Food Importer The Buzz


Many years ago, Chuck Grafft and his wife were living quite happily in Japan. There was just one problem -- they couldn't buy American cheese. So they got together with a few friends and sent an order to a wholesaler in the U.S. One thing led to another...

Today, Grafft heads the Foreign Buyers' Club, a company that imports American food into Japan -- direct to the doors of thousands of eager customers. FBC's General Store now offers over 10,000 products, from tomato sauce to diet soda to household cleaners. "Just like your mom sending it to you!" Grafft says.

The FBC is one of Japan's few foreign customs brokerage houses. Foreigners put in an order for their favorite food, and FBC delivers it to them. The company was created thanks to the needs of people far from home.

"It's a fluke in many ways. We started as a group of volunteers trying to figure out an impossible system. Suddenly people appeared to help us get things started. Soon we were pioneering a whole new way of importing in Japan."

A few years later, membership topped 8,000, with a customer tally of closer to 50,000. Word of mouth in the foreign community has fueled the growth.

When people found out about FBC, they wondered why they hadn't heard about it sooner. Information on FBC soon became standard issue at foreign company orientations and international schools.

The company responded to consumer demand a few years ago with The Deli, a mail-order service offering a selection of over 1,000 fresh and frozen foods.

It's a classic case of finding a niche and filling it.

The Case for Importing

Grafft isn't the only entrepreneur striking it big in Japan. Businesses in Japan range from real estate agencies catering to foreigners, to home building companies, to specialty liquor importing companies. And, of course, there are restaurants catering to homesick foreigners pining for a good hamburger.

What Will Sell

How does a potential entrepreneur know what will sell?

"It helps very much to live here. Then you start thinking, 'Gee, I wish I could buy X or Y here in Japan' or 'I wonder if I could provide X or Y service here in Japan,'" says Hershey Wier. Wier heads the Association for New Entrepreneurial Women, which mentors people starting businesses in Japan.

Running a business in a foreign country takes some special skills. "You need the ability to adapt to the country norms and people -- or at least learn to keep your opinions to yourself and realize that there is more than one way to get things done," says Wier.

"There are real challenges to starting a business overseas," adds Grafft, who negotiated with Japanese customs for two years before he got the green light to import anything.

"But starting a business overseas is 70 percent the problems you face anywhere. Only 30 percent are additional problems you wouldn't face at home."

Of course, Japan isn't the only foreign country where Americans can set up shop. Grafft gets requests from foreigners outside of Japan hoping he'll expand his service to other countries. He also knows of a food importing business similar to FBC in France.

And there are dozens of countries beyond that! "If you've got a dozen products -- or even one or two -- then you can import them," says Grafft.

Links

Foreign Buyers' Club
Learn more about this entrepreneur's company

American Chamber of Commerce in Japan
Find out how this business group is assisting new businesses in Japan

Japan External Trade Organization
Helps people identify and exploit market opportunities in Japan

International Trade Administration
Trade information and trade-related links