This 75-year-old Spanish specialty food destination offers an Old World experience with an array of new finds.

In a town known for its new-age cuisine made famous by chefs like Ferran Adrià, one of Barcelona’s top specialty food stores, Colmado Quilez, is still operating in a decidedly Old World way. In business for 75 years, the larger of its two shops is located on a busy street corner on the posh Rambla de Catalunya in the Eixample neighborhood; the second, in Sant Cugat del Vallès, a northern municipality of Barcelona.

A brief history… Established in 1908 as a candy store, the business was transformed into a colmado, or a general grocery store, in 1915. When it was purchased by the Quilez family in 1938, the store became Colmado Quilez. In 1974, the Lafuente family, known for its wineries and specialty food stores, took over the business and managed not only to maintain its identity as a traditional grocery but also to steer it in a new direction: selling top-quality gourmet products, including cheeses, sweets, cured Ibérico hams and sausages, premium preserved goods and wines. With floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with gourmet goods, including the family’s own product line, Europe’s largest selection of whiskeys (more than 1,000 varieties) and a mouthwatering collection of hanging Spanish jamons, it remains one of Spain’s most distinguished specialty food stores.

Customer service comes first… With a history in “haute foods”—the Lafuente family also owns five food and wine stores, called LaFuente—Colmado Quilez is currently run by Andres and Carlos Lafuente, sons of the original LaFuente owner. Colmado Quilez has traditions that run deep. Siesta is honored daily from 2 to 4:30 p.m., during which the store closes. Employees wearing traditional blue smocks offer personalized service, helping customers choose from the more than 5,000 food items displayed beautifully on floor-to-ceiling shelves. Carlos Lafuente says they are proud of the old-fashioned way the stores are run and have no plans to change that in the future. The business plans to expand to Madrid in 2014.

Old favorites and new discoveries… Colmado Quilez offers more than 10,000 products from all over the world and has 45 employees across its two locations. The stores boast an extensive selection of liquors (about 6,000), including an unusual product: Licor de Lagarta—lizard liquor from China that features a real lizard in the bottle. A collection of more than 200 bottled flat and fizzy waters came about due to customer demand, and an impressive collection of wines is primarily Spanish in origin (including Cava), but includes a range of options—such as the most expensive offering in the store, a bottle of 2005 Petrus for 4,500 euros (about $6,094).

Shelves feature hard-to-find international items (such as French foie gras) as well as a Colmado Quilez brand, featuring chocolates and pastas. “We have a team that is constantly looking for new products that might be interesting to our customers,” says Carlos Lafuente, adding that they put new products through a tasting team before deciding to sell. “We do not seek the best price, we just look for the best quality.”

Of the five million products sold in 2012, the best sellers were alcohols (specifically gin, rum and whiskey), Bellota ham, canned seafood (clams, cockles), foie gras, coffee, water and beer. Ham offerings are vast: varieties from Jabugo and Extremadura, Cebo de Campo, Paletilla and Jamon Iberico—all sampled before purchase.

A loyal following… The focus on quality has helped build a loyal local base as well as a steady stream of tourists stopping in. For the more than 150,000 people who purchase from their store annually, 60 percent of these clients are international visitors. While declining to name names, Lafuente says many famous people (athletes, singers and politicians) who have lived in Barcelona have passed through the store “looking for something that is not in a normal supermarket.” Although they have plenty of VIP clients, Lafuente says celebrities receive the same treatment as any other customer: “All customers are treated as VIPs.”

Sophisticated Retail: The Gourmet Experience

While Colmado Quilez delivers the Old World experience, El Corte Inglés, Spain’s oldest department store, offers the modern with Gourmet Experience, a dining and specialty food emporium currently found in four of the company’s 86 department stores. The new marketplace concept launched in 2010 with the latest Gourmet Experience opening in Madrid in November 2012. In addition to an array of specialty food items, many dining options are available in a food-court layout. In the Madrid Plaza Callao store, patrons can choose from StreetXO, from local celebrity chef David Muñoz, offering international street food with an Asian flare; Juanillo Club, a cocktail and oyster bar; La Maquina serving classic Spanish food; Mr. Lee, offering sushi; Hamburguesa Nostra for burgers, and many others.

Specialty food products predate Gourmet Experience at El Corte Inglés. Since 1982, the retailer has featured a gourmet supermarket within most of its department stores called Club del Gourmet—and continues to do so now, alongside the dining options. Club del Gourmet sells biscuits and bread, cakes and chocolate, cheese, deli items and wine.

At Gourmet Experience, the ratio of visitors to local shoppers varies by location, but stores in Madrid and Barcelona are more tourist-heavy. To familiarize their customers with new products, the owners frequently do sampling. The marketplace carries more than 3,000 products from all over the world, including Europe, Africa and Asia. One of the most in-demand items is Spanish cured ham, available from various origins (Salamanca, Extremadura, Jabugo). International visitors tend to look for typical Spanish items (ham, wine), while Spanish clients look for food they would buy in other countries (Hershey bars, Italian pastas).

Gourmet Experience has been such a success at all four locations, the business plans to open more in other Spanish cities. Next up: Seville.