In a world where people career-hop more often than not, Angélica Intriago has been working at Despaña Brand Foods since she moved back to the United States from Italy in 2001. She had no intentions on working there long-term, but she ended up falling in love with Despaña in more ways than one—she married owner Marcos Intriago—and eventually became co-owner.
Despaña Brand Foods is a New York–based importer, wholesaler and a chorizo facility that has been around since 1970. In 2006, they opened the flagship Fine Foods & Tapas Café, then the wine shop in 2011, and the Princeton location in 2013. Intriago calls it a bridge between New York and Spain.
Maybe you just got back from vacationing, living, or studying abroad in Valencia and you’re craving mussels in pickled sauce for a throwback snack. Well, you can’t get more Spanish than Despaña—the only items in the store that aren’t imported are Coca-Cola (because customers were asking for it) and the chorizo it produces at its Jackson Heights factory.
We sat down with Intriago to talk about why she fell in love with Despaña, carving jamón, and what it means to serve authentic Spanish fare in a city like New York.
What Should We Do?!: So we want to know about your love story. We know how you met Marcos [at Despaña], but how did your relationship come to be?
Angélica Intriago: When I started, I was single and working at this company [Despaña] that I saw had huge potential; I loved it, but I wasn’t planning to stay long-term. I had just come back from living in Italy, and even though I had traveled throughout all of Europe, I had never gone to Spain before. So it was something new for me; I learned all about jamón and Spanish cheese and I worked a lot. I spent a lot of time and hours in the office with Marcos. We talked about many different things and, you know, our friendship evolved. Besides being my boss, he became a man whom I learned to admire. I didn’t realize that I was falling in love with the man as I was falling in love with the company. I was like, Wow! He is amazing; he is accomplished and has done so many different things throughout his life.
It was after September 11—his business partner had passed away—and it was a moment of change and closeness in a different sense. It helped us to come together, and I realized I wished this man could do the many things he wanted to—that’s how I fell in love with Marcos. I think it was one of those things when you’re not looking for love and it just hits you and you’re like: Am I really falling in love with someone double my age? And that’s another question that a lot of people have unless they know us personally. Marcos is a lot older than me. Obviously it’s not a conventional marriage, which is OK for me, because I was sure that he was the person for me. I just knew it.
WSWD: Why did you fall in love with Despaña?
Intriago: I’ve always considered myself someone who liked to go out and try different things. I prefer going to markets and learning about cultures through eating over bars or dancing. Despaña fell right into that. When I first started working, it was at a restaurant that originated in Barcelona; the chef was from the Basque region and I was learning about Spanish food. After waitressing, I found this job at Despaña, working with these two men who were just getting an office. It was back in 2001, so we had no Internet or a phone line. It was a small company—it still is, but of course it’s grown—and I was the first woman to be hired there. I was this young girl who came into the company and was trying to do things manually around the factory. Everything was perfect for me as the grounds to learn and grow. That’s what I liked about the company; I saw a lot of potential in things that I could maybe bring forth with enthusiasm. Also, as someone who spoke the language [Spanish], we had less difficulty communicating and it was easier for me to fit in and feel important. That makes you want to stay in a place, especially when you’re seeing people react positively to what you’re doing. It was funny, because the office was, well, a chorizo factory. It wasn’t remodeled [when I started that November], so it was freezing and the smell of pork filled the air. I had to wear gloves, and we shared a small desk. I remember thinking: I don’t know what I’m doing here; it’s all men and it’s not what I envisioned for myself. But it changed as the weeks and months went by. I even got a call to interview for a job that I had wanted, but I turned it down so I could stay at Despaña. Here I am, 17 years later.
WSWD: What has growing Despaña been like?
Intriago: When you’re building a business in New York City, there are a lot of growing pains, I think, that don’t look as hard from the outside looking in. When I started, I wanted to make a difference and do something where I felt I had a voice, and an important one at that. I think it came from the basis of people thinking, Well, of course she came into the business and had it all planned. But I’ve always been somebody who wanted to get things done on her own. Yes, I’ve had a lot of luck in my life and opportunities presented to me that I’ve been able to grab and run with. Building the space in Soho was my opportunity to take an idea and run with what I’ve learned from Marcos and Jose. I wanted to give Despaña a twist and wanted to make it bigger. I think I made it my own in the sense that I’m the face here, I’m here all the time…or I at least try to be here all the time. A lot of people would come in and say, “Who’s the owner here?” And I was cleaning glasses and was, like, me!
