Walk into any major supermarket in Madrid and you’ll find familiar American food items like Hunt’s barbecue sauce, Pringles potato chips, Chips Ahoy cookies, Oscar Mayer bacon and even Quaker oatmeal. But twenty years ago, there was hardly an American product in sight.
I think if we had known exactly what we were getting into, we might not have started.
Like most Americans living in Madrid in the early 90s, Dana Knowles would take an empty suitcase on trips back to the States and fill it with things that she missed. So when a couple of Spanish friends approached her about opening up a store that sold American products, she jumped on board and Taste of America was born.
Taste of America is something of an oasis for Americans living in Spain. You can easily find a limited selection of popular American food items on the shelves of El Corte Inglés or Carrefour for a quick fix, but to really curb your cravings for the taste of home, a visit to Taste of America is in order.
Dana and her Spanish partner Alicia Vañó started the company completely from scratch in 1995. Importing goods into Spain is a complicated commercial activity, and neither one of the women had set up a business before, “but with the combined efforts of our husbands — actually they work for our company now — we kind of navigated all the legal requirements for starting a business,” Dana recalls.
“I think if we had known exactly what we were getting into, we might not have started. There have been a lot of sleepless nights. We had a lot of money tied up in merchandise – perishable merchandise, things with an expiration date. And customs clearance, health department regulations, labeling requirements are very, very complicated.
“We have lots of stories over the years of products being sent for destruction. It’s pretty complicated. Now we have a biologist on our team who helps us review the boletin oficial del estado, to make sure all of the ingredients, the composition, and the percentages of preservatives and colorings are all apt for the European market.
“We’re absolutely positive that everything that we offer is acceptable in the European community.”
For 15 years, Taste of America owned and operated all of their stores — 3 in total. But 2 years ago, Dana and Alicia decided to start franchising their business and have opened 12 franchises so far.
“It took us a long time to get to the franchise point. You know our business is 17 years old so we’ve taken it slow for a long time. A lot of people, from the very beginning, asked about the master franchise and we didn’t want to go there until we had all of our infrastructure in place. So we felt like we had to be very certain that we could guarantee our franchisees a complete service.
“To do that, we had to really improve and work on our logistics, our volume planning, and our relationships directly with our suppliers. We had to improve our costs based on volume, based on better relationships with our suppliers and also our labelling and ingredient composition review.”
In addition to operating their own stores and handling franchise development, Taste of America does major distribution for large supermarket chains like El Corte Inglés and Carrefour and are the exclusive distributors for brands such as Pepperidge Farm, Newman’s Own, and AriZona among others.
A side project that came along is the development of their own branded products. “We see that we need bagels – a core product for us – why not private label and build a brand as well?,” says Dana. Now Taste of America has its own label syrup, nachos, and bagels, and with more product development in the works. They also have branded corners in El Corte Inglés.
Part of what makes Taste of America so successful is their responsiveness and sensitivity to their customers’ needs. While both Dana and Alicia select the products within their own areas of expertise, customers’ feedback plays a large role in what makes it to their shelves.
“From the very beginning, our customer feedback has been an important part of our selection process. Absolutely. And now with our more points of sale, we take a lot of time and effort to compile suggestions made by our customers. It’s not always possible to bring what they’re looking for but we really do take into account our customers’ comments and suggestions,” Dana explains.
In fact, each store keeps a special notebook so that if a customer requests something that might not be in stock, employees carefully jot it down. Those notebooks are reviewed by Dana and Alicia every month. It may not sound progressive in these days of the internet, but it works nicely.
When asked about the difficulties of doing business in Spain, Dana is quick to answer: bureaucracy.
“We find that a lot of our time is wasted because we’re filling out forms, compiling documents, inspections… We get inspections all the time. We get health and sanitary inspections. We get customs inspections in our warehouse… you know you’re going to get inspections past the point of entry but we get them in our warehouses as well. We get Ministerio de Trabajo inspections.
“I’ve mentioned a few,” she laughs, “but there are lots and lots of requirements and documentation that gets in the way. We do it. We’re very vigilant about it, but it’s a full time job.”
Surprisingly, 65-75% of Taste of America’s customers are Spanish. So what do these American prepared products offer a people who prefer making things from scratch? “They offer the opportunity to experience different culinary traditions in a very fast, easy and inexpensive way,” Dana says.
“The typical Spaniard might have thought of American food products as junk food. That’s the stereotype that’s out there. But more and more I think there’s a lot of curiosity, a lot of interest in these types of products. I think people are finding out that it doesn’t take away from the traditional Mediterranean diet but that it adds an aspect of easy, fun, interesting culinary experimentation in your kitchen.”
Easy, fun and interesting like cake decorating and baking, which Dana says is a category that’s been really growing in the last 2 years.
To further the idea of American products as easy, fun and interesting, Taste of America has an ambassador, Chef Carla from Le Cordon Bleu who organizes cooking workshops and teaches people how to use their products.
Certainly having a Spanish partner helps in starting up a business in Madrid. In addition, Dana hired a gestor and still uses one for all of the personnel tax filing and such.
But her advice to other people wanting to open a business in Madrid is to not be scared off by the bureaucracy. “It can be done. Don’t be frightened by the process because just like you eventually get your tarjeta de residencia, you’ll get your paperwork to start your business.”
I've been living in Madrid since 2007, married to a madrileño since 2008, and mom to our son since 2011. Tech is my thing. I love salmorejo, matrimonios and cazón adobado. I don't watch football.