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Ideas for Biz Importing/Selling Obscure Food Items

I was recently in Oaxaca, and there are villages producing godhead Mezcals (tobalá) selling for under $10/bottle, with everyone working their hands to the bone, doing everything right, and no one knows/cares. Sales are mere trickles. Meanwhile, far lesser Mezcals sell in Oaxaca city for $40-$80, and in USA for over $100.

It bugs me. I've spent my whole career finding and evangelizing (and creating forums for swapping tips on) unheralded greatness. But there's lots of stuff still falling through the cracks that I'd love to find a way to "get out there".

One idea would be to start an import company and sell thru an internet storefront. The problem is I can't stand business stuff. It doesn't take much money to make me happy, and I like to spend my time in creative pursuits (writing, playing music, brewing up new ideas, chowhounding) rather than scrambling unmercifully to separate people from their hard-earned cash.

But I hate it that so many great food/drink items are still so obscure - that the geniuses who produce them are impoverished and under-appreciated, and that those of us who'd enjoy them are unable to access them.

So....is there any relatively easy, no-fuss way to start a sleepy little importing company, without having to turn into Joe Capitalist? It doesn't need to turn a profit (I can do freelance music/writing for income). Or maybe I could just be the buyer/adviser for someone else doing the importing (hmm...that wouldn't be bad at all). Or something more clever/creative...? Anyone have any ideas for something that could be done that wouldn't take over my life, but that could get the treasure out there, and help the treasure-makers? That's sort of what the idea of Chowhound was all about, but an online forum doesn't solve issues of actually distributing stuff....

The mezcal would be a start, but I can think of dozens more items that deserve to be spotlit and made more widely available. Should I just forget about it, or does anyone have a suggestion that works per my concerns?

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  1. If you're talking about importing foodstuffs into the US you're talking about dealing with the FDA. That alone eliminates "easy, no-fuss." All products, just for starters, would have to be relabelled. And if I'm not mistaken, the FDA has to approve that label--everything from content to type size. And what about shipping? That can get quite expensive unless you're dealing in container-size quantities. And if you are, what about warehousing? It's all possible--but not, I think, in a sleepy, off-the-cuff way. At least, not if you intend to do it legally.

    7 Replies
    1. re: JoanN

      Yes, it would be a horror to try to do this from scratch and conventionally. But there may be other (legal) ways. Advise a pre-existing import company...sell directly from Mexico....or.....?

      1. re: JoanN

        Booze imports are dealt with by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, not FDA, I believe. Agree with JoanN that sleepy off the cuff importing is not the correct path, and could be quite risky.

        Go to a pal (or ask friends) to meet with wine/booze importers. There seems to be a ton of experts on this Chow site. Ask them about your ideas. I would think some distributor would be happy to get ideas for excellent products that would give them an edge in the market. They would be familiar with the hoops that one must jump through.

        Same on the food side. Make a list, take photos, present information about the products, find out contact names of the producers. See who might be interested.

        If you are not interested in having this take over your life with a full-blown business, that is what I suggest. In short, work for someone who already does this -- even if you take on the task on a minimal commission basis. In your words: advise a pre-existing import company.

        1. re: alkapal

          I wish there were an in-the-middle choice.

          The main reason I don't want to advise is that I don't want these producers to remain at their current $4/bottle wholesale price while the stuff's sold in USA for $150. And as a consultant, I don't see how I could ensure they're paid fairly...or at least what I'd deem to be fair. Business just doesn't work like that, unless there's someone with extremely skewed values at the top.

          1. re: Jim Leff

            Fair Trade has made huge inroads in coffee & chocolate, tea too. Perhaps the time is right to work those principals in to alcohol? The right importer might be game to address those concerns & have new artisan products to bring to market!

            1. re: meatn3

              That's good stuff, meatn3, thanks.

              Maybe I can interest an existing importer in taking on the Fair Trade mantle as a publicity play (I don't need to see pure motives, I just want these guys to be duly compensated). Hmm....

              1. re: Jim Leff

                Just to follow up, I've approached a quality importer who I knew ages ago with vague info on the mezcals and a big pitch about the advantages of marketing "fair trade" on luxury goods like expensive mezcal (consumers can justify the luxury as philanthropy).

                He's super interested. Stay tuned.....I'd be really excited if we could all get these sublime drinks locally. One in particular tastes like what surely gushes out of the faucets in Heaven. The work that goes into these wild (tobalá) mezcals is just insane; if labor weren't essentially free, they'd surely cost $300/bottle. Also, just a note of warning: tobalá is an incipient trend, and I tasted some mezcals down there marked tobalá which I'm quite sure were just regular plain mezcal.