I enjoy listening and watching people’s reactions to our products. It also feels good when we travel to Seattle or California and people say, “Oh, my God, you’re from Despaña? I went there when I was in New York!” When you love what you do, it makes you want to work more and harder. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been a very rewarding journey; it really has been a labor of love.
We wanted people to really learn about Spain. People outside of Despaña don’t know what morcilla is; we wanted people to come in and ask, “What is morcilla?” and educate them on it.
WSWD: I actually don’t know what Morcilla is!
Intriago: It’s a blood sausage typically made in Burgos or Asturias, which is where our family is from. Dana [our project manager] once told me that we need to tell our consumers what’s in it and that it’s pork, it’s natural, and it’s different. It also happens to be one of our products that I enjoy most and love to sell. I think there is a fear factor in the name, too. When customers try it, though, you can see they love it in their eyes.
WSWD: What is important about transmitting your love of Spanish food and presenting it in a way that’s authentic in New York City?
Intriago: Before opening our Soho location, I had been traveling to Spain for five years. It’s all about learning and absorbing when you love something, kind of like a book that you love and finish in two days. I traveled, went to food fairs, bought things, and asked many questions. I asked myself: What do you want to do? And the answer was we had to make it about Spain. It has to be the bridge between New York City and Spain. We represent basic ingredients because we’re simple and Spain has great-quality foods that don’t need masking. You don’t need to pour a sauce or cook jamón, because you taste things for what they are. Simplicity, that’s one of the biggest things Despaña stands for. Another key concept that we have at our original storefront on Northern Boulevard is sampling. We give samples of our chorizo, and when people try it, they like it nine times out of 10. So that has been the authenticity of Spain.
A lot of people ask why we haven’t branched out to doing Portuguese. I say because we’re specialists in Spanish food and we’re going to keep that focus to make it even more specialized in a way that maintains the essence of Spain. I feel lucky to say that in New York City, we’ve made our mark with our slice of Spain.
WSWD: You guys were the first place to sell jamón carved by hand in New York!
Intriago: Yes! Despaña happened to be one of the first do that. We also have classes at our Soho location. It’s by appointment and it’s one-on-one training. I think it’s a unique experience that people enjoy. You have to invest in a whole piece of ham. The idea behind it is telling people not to be afraid of grabbing that knife, showing them exactly how you carve it, and what you can do with it so you don’t waste it. Jamón carving is also a tradition in Spain; to bring that and offer it here to non-Spaniards is so special. When we first started offering classes, we were so surprised that we had a waiting list! People from all different backgrounds come in and do it.
WSWD: Do you remember the first time you ever carved jamón?
Intriago: I do, and it was scary; the knife was very sharp! I remember admiring how jamón was carved. It’s not that easy and it takes practice; you need to follow a technique. I recall the first time I did it at Despaña. I was taught in front of a group. I carve once in a while now, but it’s an art that needs to be practiced regularly. The key to it is to get slivers from different sections, from top to bottom. You get complexity that you don’t get in presliced jamón. When you’re eating one that’s carved by hand, you get many different flavors and textures and every piece of the jamón is used up.
WSWD: Which location is most special to you?
Intriago: The Soho locations are my babies; they have my seal on them. If anything goes wrong or right, it’s on me. I also think Soho is just a wonderful neighborhood. If we were to have opened somewhere else, perhaps it wouldn’t have been as successful as it was here. It’s a community that travels often, loves new experiences, and can eat and drink. The architect that designed the Soho space is from Madrid, too. Also, our daughter was two years old when this location opened, so she’s grown up with our Soho store.
WSWD: What’s your favorite wine that Despaña carries?
Intriago: You know, wine, like food, is very personal; it’s called Quinta Da Muradella. I met the producer of this wine almost three years ago in Spain. It’s from Galicia, a region in Spain that I love and feel is under the radar.
WSWD: If we were to plan the perfect day in NYC for you, what would you do?
Intriago: The perfect day for me? Well, Marcos and I like to eat out a lot. For us, the best day is a Sunday. When I take a day off, I love going to Central Park. I think waking up late and planning a picnic is perfect. There’s no better feeling than taking your shoes off, walking in the grass, and looking at the buildings and people in the very early autumn. All I need is to pick a nice spot under a tree and have a bottle of wine. Being inside the middle of the city with nature and people is a perfect day for me.
Angélica Intriago’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Canelle Patisserie in Jackson Heights.
Place to take out-of-town guests?
A walk over the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset.
Staying home and playing cards or board games with my husband and daughter.
Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold.
McNally Jackson Books.
The Big City of Dreams mural at Broome and Centre Streets.
Care to learn how to carve jamón yourself? We’ll arrange a private class at their Soho location for you and a date.