James City's La Tienda imports food, exports help to Spain

JAMES CITY — Spain has given much to Tim Harris and his family, who own La Tienda, a food importer with locations in Toano and on Jamestown Road.

"We import a lot of Spanish food, so we thought we should give something back," he said Wednesday at La Tienda's showcase store. Spain needed the help.

"They were hit much worse by the economic downturn than we were in the U.S." Harris said. "Unemployment in Spain is still over 30 percent."

He said that led to La Tienda coming up with a program in 2012 to help.

"We match whatever our clients are willing to donate," Harris said. "So far we've been able to raise and contribute about $70,000."

The money is contributed directly to Spanish food banks to make sure it goes to those who really need the help.

That's quite an accomplishment for a family that, according to La Tienda founder Don Harris, is "without a drop of Spanish blood."

Don Harris, Tim's father, explains the connection on La Tienda's website:

"We were a Navy family. Ninety days after Ruth and I were married in Long Beach, and we were settling into our assignment in Washington, I was ordered to be the chaplain to a destroyer squadron which was bound for the Mediterranean for six months.

"Ruth was left among a pile of moving boxes in Norfolk," he continued. "It turned out to be a blessing, as my Spanish port calls changed our lives. There, for the first time, I experienced the traditional Spanish culture where family ties are strong and children are cherished."

Customer April Spaniol of Charlottesville wrote to Don Harris, explaining that her husband was stationed in Spain for five years while in the Navy.

"My heart aches for Spain and my friends made there. We plan to go back again for visits but coming upon your site brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for your foresight in creating something so wonderful."

La Tienda has built its business around imported Spanish cuisine, particularly high-end hams that sell for hundreds of dollars. Some sell for as much as $1,200 and come wrapped in a black velvet bag.

That led to an unusual business problem. Much of La Tienda's business was concentrated in the holiday period spanning October-December, when demand is high for its Spanish hams.

Harris said the business has made from progress on that front.

"I think that's always going to be our strongest time, but we've been able to improve our summer business by adding various kinds of paella, which is a summer dish over there. We've also added products that are meant for the grill," he said.

He said the business got some ideas, not all of which have been implemented yet from a consulting program with students from the Mason School of Business.

"They suggested that we target exchange student and that we broaden our basket outside the holidays, Harris said. "That's a really good program."

While much of La Tienda's business is mail order, there's also a walk-in retail store and a wholesale business.

Wednesday, as Harris was being interviewed, a Richmond restaurateur, David Bess – who owns three restaurants, including Cha Cha's Cantina and Torrero Tapas Bar and Grill — was in the retail store buying supplies for his restaurants. He told Harris that he uses a lot of La Tienda's products at his restaurants and Harris said that the business may begin making delivery runs to Richmond soon.