Pickles, wine, nuts: Wash. businesses look to take top sellers overseas

TACOMA, Wash. - Picture a slice, in this case a spicy slice, of Tacoma sitting on store shelves in Japan, Mexico and Korea, ready for sale. That's exactly what Lynnae Schneller, owner of Lynnae's Gourmet Pickles, plans to pitch to more than a dozen international buyers visiting Washington next month.

"Japan really seems to love American products, especially spicy stuff," Schneller said. "There are 15 million people whole live just in Tokyo, so we think there is going to be a market there."

The Washington State Department of Agriculture wants to help Schneller and nearly 40 other small business owners throughout the state connect with international markets and buyers. Next month, the department will host a series of meetings between foreign buyers from China, Japan, Korea and Mexico designed to promote Washington's wine and specialty retail food industries.

"It's a lot like speed dating," the Department of Agriculture's Julie Johnson said. "Each company will set up tables and bring products for buyers to try, and the buyers will rotate from table to table and meet with the company to talk about the kinds of products they are looking for."

This is the second year in a row the state has been able to hook local business owners up with overseas buyers in this kind of setting. Last year, with help from the Department of Agriculture, more than 200 small and medium-sized businesses posted $120 million in international sales.

"Our whole focus on these events is getting a good buyer/seller match and help our Washington companies be able to export their products oversea," Johnson said.

Schneller, armed with her great-grandmother's recipe, started Lynnae's Gourmet Pickles a little more than two years ago and since then sales have grown nearly 1,000 percent. Realizing that growth could be even greater Schneller started looking at international exporting last year but quickly realized the challenges a company of just three employees faces.

"Every country is different; there are different labeling requirements, different ingredient requirements," Schneller said. "You're starting all over almost with different margins, taxes, tariffs, and shipping within each country."

Kevin Ruda, president and CEO of Johnny's Fine Foods in Tacoma, already exports a number of local products to Australia, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan, but he's looking to expand to other international markets.

"There is definitely a demand for Washington-made products," Ruda said. "There is no question in my mind about that."

But for Ruda, just like Schneller, it comes down to access and affordability.

"The expense of generating new business is significant," Ruda said. "It's very difficult to meet buyers so working with the Department of Ag allows us to tap into resources they have available in other markets, show our products, and help us develop new relationships in those other markets."

According to the Washington State Department of Revenue, Johnny's Fine Foods and Lynnae's Gourmet Pickles are part of the 70 percent of businesses in Washington which have fewer than 50 employees and account for 33 percent of the state's tax revenue.

Johnson said the success they see from these meetings extends beyond the individual business owners. A company's growth can mean more employees and even larger facilities, ultimately helping the state's construction business, she said.

Next month's meetings will feature products from 19 local wineries and more than two dozen specialty food retailers. Washington received federal money through a grant developed by the U.S. Small Business Administration to help pay for the program.

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