President and CEO, Sabarot
Antoine Wassner is the President and CEO of Sabarot, a company specializing in pulses, cereals, mushrooms and escargot. It was founded in 1819 and is best known for its world renowned Le Puy green lentils.
Sabarot Celebrates 200 Years as a Pulse Industry Leader
Best known for its Le Puy green lentils, today the company generates €60 million in annual sales and distributes its products to 45 countries.
Nearly two years ago, young Prince George of Cambridge attended his first day of school and was served a lunch of smoked mackerel on a bed of Le Puy green lentils. The Prince’s menu was duly reported by the press, and as word spread, the limelight was cast across the English Channel to France’s Auvergne region, where this unique pulse is grown.
In an interview back then, Antoine Wassner, CEO of Sabarot, the world’s leading Le Puy lentil distributor, said the incident led to a buying spree by English customers, particularly restaurants. “It’s the star effect,” he said at the time, referring to the sales phenomenon that comes with a celebrity association.
This memorable anecdote is just one of many from the company’s storied 200-year history. It is rehashed here because the royal treatment Le Puy lentils received that day is indicative of just how far the pulse, and Sabarot, have come.
The year was 1819 when Jean-Pierre Sabarot was tasked by his father with expanding the family’s textile business into Le Puy en Velay in southeastern Auvergne. A year later, Jean-Pierre acquired a water mill and began dutifully manufacturing textiles. He also began milling wheat. Two generations later, his grandson, Joseph Sabarot, took an interest in the green lentil variety grown locally and became the first person to begin producing it for commercial purposes. From there, the Sabarot name became synonymous with Le Puy green lentils.
Over the generations, the company grew its product portfolio to include other pulses, cereals and grains, as well as mushrooms and escargot, and expanded into international markets. Today, Antoine, representing the family’s seventh generation, is at the helm of the company and continues to build on his great-great-grandfather’s legacy.
In early July, the company celebrated its 200thanniversary and gave select guests, including GPC President Cindy Brown, a privileged tour of their new facility, featuring both a cooking line and an IQF (individually quick frozen) line for grains and pulses. The facility will supply product for restaurants and Sabarot’s industrial customers.
“It’s a large investment with huge potential,” says Antoine, adding coyly, “but I’ll say no more for the moment.”
As Sabarot celebrated its bicentennial, GPC had the honor of interviewing Antoine about his company and the latest developments in France’s pulse sector.
GPC: Sabarot’s successful history is closely tied to the Le Puy green lentil. What is it that makes them so special?
Antoine:The Le Puy green lentil grows exclusively in our region, on volcanic plains situated between 600 and 1,200 meters above sea level. Its exceptional organoleptic and nutritional properties come from the pedoclimatic conditions in the area.
Before my great-great grandfather Joseph Sabarot started commercializing them, they had only been grown and eaten in the Haute Loire region. Today, they are produced and packaged in accordance with strict specifications laid down by the ODG (Organisme de Défense et de Gestion) control body and are protected by a Protected Designation of Origin.
Le Puy green lentils have become famous in the world of high-end cuisine. They are popular with Michelin-starred chefs for their unique nutty flavor and texture. The skin is very thin and not at all starchy.
Here in France, they are an integral part of the cuisine, whatever the season may be. The most famous recipe is le petit salé aux lentilles vertes du Puy, a dish that marries Le Puy green lentils with sausages. They are also eaten in salads.
GPC: Today Sabarot sells much more than Le Puy green lentils. Could you tell us what led it to expand its portfolio?
Antoine: At the end of the 20thcentury, the company decided to expand its product range by commercializing other pulses, 80% of which were imported at the time. It was a bold move because per capita pulse consumption had fallen in France from 7 kg/year in the early 1900s to 2.5 kg/year in the 1970s. My grandfather, Paul Wassner, foreseeing a reversal of this trend, decided to go against the flow and took the risk of broadening our range of pulse products.
Today, Sabarot sells 20,000 MT of pulses and grains per year, and we also offer mushrooms, escargot and berries.
GPC: What are some of the changes you are noticing in France’s pulse industry today?
Antoine:Just five years ago, French farmers were focused mainly on producing the major commodity crops. But the International Year of Pulses brought other options to their attention. Today, farmers seek to diversify their crops. Including pulses in their rotations allows them to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Its no longer a challenge to find conventional pulse growers in France.
However, for the past two years we have seen a huge growth in demand for organic pulses, and these are far more difficult to find. So this is the new challenge that my purchasing manager Claire Rock takes on every day.
GPC: In 2018, you received Verlingue’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Strategic Vision. Could you tell us about that accomplishment?
Antoine: Our mill in Brives Charensac had been flooded several times. The sorting activity for pulses had been moved in 1998 and the family had acquired another mill in the east of the region in order to protect the future of our milling activity.
In 2006, two years after joining the family business, I persuaded my father to sell off the milling activity in order to enable us to concentrate on niche markets.
Since then, Sabarot has become the largest importer of quinoa in France and we are constantly on the lookout for new seed products. We are also modernizing our traditional range, offering new mixes of pulses and grains that satisfy today’s consumer trends whilst also reducing preparation times.
We are also evolving our organic product range and developed a community of 5,000 followers through our Lundi Veggie online blog.
This transformation has doubled our sales and allowed us to hire twice as much staff.
GPC: Speaking of consumer trends, I heard you quickly picked up on some on your visits to the United States. What did you see there that piqued your interest?
Antoine: I always enjoy an Angus steak when I am in the U.S., but I also instantly recognized the growing enthusiasm for vegetarian products. In the U.S., I was impressed with these healthy, yet quick and convenient products in salad bars, vegetarian restaurants and even vegan fast food eateries.
Flexitarianism is a growing trend globally that has now arrived in Europe. Consumers are eating less animal protein, and we can take up that part of the European market by offering healthy, ready-to-eat food products.
Since 2011, we’ve invested €20 million and seen constant growth of 15% per annum. Now we’ve added a new production facility that houses a cooking line and an IQF line. We are poised to take advantage of the opportunities these consumer trends offer the pulse industry.