How a chorizo factory in Queens became the go-to destination for the world’s greatest Chefs
Two raw-milk cheeses from Spain, available at Despaña Brand Foods. Andrew Malloy/©ICEX
Author: Andrew Malloy©ICEX
In the heart of SoHo, there is a place where one can escape the fast pace and frenetic energy of New York City and enter food paraíso. A place where old world charm meets modern, where Spaniards feel at home, and where New Yorkers feel as though they’re on foreign land–Welcome to Despaña.
Despaña is not only a retail store open to the general public, but also the must-visit place for chefs and restaurateurs alike. The stylish retail store in SoHo specializes in Spanish food items and groceries- from classics such as chorizo, Serrano ham and over 50 types of cheeses to grocery items like the crowd-pleasing chocolate drink mix Cola Cao and the popular horchata, Chufi is the brand here, a popular sweet drink that originated in Valencia and is made from tiger nuts.
Since Despaña’s popularity has increased, chefs who shop at the popular market often create and/or modify recipes and tweak menus according to what ingredients and products are available at this reputable importer.
Even though co-owner Angelica Intriago downplays their role as tastemakers, there is no question that Despaña has become the destination for star chefs, restaurants, and of course, Spaniards who want to reconnect with their country and taste familiar flavors from childhood.
We sat down with Angelica who shared how she and her husband turned a tiny chorizo factory in Queens called Northen Boulevard Corporation into the Despaña brand, and subsequently the Despaña flagship store in SoHo. The gourmet shop recently opened a brand new “Comedor”, an area where costumers can enjoy bocadillos (Spanish type of sandwich) and tortillas (Spanish omelette, main ingredients are eggs and potatoes) made fresh daily.
How did Despaña begin?
Our business started 20 years ago as Northern Boulevard Corporation in Queens when my husband Marcos Intriago and a business partner bought what was initially a chorizo factory. All they manufactured at the time was chorizo and morcilla (black sausage) and they sold those items exclusively to restaurants.
How did it go from selling to restaurants to the general public?
As the business was growing we started opening on Saturdays only for retail. It was very small with no storefront. Soon after, we realized that there was a need for retail so we fixed the storefront and started opening during the week. It was a very nice ambiance and it became and still is a meeting place for Spaniards to reminisce and meet their friends in the neighborhood, have a glass of wine and some cheese.
How important is it -bringing people together- to your business today?
Very much so, in fact when we opened Despaña in SoHo, many people asked us if we were going to close Northern Boulevard and we said absolutely not. That’s our heart, that’s what allowed us to open this store. People have shopped there for generations and we love to be able to bring them the flavors from their childhood like Cola Cao for example. It’s a nostalgia factor.
The Spanish customer comes in and already knows what they want, how about the American customer or anyone who is not familiar with these products?
Education is a big part of our job. The chefs already know what they want but the public often has questions “What are these white spots on the ham?” for example, so we teach our staff as much as we can, and it is a challenge because you have to find people who are passionate about food and Spain. I would say sampling is a very important part of our education process. Every time a customer comes in we have something for them to try and I think we’ve been successful because the products are good and speak for themselves. And when they are good people will buy it, and they’ll come back and tell their friends. Word of mouth is one of the reasons we’ve been successful and we’re very happy about that.And when they are good people will buy it, and they’ll come back and tell their friends. Word of mouth is one of the reasons we’ve been successful and we’re very happy about that.
Why do you think you were able to turn a tiny chorizo factory into a staple of Spanish culture in New York City?
I think creating our brand Despaña was a very important step. Despaña is a play on words, which means “from Spain”. We started banding our products and sponsoring events and always being present and answering questions and introducing new products to people. We wanted to be there ourselves because part of what makes Despaña what it is today is authenticity. We believe in our products and are proud to stick to our main idea and only sell products from Spain. Even when the Euro was going up, we were tempted by offers to sell products from South America but we stuck to Spanish products and the public as well as restaurants see authenticity as an added value to our brand.
Tell us about the “Comedor” and what does it add to the store?
When we opened the store 4 ½ years ago our architect who grew up in Madrid, told us we needed to serve food even if was something simple. So we started with bocadillos and people loved them and they became the pulling force for grocery products, from olive oil to cheese to honey. We don’t have a kitchen and we don’t want to open a restaurant so we stick to simple recipes that can be put together on our counter.
Even though people loved our sandwiches, they complained that there was only one small communal table available so we decided it was time to expand and create a large eating area, our “comedor”. And now people can sit down and eat with their friends. We’ve also added tortillas to our menu and they are extremely popular.
What are the most popular items you serve?
Our most popular items are the tortillas, bocadillos and flan (egg custard) for dessert. The “Picante” is our most popular bocadillo, which consists of chorizo picante, Mahon cheese (a cow’s milk cheese from the island of Menorca), spicy Guindilla peppers, and alioli on ciabatta bread, the following is the Despaña (Serrano ham, goat cheese with garlic and tomato spread).
You have opened a wine store next door, which is very exciting. What can we expect?
We couldn’t sell wine here because in New York there are so many strict rules about selling alcohol, so we thought we could open a wine store that would complement Despaña and the experience that we offer here. The store is just around the corner so that it will be easy to go from one to the other.
Are there any more projects you are working on?
We always say we have to have the next project in mind to stay fresh and relevant. It is New York and things change very fast. The wine store is it for now at least in this location. In the long run we do hope to open other Despañas, but not in the near future. Right now, we want to focus on our store and offer cooking classes and maybe invite chefs for special events and really focus on education.
How is your relationship with Chefs at Despaña?
When we were in Queens, a lot of chefs would not come to us, but Despaña gave us the jump and put us on the map, I think SoHo has a lot to do with it, it’s a great diverse neighborhood and very central. So now if a chef wants to change a particular cheese for example, they can come in and sample 50 different cheeses right here in our store and that has allowed us to have a closer relationship with chefs.
Do you think you end up having an influence on the chefs based on the ingredients that you offer?
Sometimes they’ll fall in love with a particular product we offer and they’ll create a new recipe and be inspired. We offer the ingredients, “la materia prima”, but they are the creators. As any chef will tell you, you can be as creative as you want, but if you don’t have great ingredients, the final product isn’t going to be great.
What are you most proud of?
I’m mostly proud of Despaña and what it has become and where we can go with it. It hasn’t been easy and in New York there is a lot of competition. I’m proud that restaurants choose our products and keep recommending us to their colleagues and to our community. The other day, Ferran Adrià came into our store. It was a total surprise and I was like wow, he took time out of his busy schedule to see what we have. We are a little bit of Spain and the recognition from chefs and from people who keep coming in and recommending our products is what I’m mostly proud of.
Andrew Malloy is a journalist and photographer who lives in New York.