deriving from farms that use sustainable and ethical growing and raising methods.

What are Spanish foods still missing in North America? Harris believes Spain’s café culture. “Because our population is spread out, especially in the suburbs, and is not town-centered, as in Spain, we are missing those local cafés where people gather to meet with friends and family. With more Spanish restaurants serving tapas, pinchos, and with jamón hanging from the ceiling, this could really help increase exposure to Spanish products,” he asserts.

To keep promoting Spanish foods, the establishment is launching Learning@La Tienda an online resource designed to explore and appreciate Spanish cuisine and culture. Community involvement is strong and active.

Expansion plans? Harris admits they are so often approached about the possibility of franchising La Tienda’s retail store that they are actively considering franchising the retail concept throughout the United States.

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