Fifteen years ago Jean Michel Mortreau was the successful owner of France’s first certified organic restaurant.
The entrepreneur was – in his own way – following in the footsteps of his grandfather who, as a frontrunner in biodynamic agriculture, was a pioneer in the country’s organic farming movement in the 1960s.
Born into a farming family, Mortreau opted to take his knowledge and appreciation of organically-grown products into the dining industry.
Little did he know that his role as restaurateur would evolve into chocolatier through his organic chocolate company Saveurs & Nature. Nor that he would find himself pioneering the role of organic chocolates in travel retail.
As reported, Saveurs & Nature’s Les Chocolats de Pauline brand, which is exclusive to the channel, is set on extending its footprint in travel retail, following the appointment of long-time Valrhona executive Eric Carlier as Travel Retail Director.
The Moodie Davitt Report Founder and Chairman Martin Moodie caught up with Mortreua and Carlier to discover the passion and the principles behind the brand.
Martin Moodie: Before we consider Le Chocolats de Pauline’s development in travel retail, I’m intrigued: How did you both meet?
Eric Carlier: We met five years ago at TFWA Asia Pacific in Singapore. I knew of Jean Michel, as he was a ‘competitor’ in the chocolate category but I knew little about his Les Chocolats de Pauline. I discovered it was a small brand which produced particularly good chocolate; its packaging, however, was so-so. As time passed, I came to appreciate Jean Michel’s ethics and philosophy and, about a year ago, he asked me to join the company.
I joined because Les Chocolats de Pauline posed a challenge: the rebirth and total management of a small organic brand with a wonderful DNA, combined with its cooperation with the planters and its respect of the planet. These factors were important in my decision, as was Jean Michel himself as the passionate Master Chocolatier.
He began to write his story 20 years ago and now we probably have ten to 20 years to continue that tale.
Jean Michel, you founded Saveurs & Nature, which has a huge focus on organic products and sustainability, in 2005. How did that come about?
Jean Michel Mortreau: I was born into a farming family. My grandfather had started to farm organically in the west of France in 1962, at the beginning of the movement towards organic farming in the country. My family followed his example. They are primarily dairy farmers, with interests in some other crops.
I went to business school, and worked in the coffee industry until I was 35 when I decided to learn to cook. I attended a special school for adults who wanted to change their lives; I wanted to open an organic food restaurant.
With my wife, Valérie, I founded Resto’Bio, one of the first organic certified restaurants in France. It was not easy at first, as organic products, especially meat, were not readily available.
We offered our customers small chocolate treats with their coffee but I was not happy with the quality of the chocolate. So, I went to Paris to learn how to make it myself. Employees of regional organic shops became regular clients; they loved my chocolates and they wanted to sell them. I started producing bigger quantities and chocolate bars were first shelved in 2001. That is how my chocolate story began.
“I was making chocolate three days a week and the other two I would travel around France and sell it” – Jean Michel Mortreau
So you left the restaurant business?
Not straight away. I continued to manage the restaurant until 2005. It was good but Valérie and I have two children, Pauline and Augustin, and I wanted to spend more time with them. Meanwhile, our chocolates attracted more and more gourmet fans and in 2006 Valérie and I moved to Vendée (southern Loire region) to open our Saveurs & Nature chocolate factory.
I was making chocolate three days a week and the other two I would travel around France and sell it. The aim was, and still is, to offer all chocolate lovers a sweet escape, an amazing taste experience. Creating good chocolates 100% organically grown was our very first objective.
Since then we have developed a wide range of organic chocolates; fifteen years on, we are more than 60 people, all chocoholics!
“My aim is to promote sustainability in every piece of chocolate, with the utmost respect for the people and resources of our planet” – Jean Michel Mortreau
Our distribution network includes organic shops in France and in over 20 countries. We are well known in Japan, Canada and Iceland and also in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe and in some Asian countries.
We have the best knowhow in organic chocolate in France, and perhaps all over the world. I have travelled extensively but have never seen chocolate like ours.
How would you describe the Saveurs & Nature philosophy?
My aim is to promote sustainability in every piece of chocolate, with the utmost respect for the people and resources of our planet. Our chocolates are 100% organic, made from certified cocoa beans and do not include soy lecithin, palm oil, gluten and preservatives. Cardboard packaging is sourced from sustainably managed forests.
My passion for chocolate leads me to respect the raw materials I use every day. Quality is very important.
You know, you can make a very beautiful product when you have the right ingredients. We work with short recipes and just a few ingredients. Organic and natural, that is all.
And your approach to cocoa production and supporting your supply chain?
Chocolate is a luxury product and most people do not know the reality of its production. Our approach to sourcing cocoa is a sustainable one that is very different to ‘normal’ chocolatiers. Helping cocoa producers is the second part of my business life.
When I started making chocolates I used couverture made in France. However, I wanted to know where the cocoa was coming from; I wanted to see and to test by myself.
In 2015 we improved our cocoa bean roasting. Our knowhow allowed us to produce chocolates by mastering their quality from the bean to the bar. It was also an opportunity to create direct links with cocoa farmers from all over the world.
I visited an organic plantation in the Dominican Republic and secured its entire production. I have done the same in other countries, including Madagascar and Tanzania.
By creating a direct producer link, I made a commitment to better remunerating growers to enable them to improve their living and working conditions. We are also committed to ensuring that their mode of production is respectful of the environment and is part of a logic of sustainable development.