                1. re: Jim Leff

                  That is exciting to hear! At this point most of the initial work in just introducing the concept of "fair trade" has been done. Heck, have even seen fair trade items at Aldi & Sams. While people might not be able to articulate exactly what it means, most have seen the term and have a general idea. I've worked in natural foods and there is a small but ever growing dedicated contingent that is extremely aware of this niche and ask for it. It is a very appealing feel good choice that doesn't take a lot of effort for the consumer.
                  I recently was hearing a report from a coffee importer who had just visited plantains in S.America and it is starting to seem as though some of the conditions to be labeled fair trade may need further examination. Seems some of the European certification groups are at the lead in this, so they probably would provide the best models. Best of luck! This sounds like a wonderful possibility for everyone.

      2. I also recently returned from Oaxaca- while I didn't explore the mezcal villages (this time) I did purchase quite a bit of pottery. Pottery was cheaper in the markets in the city. I purchased a gorgeous small kitchen bowl, divided, with a handle adorned with birds. Green pottery. This cost me US $2.30. I should post a picture of it. I purchased quite a bit of black pottery as well, serving bowls, etc.

        I love Oaxaca. I rented an apartment for two weeks. Next time it will be longer. I could see one purchasing goods for resale.

        5 Replies
        1. re: orangecat

          The only problem with the pottery thing is that all those charming vendors claiming to be selling hand-made items seem to all be selling the same exact stuff, with very few exceptions. That doesn't mean some of it isn't lovely, and all of it isn't a great bargain, of course.

          I never did find quality black pottery, btw. At least in the city, it was all kitsch, and seemed poorly-made (and, again, every vendor had the same exact stuff). I'm sorry I didn't rent a car to explore real village versions.

          I'd love to hear about your apartment rental...would you mind dropping me an email at the address in my profile (ah, heck...it's jimleff.ny and it's at gmail.com).

          1. re: Jim Leff

            It is a difficult thing, to figure out what is good pottery, or other goods, especially when they are in such abundance up and down each street and in the markets. I will say, that a trip to the villages, where it is made, is an enlightening experience. I purchased most of my pottery there, but did not at all turn a foul eye at the pottery at the markets or on the streets. Sure, you see the same thing over and over... doesn't mean it is not good. My position is always, regardless of what country I travel to, when you see such kitsch in abundance, take an item home, and it somehow shines with specialness, once it is allowed to shine by itself.

            I just unwrapped my pottery- I will take photos of the ones culinary related.

            Here is a link to a photo of the man who makes the black pottery with the glazed exterior (his mother started the operation, and now his children, spouses and grandchildren make the pottery):

            (oops. can't do a photo link. I will try to attach a photo)

            Regarding a car: Oaxaca is the first place in many, years that I felt I did not need a car. That and NYC. Perhaps Amsterdam. I always want a car, but you would be best served taking a tour to the pottery, ruins, rug places, etc. I fought against this, thinking I would just get a car and find my way about. The information you get from a tour is priceless (my first tour was with four people, we got along famously and booked a second private tour together. I can't tell you how beneficial this was- and I fought against it!).

            If you plan to represent mezcal from Oaxaca, learn about all of Oaxaca.
            I went with pages and books of information, but nothing prepared me like the private tours. I can now tell you how all the natural dyes are made, which details their rugs.

            Jeff, I will email you with apartment info. I can't wait to go back.

            Good luck.

          2. re: orangecat

            I was in the folk art importing business for quite a few years. Don't mean to harsh your mellow orangecat, but there are millions of people importing ALL different types and grades of Mexican pottery and other crafts. It is so tempting to want to get into this biz. Check out all of the Mexican crafts on ebay, it's mind blowing. The green pottery has lead in the glaze so don't serve acid foods in it. No tomatoes, limes, vinegar, all of those yummy acids that make Mex food so delicious.

            1. re: missclaudy

              I don't think JIm is talking about pottery. It's that booze with wormies in it! We never have enough edible//drinkable worms in this country. '-)

              An easy, reliable, and cheap way to check Mexican pottery (or any other) for lead content is to put a generous drop of muriatic acid (available at any swimming pool supply store) on the glaze and let it sit for 15 hours or so. Yes, the acid will evaporate. At the end of that time, check for any white powdery residue where the acid was. If there is any, the glaze contains lead and absolutely should not be used for serving ANY food!

              1. re: Caroline1

                great tip, caroline! yes, zero food on lead glazed pottery. i would also add here, check for lead in your serving ware made in china, too.

          3. What every great idea man needs is a partner who is scrupulously honest and great at business building and marketing. Can't remember who it was mid-20th century who was at the top of his game with this approach. Anyway, if you find such a soul, go for it! And send me the rejects? Well, the honest ones anyway. Good luck!

