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“When I first joined a leads group, the majority of leads I received were to Mexican restaurants,” Tina laments. “We want to turn people on to Spanish food, even if it’s not necessarily through our products.”

Ignacio Jimenez and Tina Rice-Jimenez

Ignacio Jimenez and Tina Rice-Jimenez launched their import business a little more than a year ago. Although the specific moment that inspired the business may be hard to nail down, its ultimate origin dates back to the 1980s, when Tina and Ignacio were students at the University of Denver.

“My car was stuck in front of the fieldhouse, and I had to get to my job. I was just trying so desperately to get it unstuck,” Tina says. “He came along in this letter jacket — he was on the swim team. He pushed my car out. I got out to thank him and thought, ‘Oh, he’s cute … and he has an accent.’”

Ignacio and Tina earned their degrees in 1988. She has a master’s degree in sports sciences and he has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

After marrying in the DU chapel, each obtained jobs in their respective fields. During those years, the two had a staple vacation destination: Spain. Ignacio was born there, and although he and his family migrated to Venezuela, he still had relatives in the European nation.

During their many trips, Ignacio and Tina would take along an empty suitcase and fill it with Spanish products: olives, olive oil, foodstuffs. Based on rave reviews from their friends, Ignacio originally proposed the plan of turning their hobby into an importation business. In late 2009, Ignacio and Tina launched www.iberiafoods.net and www.comidaespana.com. They have since experienced steady success, using a house in Denver’s Wash Park neighborhood for tastings and even supplying products to the new Cherry Creek Spanish eatery, Ondo’s.

However, anyone who starts a business knows that, during its infancy, the challenges can loom large.

As Tina puts it, doing business with companies in Spain she often encounters challenges with a certain factor: There is simply a pacing difference between American business and Spanish business. Waiting for a call to be returned or an order to be filled can take longer. Tina and Ignacio originally wanted to start the business in August, but that’s vacation time in Spain, when many people go on holiday.

“You learn that you can’t do much in Spain in August,” Tina said. “They’re not neurotic about business like we are. They have a much slower pace. We’ve actually been asked, ‘What’s the hurry?’ when trying to place an order. We’re both type-A, and that kind of drove us crazy.”

Also, there’s no way around it: Many Americans assume Spanish food means Mexican food, which is far more popular in the United States.

“When I first joined a leads group, the majority of leads I received were to Mexican restaurants,” Tina laments. “We want to turn people on to Spanish food, even if it’s not necessarily through our products. We still want people to experience food from that part of the world.”

Tina and Ignacio also are trying to help their fellow citizens grasp the complexities of their products, particularly olive oil. As the two tell it, Spanish olive oil is no less complex or varied than wine. The Spanish region of origin can determine whether the taste is peppery, nutty, grassy, etc.

“Even if it’s off by 60 miles, the olive oils from Spain can have a different taste,” Tina says. “Over here, you’ve got Kirkland olive oil, from Costco. I actually don’t think it’s a bad olive oil, but it’s a blend of oils from four different countries. It’s not specific.”

As Tina and Ignacio’s business grows through word-of-mouth, so do the fruits of their mission to bring some knowledge and appreciation of Spanish cuisine to the metro area.

The task has been daunting, but both acknowledge that even though there are now two full decades separating them from their time at DU, the lessons learned at the University still come into play.

“I learned perseverance, because it’s a very difficult degree,” Ignacio says. “It’s technical, it’s exhausting, you’re studying all the time while the other guys are having a good time or playing ball. It’s tough, but it teaches you something for later. I’ve applied those principles to this business.”

To order Jimenez products, visit www.comidaespana.com.

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