In 2019, in a small town in Cameroon I saw, for the first time in my life, poverty in paradise. I decided to help Bandoum farmers to convert to organic cocoa farming. This place, with its magical landscapes, gives us hope that one day every cocoa farmer in the world can make a decent living from his work.
We have incorporated our principles and beliefs into our Corporate Social Responsibility policy and everyone in my company is very happy with that.
How difficult was it to convince the cocoa farmers to change their growing methods? They would have worked with major companies, using very traditional methods, and of course sustainable methods are by definition more expensive.
First of all I had to prove that I was serious about making chocolate. I also had to get the farmers to understand that I was willing to invest in their product through my production programme. Initially it was difficult… but they started to understand the benefits of the changes they would have to make to secure organic and sustainable production.
In Bandoum, for example, we financed the services of two agricultural engineers for three years to help local cocoa farmers understand the benefits of converting their plantations to organic agriculture and cultivating cocoa trees according to the principles of agroforestry.
Last year, in the same village, we financed the expansion of the village school and financially supported the teachers. Through our programme, the farmers and villagers learn the importance of education, the importance of stopping the use of chemicals and the importance of work.
It’s an agricultural programme that I am truly interested in. I was born on a farm; I can understand.
As with any great entrepreneurial journey, I suspect there were many difficult times along the way.
Yes, you are right. The organic chocolate market was difficult for a long time and sometimes it felt like we were working for nothing…
And the development of Les Chocolats de Pauline?
Le Chocolats de Pauline was launched five years ago as a dedicated product for Air France Business Class passengers and has since enjoyed listings in France through Lagardère Travel Retail.
It has all the Saveurs & Nature DNA; the difference is that it is exclusive to travel retail.
The brand is named after my daughter Pauline and it’s exactly like her: modern, smart, natural, concerned about environment and health, looking for simple pleasures and great tastes.
That is unusual in being solely available in travel retail. I can’t think of many brands, in any category, which are exclusive to the channel.
Eric Carlier: That’s true. But our objective is to offer a striking, organic, unique brand dedicated to travel retail.
Jean Michel and I both believe that travellers can influence other consumers. For example, when a First or Business Class passenger finds a treat on their tray, or served with their coffee, they are likely to talk about it, to want to find it after their flight. And what better place to find it than in travel retail at the airport?
Le Chocolat de Pauline has a great story to tell and we are rebranding to do just that.
Packaging has been redesigned to stand out and to emphasise the brand’s strongpoints: that it’s 100% organic and that its DNA is based on sustainability and a strong CSR policy.
The new-look products will be ready to roll out to travel retail in March.
How difficult is it to convince travel retailers that they should list a brand that is not known on the domestic market?
It is a bet, a wager, but Jean Michel and I are really confident because we see organic chocolate becoming very popular in coming years. We believe the demand will be huge but it will not be easy, of course.
I believe the main objective of many retailers right now, as we continue to move through this incredible crisis, is to try to reduce their offer in order to survive. However, they are also always looking for innovation and with us that is not just in the packaging. It is in the whole product equation; the organic factor and the wonderful story we have to tell.
“Today many consumers are not looking for cheap products. They want natural organic products with a story to tell; they want to know the product’s origin and whether the farmer is well paid or not. And that is good.” – Jean Michel Mortreau
During the relaunch, we will tell that story on our new packaging. And, at the same time, we intend to improve communications through social media and digital tools.
Jean Michel Mortreau: Communication between the brand and its consumers is very important and we know we have not communicated enough in the past. My focus has always been on the product and its sustainable packaging. We stopped using plastic in 2008, we use sustainable bags and special palettes to support agroforestry. However, in trying to maintain the quality of our chocolates, communicating our message is sometimes forgotten.
“Be sure that in a few years organic chocolate will become the golden standard in travel retail” – Eric Carlier
How strong is the organic chocolate market in France and worldwide now?
In France, it has grown substantially over the last two years through increased distribution and the interest of bigger brands. Organic food accounts for around 8% of the French market. When I started it was 1.5%, and only through organic food shops which you can now find everywhere. That is very good for the environment, because increased distribution needs volume and organic farming is better for the planet.
However, in France distribution and negotiation is often difficult. As a small company, we deal with that by offering the best quality. Today many consumers are not looking for cheap products. They want natural organic products with a story to tell; they want to know the product’s origin and whether the farmer is well paid or not. And that is good.
I believe we can educate the industry because today’s consumers, especially younger people between the ages of 18 and 25, have more power than 20 years ago. This new generation is afraid for the planet’s future; they are aware of the disasters it faces. They are telling us that if we cannot make changes, they will. So, we have to show them that we are doing good.
And the likelihood of an organic confectionery/chocolate category in travel retail?
Eric Carlier: Be sure that in a few years organic chocolate – organic products – will become the golden standard in travel retail, especially as this pandemic comes to an end.
The world has changed because of COVID-19. New travellers, new customers, especially younger people will have different concerns; they will be more aware of what they are buying. Personally I have always been something of a gourmet consumer but my appreciation and consideration of organic products has changed over the past two years. Now when I go shopping – for myself and for my children – I look for the organic products.
Many major companies – in the cosmetics industry, for example – have changed production methods. Even among the leading chocolate brands one or two organic lines have appeared but it’s difficult because it’s not part of their DNA and production changes are complicated.
It is easier for us because the brand, and its owner company, are 100% organic from the beginning. We are nothing but organic.