            1 Reply
            1. re: Caroline1

              True enough. But in my case, actually, I guess I'm actually pretty good at it. I managed to recruit a staff of several dozen great people to run Chowhound, and we grew it into a national brand without any marketing resources...or any other resources, for that matter, aside from sheer adrenalin. The branding thing wasn't my goal; I just wanted a cool place to swap chow tips, and everything followed from that. And as all our long-timers observed, I lacked, to say the least, fire-in-the-belly money-making ambition. But since I believed in it, I sort of made it all happen, and developed, on the fly, some management/marketing/building skills....which I pray I never again find myself stuck having to wield. 'Cuz being good at something doesn't mean it's something you ought to do! Every time I hear biz news about a company and find myself generating thoughts on how they might fight their way out of a certain problem or impasse (or find myself understanding MBA-speak), I look at myself with horror. Who IS that person? How did this know-how find its way into my jazz musician/freelance writer cranium??

              It's creepy....

            2. Ok, I have an importer interested. Now the question is how do I assure the producers don't get beaten down to like $4 bottle wholesale (when the product will likely sell for upwards of $100)? I've shown them I'm a mamby-pamby artsy-fartsy pain in the ass with my demand for assurance of fair trade. They're ready to nod earnestly about my whole free trade marketing suggestion (I haven't yet told them where to find the mezcal...and they ain't ever going to find it without my help, as it's a chowhound difficulty rating of 9.4). But once they start doing biz, they can pretty much do what they want, unless I find a way to lock this in.

              How do I ASSURE the producers get $15/bottle minimum (still enough for these guys to profit handsomely)? Any lawyers out there? The only thing I can think of is to insist on a $10/bottle consultancy fee, and return it to the producers (as-is, I've told the importer I'd help pro-bono). Note that we're not talking large quantity here....this sort of mezcal is made in relatively smallish batches and the importer specializes in super premium distribution of non-huge product runs. So we're talking about no more than a few grand.....but that'd be huge to these indigent villagers.

              Maybe I should just donate a few grand, or buy some myself at $15/bottle. And then...hey, I could sell it! Ack, I'm back at square one! :)

              3 Replies
              1. re: Jim Leff

                So what's wrong with Square One? Off the top of my head (fair warning!), what if you set up a distribution company of your own? I'm not talking about a big one, but you obviously have excellent "executive ability." By that I mean the old saw about knowing how to delegate authority. You did a great job with ChowHound. Know any good import/export attorneys who will give you good (free) advice? Seems to me some sort of "holding company" that brings the goods to the marketers is the most reliable way of making sure the producers get a fair shake.

                Or maybe setting up some sort of marketing coallition among the producers in Mexico, where they set their own price under advisement from someone who checks the retail price in this country?

                Whatever direction you go, good luck and bravo! There are so many great products in Mexico that rarely get to see the light of day. And as long as I'm chucking old saws at you, don't forget the one about, "If you want it done right, do it yourself." Sorry.

                1. re: Caroline1

                  Caroline has something there, a mezcal consolidator in the Oaxaca region that sells the product to the importer, rather than the importer buying from the source(s). I understand there are a lot of bi-lingual ex-pat retirees around there.

                  and of course either way you'd have to do due diligence with the individual producers to be sure they're not getting ripped off.

                2. re: Jim Leff

                  At the risk of waking up an old thread...

                  It's a fallacy to think that a bottle that sells for $150 retail has just as much "room" for the original producer to get $15 versus $5 "because $135 is still a fair profit". By tripling the value of a truckload of the stuff at the beginning of the supply chain, you also triple what the investor expects to get as return on his investment; after all, when you put 3X money in the bank, you expect to get 3X the interest. And that tripling goes right up the line at every stage of importing and distributing.

                  It's a complicated affair, of course, can't distill an MBA into a few pargraphs, but...

                  Where it stops (for the booze you were asking about) is at the retail "pour": the cost of a drink at a bar or a meal at a restaurant reflects more than just the cost of ingredients. So, here you have more room to play, and this is essentially half of the game that Fairtrade is playing. The other half the game is building value into the Fairtrade brand name. But, whereas a coffee shop can benefit across the board from the warm consumer glow of Fairtrade coffee (nobody mentions that the dishwasher and the guy making the baked goods are cousins of the coffee pickers...) a barroom is not as likely to get the same type of consumer loyalty.

                  I'd suggest getting Fairtrade actually interested to leverage their brand name. Leave importing and distributing to people who do it well already.

                  Try to create a apellation for the producers...?