Maryland food exporters promote wares overseas


Gay Williams runs a small food business from a three-room office on Falls Road in Mount Washington, but her ambitions embrace the world. Someday she hopes to see her sweet, hot mustard sold in stores from Tokyo to Damascus.

She has joined with other Maryland food producers to form the Maryland Food Exporters Association, a group that is helping its members penetrate world markets.

The president of Hunt Cup Ltd., Ms. Williams is also a founding member of the association, which was created late last year. She and her colleagues are convinced that people in places like Japan, Europe and Latin America would love to buy Maryland gourmet food products -- from crab balls to ice cream -- if only they had the chance.

Scott I. Garfield, vice president of Mary-Lee Company Inc., a Baltimore producer of gourmet ice cream, shares Ms. Williams' conviction.

"The world's such an accessible place now," he said. "It's almost easier to establish an overseas network than it is a domestic network. People are clamoring for American products."

Now three months old, the food exporters' association has about 17 food producers and processors. The group has plans for its own food show in Baltimore this spring in conjunction with a world trade show sponsored by the World Trade Institute.

"This is a big opportunity for us," Ms. Williams said.

Neither Mr. Garfield nor Ms. Williams has yet succeeded in selling their products abroad, but the president of the association, Stephen Phillips, has.

A member of the family that runs the Phillips seafood restaurants, Mr. Phillips is president of Phillips Foods Inc. His company exports food products and operates a food processing plant in the Philippines.

The association was his brainchild. According to Ray Weiss, the group's lawyer, the association was formed to help small- and medium-sized businesses that lacked the resources and know-how to go international.

It was Mr. Phillips who set up a tasting of Maryland food products last May for officials of a Japanese trading company, Toshoku Ltd. Ms. Williams was invited to attend, and her mustard was one of the products in which the Japanese expressed an interest.

That experience opened her eyes to the possibility of foreign sales and encouraged her and others to press for an organization to help companies overcome the hurdles of foreign trade. "That is basically the purpose, to help small businesses," Ms. Williams said. "It takes a lot of time and effort. You really need to know the ropes."

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