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Meet Jacques Barreau, CEO and Founder of Grain de Sail in France

A conversation that proves that successful business models can be developed in ways that are virtuous for the Earth and its inhabitants, and that gives lots of hope.

Photo courtesy of Jacques Barreau

“We don’t want to optimize our carbon footprint; we want to kill it!” The adventure of transporting organic cacao and coffee with no Co2 emission for a more sustainable food system!

After several years working on computer science and electronic projects, Jacques Barreau started developing marine energy programs on the French coast in 2008, with his brother Olivier. In more than 8 years, they launched several projects including an offshore wind park currently being built in St Nazaire, France. Following these sustainable projects relying on wind energy, Jacques joined Grain de Sail in 2015. Leveraging his managing skills within a marine environment, he ensures that Grain de Sail grows in line with the 3 fundamental values of a sustainable development: Environment, Social and Economy.

Welcome Jacques to Chefs for Impact!

By Jacques Barreau as told to Chefs for Impact

Interviewed by special contributor Elodie Levrel

What is Grain de Sail?

“Grain de Sail is a French company that transports, in a cargo sailboat, French organic wine to NYC and brings from Central America back to France organic coffee and cacao beans to transform them and sell chocolate bars and roasted coffee at a local level!”

How did you come up with such an idea?

“My twin brother and I developed together renewable marine energy projects for 8 years and when the projects were launched, we wondered what to do next, within the marine industry as this is what we know best! After meeting a few people, we started thinking on how to make the marine transportation greener and quickly we came up with the idea of a sailing cargo. But then we had to find what to put in the boat holds! Chocolate and coffee were quite obvious as they are products associated with pleasure and they come from far (at least for us in France).

We didn’t know much about the food industry back then! But we wanted the best quality for the best taste and of course organic produce, so we focused on sourcing from Central America. And as we didn’t want to sail with empty holds, we decided to bring organic and natural French wines to New York. And then the loop was closed!

We started importing (through traditional shipping) and selling our chocolate bars and coffee in 2013. It took us 5 years to be able to fund the construction of the first sail cargo which first crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 2020. It has already done 2 loops!

Now 50% of the cacao we import is sailed to our factories! And the construction of the second sail cargo will start in 2023 and we are planning on opening more factories in other regions.”

What’s your definition of sustainability?

“I see 3 pillars for sustainable development. First, protecting the Environment. At Grain de Sail, we address this through our organic products but also because we limit our C02 emissions, especially for transportation as we rely almost exclusively on the wind to ship our cacao and coffee. We also only distribute our products in a regional network of retailers.

The second pillar is the Social. At Grain de Sail we work with disabled people to facilitate their integration in the society. We also try to sell our products at a reasonable price so that they are accessible to a wide range of people. If only 10% of the population can afford your products, it’s elitist and clearly not sustainable.

The third pillar is the Economy! Your business has to be profitable to last in time and be sustainable! The financial piloting of Grain de Sail is as important as the marine or technical piloting! Whatever investment we do, it is thought to be profitable and sustainable.

If you are not well balanced on these 3 aspects there’s something wrong!”

How do you picture a sustainable food system?

“I see several parts. Let’s start with the production! Of course, everything has to be organic to protect the Earth.

Then of course: the consumption; you should always prefer local and short supply chains. That’s the very best thing to do! But it may be difficult for several categories of products, such as chocolate and coffee (when you are in France)! And that’s where Grain de Sail comes from: we don’t want a punitive ecology; we want people to be able to enjoy these delicious products but limiting our impact when doing so!

I guess also paying attention to the quantity of what we eat, maybe we could reduce the amount of meat we eat!

I think packaging and limiting waste is important too. We are trying here to reduce as much as possible the weight of our packaging and use the most environmentally friendly materials.”

In a sustainable model, is sailing the future of transportation of products that come from afar?

“Of course, it used to be the norm some time ago and now it’s innovative again!! But it’s difficult, not from a technical perspective, but from a financial one. Sailing cargos costs a lot of money! And any issue in the marine world costs much more than an issue on the ground. That’s why we have developed an integrated model : we are shipowners, importators, chocolate makers, and coffee roasters! That gives us a stronger business model!

Our second cargo will also be built to be a passive boat. The first one is already only using renewable energy and we use almost no gasoline for the loop. Last summer, we only used 7 liters (1.5 gallons) from France to NYC to the Dominican Republic and back to France!

What drives you?

“I want to show that we can create profitable businesses with a sustainable goal! Creating such businesses gives a sense to your day-to-day life, it’s an exciting adventure that triggers a virtuous circle! We need to find ways to smoothly transition to a system that is more environmentally friendly before Nature violently forces it on us!”

What would be your tip for someone who wants to launch a sustainable food business?

“Be very good at financial piloting your business! It’s the only way to make it last! That’s true for any company but especially for those involved in sustainability! Use your initial business plan and transform it into a piloting tool!”



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