John Aron's Pasta Shoppe elbows in on international markets

Nearly everything John Aron does in business is with women in mind — those between ages 25 and 65, to be exact. It’s been that way since opening The Pasta Shoppe LLC of Nashville in 1994.

“We understood our target customer at that time,” said the president and owner of the company, which manufactures American-themed specialty pasta.

Finding “her,” as Aron describes it, is getting more complex: In recent years, the company has begun selling in Japan and is looking to crack other foreign markets. As the government and businesses work to double exports in the next five years, The Pasta Shoppe’s experiences illustrate some of what it will take.

The company first tried foreign markets in 1996 and had two good years, but it abandoned those efforts when the market took a hit during the Asian flu. Aron gave it another try in 2003, and exports have been growing steadily since.

Aron’s target for foreign markets is between 12 and 16 percent of total sales. Japan, for example, has been a success because of its enthusiasm for American culture.

But it goes beyond just knowing what sells in a culture.

One of the keys is finding the right distribution network; selecting the right one enabled the small business to shoulder the cost of customs and other financial burdens.

China is a perfect example of both those dynamics not yet working. Culturally, the Chinese are not as interested in American holidays, meaning The Pasta Shoppe will have to work harder to identify an appealing product. It’s also difficult to find the right distributor to partner with.

“I don’t think we’ll ever crack the code until their distribution system matures,” he said.

Whatever’s in store, Aron argues that his business model is in the right place.

He’s reached capabilities other small businesses haven’t, and he said larger competitors have the international reach but need a higher volume to justify new shapes. The company didn’t downsize staff in the recession and predicts $5 million in revenue this year — an improvement over 2009, which was flat with 2008.

Now those women — wherever they are — just need to keep buying.


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