Creating Eco-Friendly Charcoal with Green Hearts Briquettes’ Alexandre Soler-My

February 23, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited today to have on the phone Alexandre Soler-My. Alexandre is the head of business development for his wonderful company, Green Hearts natural charcoal briquettes. Welcome to Green is Good, Alexandre. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Welcome, John. Welcome, Mike, and thank you very much for this opportunity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Alexandre, I met you in San Francisco four or five months ago, and your story was so amazing and intriguing. Please share today with our listeners your great family and what they’ve created and how this whole great company came to being. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Well, it’s quite a long story. We are a family business, and it started in Spain with my father and my uncle in the late sixties, then my three brothers and I took over in France in 1990, more or less. We always had a natural product. We always have been doing natural charcoal for barbecues, and we created Green Heart charcoal briquettes for the barbecue in our factory in Brazil since 2005. Now we are in the United States around two years now with the company Eco Market Corporation, and we are in San Francisco, in California. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. First of all, let’s talk about the success of your family’s business. Who came up with this idea in your family, and how are the sales going outside of the United States, where you started the company? What countries have the most sales right now, and how have you been received? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Well, we’ve been doing charcoal first in Spain, and now in France and we’re selling a lot more in north Europe, but we’re selling of course in France, in Denmark, in England, in Germany, and all of these north European countries. It’s working pretty good because we have a very good product. It’s 100% natural, and that’s the only thing we know how to do. We do only natural products. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, obviously you had a lot of success already selling throughout Europe. So, you and your brothers decided to bring it here to the United States. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes, because we know that in the United States, they are very eco-friendly and also in Europe. For example, this year in Europe, we are selling around 21,000 tons. Here in the U.S., we are very new right now. We figured out that in the U.S., the need of this kind of product is very recent, but it’s going very strong. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Great. Let’s talk about what makes your Green Hearts natural charcoal briquettes carbon-neutral and eco-friendly. Share with our listeners why your product is so great. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Because we use only planted trees, and we are very strict on that because we’re doing that in Brazil. The government is very strict on the forest management regulations, and we have certified with an FGA certification, which is an international certification, and also RAG, it’s a German certification that is very famous in Europe. So, we use only planted trees. If you collect those trees, because they grow fast, and we plant those trees on soil depleted of its nutrients due to overplanting and/or poor farm management. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. So, you have a green factory in Brazil. In terms of the DNA and the culture of how you operate the factory, it’s done under all the best certifications and processes and procedures, and you create your briquettes from natural eucalyptus trees. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes. We are very proud also to say that our factory in Brazil, it’s a green factory because all the buildings, the warehouses, and the offices are constructed from wood extracted from local planted forests. So we do not use any air conditioning or heating equipment. We cool our facilities only by using traditional ventilation. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. So, really, it’s not just a great green product that you’re creating, but you’re not harming the environment during the process of the creation. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes. We are very proud of that because in the past, usually the people who used to make charcoal, lots of people used to see them like the bad guys because they were cutting the trees from the wood, so it was not very good. But right now, we try to do everything in a good way, so we plant the trees, we help the local to bring again the new forest, also we help for the biodiversity and for the animals also to come back. It’s very, very interesting, and I love what I’m doing. Also, it’s carbon-neutral because we absorb more CO2 than we create CO2, by planting those trees. When trees grow, they need CO2. They absorb CO2, and when we make this product, the charcoal, we create CO2. When we ship the product, we create CO2. When we do the barbecue, we also create CO2. But we absorb more CO2 than we create CO2. That’s why we are a carbon-neutral product. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Obviously, your family cares about the entire ecosystem. It’s just not about the profit that your family cares about, which of course is important for any sustainable business to stay in business for the long term, but you’ve given a lot of thought to all of your processes and procedures, so you’re making this wonderful product which is very eco-friendly, but you’re doing it in a very sustainable way and considering all the ecosystem around you in the process. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes. Properly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. So, now, let’s move to the next subject. Mike and I, we have so many great brands that come on the show and talk a lot about their newest product and stuff. One of the issues that always comes up is people are always worried about a green product with regards to quality and price. Talk a little bit about the quality and the price of your Green Hearts briquettes, and why your product is not only superior and eco-friendly, but you can answer the hard questions surrounding quality and price. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes, that’s a very good question because people want to do a good thing and want to have an eco-friendly product and want to be eco-friendly. Also they like good food, good taste, and at a reasonable price. What we’re doing right now is to give the people the opportunity to have a couple of natural products with no chemicals, no fossil fuels, no toxins, and no hard coal, because most of the briquettes you can find now in the market use chemicals. This is the only sustainable charcoal product you can find right now in the market. We’re getting the taste and the quality. Green Hearts is a very high-quality product which burns hotter and also longer than a regular charcoal. You can cook for more than three hours with no sparks. You will find the authentic grilled taste because I only use this product for generation right now in Europe. It’s very good because when you finish cooking, you can reuse the product if it’s not done 100%, so you can reuse the product or you can use it actually as compost for your plants. MIKE BRADY: OK, that makes a lot of sense. One of the questions I was going to ask, since you make the Green Hearts briquettes out of eucalyptus, and you grow your own trees and harvest them specifically for that purpose, anybody that’s got a fireplace that has ever burned eucalyptus would know, is that burns really hot. That’s some great fireplace wood. Obviously, it makes sense, Alexandre, that you could get longer cooking time and better heat generation from the briquettes made out of the eucalyptus. But let me ask you this. You mentioned also there’s no fossil fuel in the briquettes themselves, so what about lighting? What do you recommend? You wouldn’t want to ruin all that by using lighter fluid, would you? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: No, of course not. We highly recommend to use the chimney. It’s very easy and quick to light it, and you put only newspaper, and then you have your barbecue ready in 15 or 20 minutes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s interesting. If you’ve just joined our show and you have laptop or your iPad or your computers in front of you, we’re so excited to have Alexandre Soler-My on with us, and he is one of the family members behind the great company Green Hearts briquettes. You can look up their website right now while you’re listening to this show, www.greenhearts-us.com. Alexandre, let’s talk about you bringing this product to the United States and selling it to retailers. If I had a cookie company, I’m going to go to the retailers or to the other sales outlets and bring my cookies with me and have them just taste it in front of me and see if their face lights up. How do you go and meet with retailers and other people that you have to convince you’ve got a great product, and prove to them that this is truly the real deal? Talk a little bit about as an entrepreneur and eco-preneur, you sell a new product and a new concept to potentially wary retailers. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes. It’s a good question. We have been to many shows. We’ve been to Expo East, Expo West, all around, and we also show our product to big chains. Everybody loves our product. They think it’s a very good product and a very good idea, but then it’s very difficult for them, also, to decide to have this kind of product because in the United States, you have one very big company who’s got almost everything, and you have also two or three other companies who does charcoal and briquettes. But they have so much strong contracts in those huge companies, it’s very hard to get a piece of their inventory. But we’re getting little by little, by the only way right now that we can enter, is the eco-friendly way, the green way, because we are the only one who is 100% carbon-neutral. By this way, we’re getting little by little in the U.S. market. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, for our listeners out there that want to enjoy your great product, and it’s so exciting to have you on today because this is truly a very disruptive product. You say there’s no other competition in your space. Where can they go today in the United States and buy your great product besides online? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Right now, we’re still very small in the U.S., but you can find us in some grocery stores in San Francisco and in the Bay Area. We are also in some stores like Kinder’s Meat Market around the Bay Area. We almost have a good contract with a large company with becoming green. Right now I cannot tell the name because we’re not sure yet. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Sure. But you’ll come back on the show and you’ll tell us then. That’s the fun of this. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes. Of course. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Your beautiful product is heart-shaped. Talk a little bit about why Green Hearts briquettes are heart-shaped. Is that just for vanity, or is there a use to the shape? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: The heart shape was an idea of my big brother, Pierre, because it’s like the commitment to the environment. The heart is like what comes from the heart. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You love the environment. Your company loves the environment. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: To help the planet, to help all the life in the planet, so we decided to do this heart shape. Then we figured out that the heart shape actually helps with the lighting process, so it’s perfect. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. So, it actually helps with the lighting process, which helps discourage, as Mike pointed out earlier and you discussed earlier, the use of liquid lighter fuel. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: The countries that you have a history in, Alexandre, your roots, your cultural and your ethnic roots, both Spain and France, are known for wonderful food, obviously, and wonderful chefs. How do chefs respond when you talk to or meet in your travels professional chefs, where you try to sell your briquettes’ concept to some of these celebrity chefs? How do they respond to cooking with your heart briquettes? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: They just love it. We did a show in New York. They have the Culinary Institute, and they organize every year a huge barbecue made by I don’t know how many chefs, and it’s for at least 1,000 people. In 2008, they did this huge barbecue only using Green Hearts charcoal briquettes, and we had a very, very good response. We also are in some good restaurants, very famous restaurants, in California. They like it very much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What restaurant is that, if you don’t mind me asking? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: One is in L.A. It’s Sona. The chef is Kuniko Yagi. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, for any chefs out there, both mom chefs and dad chefs across America and also professional chefs, this is a superior product to cook with. You’re starting to see some of these great chefs in the United States start using your product, and they’re very happy with the taste that it leaves on the food product. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes, because they can cook longer. It’s a constant heat. Imagine in three hours, you don’t have to think about putting more charcoal. It’s very nice for the people who like to barbecue. This is the best way, really. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Beautiful. You have your facility in Brazil. Does your Brazil facility produce briquettes for all of Europe and also the United States? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: No, actually the Brazil factory will be only for Brazil and the United States. We have a factory in France for Europe. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. So, then what is your plan for the United States as you grow in the United States? What’s your plan as your company grows both in Europe and the United States? What’s your plan for factories? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: In Europe, we’re already well established, so our goal is to be able to produce in the United States using local farms to produce these Green Hearts charcoal briquettes, but right now we are too small. But there’s a demand for this eco-friendly product in the U.S. for sure. So, we hope that one day we will be able to do this process and have a factory in the U.S., of course. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. When you think about the possibilities here, what’s your real goal? Obviously, this is a small venture to start with, but you have a proven product in Europe. Where do you want to go with this in the United States? How big can it be? Entrepreneurs and eco-preneurs dream about the future and they have goals. What’s the goal with Green Hearts natural charcoal briquettes in the United States? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: If everybody in a few years can be very responsible about the Earth and about the eco-friendly product and a green or carbon-neutral product, it would be nice that everybody will use instead of burning chemicals, only burning eco-friendly products. If it could be all over the United States, it will be perfect. A new thing that I didn’t tell you, John and Mike, is that we have a contract right now with the French government for clean energy. Our unique system to produce the briquettes, we use of course wood which has been planted, so its biomass and we create energy using biomass by cogeneration. We can produce heat and clean energy for producing electricity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. That’s fascinating. After the United States, after you’ve conquered the United States, what other areas in the world is your company looking, your family and your company? What other opportunities? Is China the next big frontier after you conquer the United States for your family? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Why not? Right now, we are very concentrated in Europe and the United States, but of course, if everything goes well and we have a good response, of course we want to be all over the world. I mean, we are not the Superman that’s going to save the world, but I think everybody can help a little bit. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s right. Everything adds up, and little changes make big differences when you add them all up. Talk a little bit about being in a family business. How many family members are involved with the business back in Europe, and how many family members are involved with Green Hearts here in the United States? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Right now we have four brothers. My dad is still here, but he’s almost 80 years old now. We are the four brothers, so three of my brothers are in Europe, and right now I am the only one taking care of the United States, me and my wife of course. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, your dad is in Europe, or your dad is here in the States with you? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: No, my dad is in Europe also. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. So, your brothers are running the European operation while you’re over here. ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes, more or less. Sometimes they come here also, and sometimes I have to go to Europe, so a lot of traveling. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Where’s the headquarters for your great company? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: In France, it’s in the Champagne area. In the United States, it’s in San Francisco. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wonderful. And, in Brazil, you have offices in the factory in Brazil? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Yes, it’s in the state of Minas Gerais. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Where is that close to? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: It’s Rio de Janeiro, north maybe 1,000-2,000 miles. But it’s almost in the middle of Brazil. It’s a very big state. The capital is Belo Horizonte, so it’s in a town named Sete Lagos. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. And how many years ago was that factory set up? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: We started this factory around 2004-2005. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Alexandre, we’re going to have you come back on when you’ve signed some of these big contracts you’re working on, and then tell our listeners where they can buy your product. Right now they can but it online at your great website. We’re down to the last minute or so. Do you have any final thoughts you want to share with our listeners, or any thoughts of inspiration about your company and about the environment? ALEXANDRE SOLER-MY: Well, one thing I didn’t speak about is the price because I always forget the price. The price is pretty interesting, because compared to the all-natural charcoal briquettes you can find, the price will be better. Compared to the regular charcoal like the regular briquettes you can find with chemicals added, it would be maybe 10-15% higher, which is not very much compared that we can cook almost twice longer, so at the end it’s cheaper. So, really we have a very interesting price and quality. I hope that not only our company, but all the companies that do this kind of product, will change their mind and do only natural and eco-friendly products because we know that if everybody takes care of our forests and of the trees, because everybody needs trees and plants to be able to breathe. If we cut down trees and we don’t plant them again, one day we will not have enough. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re right, and we thank you. On those comments, we’ll end today. We’ll say thank you so much. It was an honor for Mike and I to have you on our show to share the wonderful story of Green Hearts natural charcoal briquettes. If our listeners would like to buy and enjoy and use Alexandre’s great product, please go to his site, www.greenhearts-us.com. Alexandre Soler-My, you are a great eco-preneur and truly living proof that green is good.