It takes several steps to get a foreign food like olive oil or wine into the mouths of American consumers.
Most small producers contract with an importer who handles all the shipping, logistics and U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection paperwork. Then there is a distributor who sells to retailers (although some importers also serve as the distributor). Finally, retailers order the product for their stores, where it is - hopefully - gobbled up by American gourmets.
A few retailers buy directly from foreign manufacturers. For instance, the Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley purchases about 10 percent of its merchandise - items such as olive oil and truffle oil - directly from small artisanal producers like your daughter's friend.
But the easiest path for a novice exporter is to work with an experienced import company.
"Try to work with an importer," said Hank Weiner, who teaches import/export classes for East Bay SCORE . "Otherwise, as a one-person operation, you'll have to be trying to get your product into stores, possibly on consignment, hoping it sells, and then hoping you can collect the money."
Even before looking for an importer, your daughter and her friend should figure out if the finances of exporting will work for them.
The U.S. market may sound like a gold mine in the abstract. But are their wine, oil and cheese good enough to attract buyers once export costs and the weak dollar are factored into their prices?
Loris Scagliarini, a San Francisco-area importer of Italian food and wine with WineCountry, says importers typically mark up the wholesale price of a bottle of wine by 15 percent. Distributors and their sales reps then mark it up an additional 30 to 40 percent. So a bottle of wine that costs $10 at the winery in Italy would cost at least $15 to retailers and restaurant owners in the United States.
Then retailers mark up that price by another 10 to 40 percent, while restaurants raise the price by 180 to 300 percent.
"By the time it gets to consumers, that $10 bottle will cost no less than $20 in a store and way more in a restaurant," Scagliarini said. "And that's with low markups. It could be much higher."
Let's say the numbers seem workable for your daughter and her friend. To find an importer, they can search the Web. For instance, Scagliarini runs a Web site at www.italianwinehub.com with a directory of Italian food and wine importers. Or they could approach some small American retailers who carry similar products and ask for names of their importers and distributors.
Another common way to find an importer is to attend a trade show such as the Fancy Food Show sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. This is expensive, but many countries help pay for trade show booths for their small producers as a way to boost exports. Your daughter's friend should check with the Italian trade office or the Chianti regional trade office to see if they offer any export assistance.
What role can your daughter play in all this? As someone familiar with the American market, she can help her friend figure out if his prices and products will appeal to consumers here. She can identify small retailers like the Pasta Shop that might carry his products. She can help him communicate with importers, especially if his English is limited.
And once he has a distributor in the United States, she can promote and market his products to retailers and consumers.
Of course, to be his marketing representative, she'd probably need to leave Italy and return to California. This might make you - her dad - happy. But it may not exactly be what she has in mind.