Meet the Member: Matthieu Riou, U.S. Wine & Spirits Director, Grain de Sail

Member news | July 12, 2019

In our latest Meet the Member feature, we spoke with Matthieu Riou, U.S. Wine & Spirits Director at Grain de Sail. Grain de Sail is a French company that has launched sustainable maritime transportation of coffee, wine and chocolate via sailboats. 

Keep reading to learn more about this green supply chain innovation, Matthieu's role and his next adventure, pursuing a VIE in the United States thanks to the French-American Chamber of Commerce sponsorships. 

FACC: Grain de Sail was launched in 2010 out of a desire to produce high quality chocolate and coffee, whose main ingredients would be transported by sailboat across the Atlantic. Your green coffees and cocoa come from far away lands such as the Caribbean and Central America. Traditional cargo transport is far from being optimal in terms of environmental impact. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this ambitious project?

MR: Grain de Sail® believes in tackling the impossible! Inspired by our past, we innovate for the future. We call it retro-innovating. Our vision is to operate the world’s first modern cargo sailboat shipping routes between Europe and the Americas. By harnessing the power of the wind, we can produce and sell great gastronomic products with a low carbon footprint to cross-Atlantic consumers.

Founded in Morlaix, Brittany by twin brothers, who are experts in renewable energy, and a top-level sailor, Grain de Sail® is embarking on this great sea adventure where organic wines, coffees, chocolates and awesome people come together. 

The project started humbly in 2013, when the company opened its organic coffee roasting facility, followed by an organic chocolate factory in 2016, with the ultimate goal of building the cargo sailboat. By telling consumers in France what we aspired to and our vision, Grain de Sail® resonated in the marketplace and relative success followed. Now, Grain de Sail® is close to achieving our dream since the first transatlantic shipment by cargo sailboat will occur in Spring 2020.

FACC: The first cargo sailboat is currently under construction and is scheduled to be completed in December 2019 with a first transatlantic voyage at the beginning of 2020. What will it mean to you and the team to achieve this milestone?

MR: That’s a fantastic step forward! Indeed, the construction of the first sailboat of the Grain de Sail® fleet began in October 2018. By the end of this year, the boat will be ready to sail and after testing, we plan to bring the first shipment to New York City in the Spring of 2020. Sustainable seafaring is gaining more and more momentum nowadays but it’s a big thing to pass from an idea to reality. The CEO of the naval shipyard tasked with building our cargo sailboat said at the moment of the contract signing with Grain de Sail®, that they have been contacted many times for this kind of project but nearly none ever become tangible. We are therefore particularly proud to make turn this bold adventure into reality!

On the first leg of the voyage, Grain de Sail® will ship specially-selected organic and biodynamic French wines to New York City. Then, our vessel will sail down to Central America to load up on organic coffee and cocoa beans before returning home to Brittany, where Grain de Sail® will roast the coffees and produce fine chocolates.

FACC: This method of transportation must take more time and perhaps be more costly for your enterprise (in terms of volume). How do you balance this with maintaining a healthy profitability?

MR: Compared to conventional cargo shipping, our cargo sailboat should take about an additional week or so to reach New York City so the difference is not that significant especially relative to the gains in carbon footprint. The round trips from Brittany to North America and then Central/South America will take more than three months to complete, including docking time at ports of call, and will occur twice a year. But we do not have a speed objective or a compulsory timeline, we will just follow the wind and we find it even more beautiful that way! We cannot fully control the elements, which is the adventurous part. No trip will be the same. It’s obviously more costly as we can only carry 35 tons of cargo.  But progressively, Grain de Sail® will build a fleet with bigger boats and increased cargo space, which will help the financial aspects. This is also why we will only ship products with significant added value like cocoa, coffee, or wines and spirits. The other point is that we want to control most of the value chain of our products. This way we can maintain a healthy profitability.

The impossible is becoming reality and Grain de Sail® is doing its small part to respect and nurture our fragile planet!

FACC: Businesses are often focused on their bottom line and profits. Do you believe that this more ethical mode of transportation can be applied to other products or even mass consumption?

MR: For the moment, this kind of transportation is only possible for products with high added value like I said before. You can not compete against conventional cargo that can ship hundreds of tons in one trip. Furthermore, when it comes to mass consumption, time and delays are very important factors so being depending on wind and weather conditions is not something that could work.

However, with larger Sailboat coming on the scene it could be a game changer..

FACC: As U.S. Wine and Spirits Director, what are your main responsibilities?

MR: My first mission is to curate our selection of wines and spirits that will be exported to NYC. I’m working hand in hand with a top-level wine shop director and a sommelier and since the boat has only limited space, we must be highly selective and only the best products will make it onboard.

I oversee the relationships with all the commercial partners in New-York City which means our importer/distributor, storage company, customs broker, port agent and with all institutional partners such as the FACC, the BZH Network and Business France.

I also work on the marketing and communication strategy that we will display in the US with the help of an agency located in Brittany and run by a French-American, who has lived in NYC.

Starting from January 2020, I will be full time in NYC to manage the sales of the wines and spirit and will deal with all retailers.

It’s a lot of work but I am passionate and surrounded by the best professionals!

FACC: The Grain de Sail project is French-born, do you plan to expand your e-commerce and physical retail in New York alone or simultaneously in other cities?

MR: Grain de Sail® is starting with one boat, but one is not enough! We need a full fleet of vessels to create the link between consumers and producers. And we also want to produce our foods locally, which means setting up production facilities in Europe and in the Americas, in select-cities with harbor infrastructures where docking our boats is possible.

We will always work with specially selected retailers for the wines and spirits part, but we plan to open our own chocolate factory and coffee roasting facility in NYC as soon as we build the second cargo sailboat. This second boat will make the transatlantic loop while the first one will be dedicated to a maritime route between Central America and New York City to bring cocoa beans and coffee directly in our future facility, without first going back to France.

New York City will be the only one for the moment. Why? Well, first, it’s the iconic Big Apple where dreams become reality! If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, right? Also, New York is kind of on the way from France to Central America and the city has great port facilities. New Yorkers appreciate good products and Grain de Sail® will feel almost at home thanks to the city’s large Breton community!

Once we will have a fleet of cargo sailboats we will consider other cities on the East Coast like Boston for example!

FACC: What motivated you to join the FACC-NY network?

MR: I’ve always believed in the power of networking, especially in the US. Gaining access to so many professionals and beneficiating of their experiences is very valuable for us. It’s also the opportunity of being part of a group of people sharing interests and spreading the French culture abroad. Finally, as I am going to NYC as a VIE, it’s a chance to be sponsored by the FACC! So Thank you!


Interested in connecting with Matthieu? Log into the FACC Member Directory to send him a message.