Wheel Line Cider utilizes SBDC, others, to find new markets in Korea

ELLENSBURG, Wash.—Being named the SBA Seattle 2020 Rural Small Business of the Year not only put Wheel Line Cider on the map, it opened up a world of export possibilities for this small, family-owned cidery.

Susie Jensen – Wheel Line Cider

Wheel Line Cider owner Susie Jensen says she recently shipped 63 cases of cider to one of the largest adult beverage distributors in South Korea, and it wouldn’t have happened without the support and assistance of numerous state or federal agencies, including the Washington Export Outreach Team, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association and the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

“They are my guardian angels,” Jensen said. “I think the whole process has been amazing, it’s just been amazing.”

Working through the logistics of that first shipment took both patience and persistence, but Jensen is optimistic that once people taste Wheel Line’s Cherry Blush, Orchard Blend or 184 Bearings, more and larger orders will follow.

Wheel Line Cider is a rural business in an SBA-designated HUBZone (historically underutilized business zone), and yet with the help of the Washington SBDC and multiple state and local resource partners, she is finding customers on the other side of the world.

The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 40 business advisors working in communities across the state to help small business owners and entrepreneurs start, grow or buy/sell a business. The network has three international trade business advisors who specialize in helping businesses become export ready and grow their export sales. All SBDC advising services are completely confidential and provided at no cost to the business owner. 

Susie Jensen (owner) and Maryanna Schane (l-r)

Jensen first learned about the Washington SBDC when she entered a business plan competition in 2018 that was sponsored by the Yakima County Development Association and the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce. In 2014 she had retired from a 30-year career as an art teacher, and she had been spending much of her time since then developing a plan to reclaim acreage on their family hay farm to plant heirloom apple trees and start a craft cidery.

Making exceptional craft cider had long been a dream, but Jensen said that meeting with SBDC business advisors gave her the confidence to believe that her dream was a viable business opportunity. She first started meeting with SBDC business advisor Sarah Truglio, and eventually began meeting with SBDC business advisor Liz Jamieson for assistance with myriad challenges, from cashflow management to marketing.

Fast-forward two years and Wheel Line Cider was named the 2020 Rural Small Business of the Year by the Seattle district of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). That’s when Jensen got a congratulatory phone call from Julie Johnson, an export specialist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, asking if she’d ever thought about export.

Jensen said she remembers thinking, “Me? I’m a small operation with three employees, I’m not a candidate for export.”

But to be successful in exporting, it’s not the size of the business that matters, but whether you understand export rules and regulations, can establish and maintain good relationships with your trading partners and consistently deliver on your promises.

Jensen was intrigued, so she took a 12-hour course titled “Are You Ready for Export?” offered by the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association (WUSATA).

She also started meeting with Allan Peterson, an international trade business advisor with the Washington SBDC, and she began participating in SBDC-sponsored virtual trade missions. Through these online meetings, she met with buyers in Canada, Mexico and South Korea. Through Danny Kim, the Washington State Department of Agriculture in-country representative in South Korea, she learned that Koreans tend to think of hard cider as a wine, more than beer. Still, he had heard that one of the country’s major craft beer distributors was interested in expanding into cider, so he made an introduction.

Jensen followed up that introduction with a handwritten note to the distributor and continued to reach out with news about her business from time to time. Then, after she received a STEP grant to attend FoodEX Japan in Tokyo in March 2023, she was able to extend her trip so that she could meet with the distributor in Seoul. That face-to-face meeting cemented the relationship, Jensen said, and she then headed home to began working with Peterson at the SBDC to get the paperwork in order, send an invoice and prepare for shipment.

“Allan has just been unbelievable in terms of support,” she said.

While the SBDC has been her primary contact for building export sales, multiple organizations have provided incredible assistance and she wouldn’t be where she is today without them.

The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University. Funding for SBDC services comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Washington State University, Washington State Department of Commerce, numerous other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies, municipal agencies and business and civic groups.

For more about Wheel Line Cider, click here.

For more about the Washington SBDC, click here.