Charles Darbonne represents the fifth generation of the Darbonnes involved in the family business. In 2003, after earning a business degree from Bordeaux College and working for three years as a financial auditor, he joined the family business. Charles served as Marketing Manager for the next three years, and then created the retail branch of Daregal within the U.S. known as Daregal Gourmet.
Q: Please tell us about your family heritage and your great great grandfather starting the company.
My family has always been farmers; our farming activity dates back more than 500 years. At the end of the 18th centuries, there were many changes due to the industrial revolution so my great great grandfather decided to try something different by growing fine herbs for aromatic and culinary purposes: he founded Daregal in 1887 and started to sell herbs at the local markets.
For the short story Daregal is the abbreviation for Darbonne (our family name) and “regal: (from the French verb “regaler”: to feast, to treat)
Q: Why did he choose Milly-la-Foret and what is special about the region?
CD: Our family has been in the region for centuries. Milly-la-Foret has a tradition of growing herbs: geographically it is a “basin” with small mounts all around it, providing a microclimate. The weather is very consistent and perfect for herbs: not too hot, not too cold, not too rainy, not to dry. The soil is rich, unpolluted, and very fertile. Milly-la-Foret is part of the Beauce region, South of Paris, which is by tradition an agricultural and farming area.
Q: What was your grandfather’s contribution to the company?
CD: My grandfather saw the potential of selling aromatic herbs, so he decided to bring this small farm into a business, meaning a real agricultural company. One of the first steps was therefore to add production capabilities to the small farming process, meaning introducing tractors. My grandfather added new equipment even though at that time it was a common conception that tractors could pack the soil by their weight, and thus kill the ground’s fertility. Nevertheless, he decided to introduce more advanced methods to produce dry herbs.
Q: What was your father’s contribution to the company?
CD: The transfer of power in between my grandfather and father, also happened due to a technological input. My father studied engineering and thermo technologies. He was very interested in new machineries and technologies. He went on thinking about freezing herbs. At that time, vegetables started to be marketed as frozen vegetables, so he imagined creating “frozen culinary herbs”. Lots of research and modifications were necessary, as the process of freezing corn and peas would not apply to a leaf of basil or parsley. So he studied further, and invented a specific process. He also designed the technology and machinery to freeze herbs. He built the equipment himself, and patented the machines.
Q: What will be your contribution to the company?
CD: This is a very interesting question. My grandfather transformed the business from a farm to an agricultural business. My father transformed it from an agricultural to an industrial company. Therefore, I could see myself bringing it to the level of a ’service’ company, which would be the logical evolution. I see us as being “flavor facilitators” selling “culinary solutions”, and not products.
Q: Daregal is the world leader in frozen gourmet herbs. What were the keys to your success?
CD: Our success is the fact that we are both an agricultural and industrial firm. We control both ends of the production. We manage the entire process, from farming, to the freezing and manufacturing of the products. Also, it is important to note that we have been growing herbs for 120 years and we have created the best plant seeds. We have therefore mastered our seeds and our plants. There is no comparison on the market.
Q: How do you make sure that the herbs have the best aromas?
CD: It is the same answer. We have created the best seeds over the past 120 years of growing herbs. The plants that grow out of these seeds have the best aromas. The fact that we control the entire process helps us produce the most aromatic and delicious plants: we supervise the growing of the plants, even the watering, the harvesting and the transportation. All the details are in our control.
Q: How do you freeze fresh herbs without damaging them?
CD: Our technology is called flash freezing. Flash-freezing is the best conservation method there can be, because it preserves not only the flavor but also all the plant’s nutrients. That is because only a few hours go by between the time we pick and freeze our aromatic herbs. What’s more, there is nothing to add to conserve them, because nothing could be more natural than cold.
Q: Can you share some “secrets” of your expertise?
CD: Of course I will not. But that was a nice try. I can just tell you that we have an R&D department that comes up with many more ’secrets’ to make your food more delicious and the use more convenient.
And, if you’d like to know more, do take a look at our latest video presenting our gourmet herbs from farming to your table!
Q: What difference do you see between the European and US markets regarding the consumer and eating habits?
CD: The difference is tremendous. But let me also say that there is great diversity within the European markets themselves. We sell our products throughout Europe and the taste differences are important between Spain, England or let’s say France. In the US the distinction is important between the various regions and market. Taste varies tremendously. The only consistent answer is how the consumers love the flavors and convenience of our products.
Q: Tell us about your success and missteps in the US market?
CD: Well, the market is still growing, at a fast pace. Our 2008 numbers were doubled from the previous year. However the concept of frozen herbs is totally new. You visit the frozen aisles of your supermarkets to buy vegetables or ready-prepared meals, not aromatic herbs. So much education still needs to be done, because it is such a new concept. We know that once consumers try our herbs they will be convinced, hooked should I say, because there is no comparison to fresh herb for its convenience, or to dry herb for its taste. We offer the best of both worlds, and we need the US market to know about it.
Q: Do you have any anecdotes or stories you care to share about Daregal or your experience in the US?
CD: When we do in store demos, consumers regularly ask me about the size of my garden. It is a nice thing to say because our herbs are so fresh and tasteful that consumers always associate it with the concept of a small garden. On the other hand, I did bring one of our major customers to our plant in France. She brought her rain boots, since she thought she was going to a farm and was planning to walk around in the mud. She was astonished when she visited our production facilities: we wear protection hats, suits, protection on our shoes, the same way you would in a research lab or rocket factory. The level of technology is very advanced and everything is robotized. Again, it looks more like a science lab than an agricultural plant. Actually, you can see our new corporate video on our site and get a feel on how we produce and manufacture our herbs. Our products are very simple, just herbs, but the way we produce, manufacture and use them is very advanced.