Susan Axelrod got into exporting by happenstance, but today it accounts for more than 20 percent of sales at her Freeport dessert and quiche company.

Axelrod's Love & Quiches Gourmet operated for about 20 years before receiving its first big order from a foreign customer. It came after buyers for an international restaurant company briefly visited Love & Quiches' booth at a Chicago trade show; days later they purchased frozen cheesecakes and chocolate cakes for shipment to the Middle East.

"Our foray into export began in the early 1990s . . . by accident," Axelrod recalled last week. The buyers "simply passed through our aisle at the trade show, and thus began a continued partnership of almost 20 years."

Foot in the door abroad

That first order from the operator of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut restaurants in the Middle East led Love & Quiches to more customers in the region and an office in Dubai. The local business also sells in Asia, Russia and Mexico.

"They love our cheesecakes even where they hate us," she said, referring to countries where U.S. foreign policy is controversial.

Axelrod discussed how exporting contributed to her company's growth during a workshop at Hofstra University and in her book, "With Love and Quiches: A Long Island Housewife's Surprising Journey From Kitchen to Boardroom" (Greenleaf Book Group Press), due out next month.

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Founded in 1973, Love & Quiches now employs about 250 people and has sales in the tens of millions of dollars, she said.

At the workshop, Axelrod urged owners of small- and medium-sized companies to look beyond U.S. borders for sales: "You have to take advantage of those opportunities to go where the business is."

Agencies ready to help

She acknowledged exporting can seem scary to a novice, but said federal agencies, such as the Commerce Department, Export-Import Bank and Small Business Administration, are eager to help.

The Commerce Department, through its foreign commercial service, provides free counseling and general information to would-be exporters through export.gov. It also can identify and screen foreign business partners, schedule appointments and make travel arrangements -- all for a small fee.

However, before contacting Commerce, a business owner should so some research.

"Do your homework," said Tanya Cole, a Commerce official at the Long Island U.S. Export Assistance Center. "You may have the best idea, but if you cannot sell it in that [foreign] market, they aren't interested in having the product -- then it doesn't matter."

Charles Dugan, a trade finance vice president at TD Bank, agreed, adding that new exporters often don't realize that it takes longer to be paid overseas than in the United States. Companies should insure their export sales so they can borrow against them in cases where cash is short, he said.

The Export-Import Bank and SBA offer loan guarantees and, in some cases, loans.

SBA's Toni Corsini said, "The resources are there to help you. It's not something to be afraid of."

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Build trust in relationship

Understanding that business customs vary from country to country is crucial to being a successful exporter.

"Make sure you are building trusted relationships with whomever you are getting into business with," said Sam Friedman, chief executive of Market Network Exchange, a technology startup in Belle Harbor, Queens, that serves exporters.

Business owners who are hesitant about leaving domestic markets, he said, should recognize that "70 percent of purchasing is now done outside of the U.S."

FOREIGN TRADE 101

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Here are some steps business owners should take when starting to sell overseas:

Have a solid business plan.

Identify overseas demand for your product or service.

Research countries you want to sell to (export.gov and sba.gov/exportbusinessplanner are starting points)

Understand foreign business customs and treaties

Hire a lawyer and an accountant in the country you are selling to

Explore financing options, including insurance

Protect your intellectual property through patents and copyrights

Sources: U.S. Commerce Department, U.S. Small Business Administration, Export-Import Bank of the United States, Executive Strategies Group LLC, Market Network Exchange