Garçon Wines CEO and co-founder Santiago Navarro charts the rise of an international, multi-award winning packaging innovation that’s shaking up the world of wine
Share with us the origins of Garçon Wines. How did it all begin?
The idea to flatten a wine bottle came as my co-founder and I were trying to find a way to deliver a wine bottle through the letterbox of a UK home. There’s around 33 million wine drinkers in the UK and they consume around 1.7 billion bottles annually. So, finding a way to seamlessly deliver wine in single bottles represented an attractive commercial opportunity.
It was after much brainstorming that we came up with the very simple yet highly effective adaptation to flatten the round bottle and make it from lightweight, strong, and sustainable material; recycled PET. This would allow us to achieve our delivery goals and eventually unlock significantly greater opportunities for the wider world of wine. Today, our invention is being positioned as a serious challenger to round, glass bottles. It might well end up replacing the 19th century bottle with a superior 21st century one.
Have you found yourself having to explain and defend the use of ‘plastic’?
We make our flat wine bottles from 100 per cent recycled PET because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the only sustainable material source available in large enough volumes to create a truly scalable sustainable wine bottle solution. Not all plastics are created equal and a large part of the problem we have with the diverse range of polymers, which are commonly referred to as plastics, is that some great materials like PET – very energy efficient to produce, easy to recycle and widely recycled – are grouped together with problem materials like polystyrene.
PET bottles require significantly less energy to produce, move, and recycle than glass. In fact, research shows PET bottles generate 77 per cent lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than glass bottles, and recycled PET means 79 per cent lower CO2 emissions than virgin PET material. Furthermore, using post-consumer recycled PET, pre-existing material not single-use plastic, creates a value for plastic already in circulation, putting it back to good use, funding and fuelling its collection and helping mitigate against it being discarded to landfill or littering our environment.
Yes, there are instances when I do have to defend the use of plastic – but when presented with the facts, no rational or reasonable person can argue that swapping glass for recycled PET and round for flat are both not the right thing to do. It’s highly unfortunate that at a time when our planet is on fire, that an ill-informed hatred of all plastics can be putting so much at risk. Plastic haters are acting irresponsibly, irrationally, and unreasonably.
When you’re pitching the concept’s credentials, what are the standout facts and figures that tend to stop wine, packaging and logistics professionals in their tracks?
The shape innovation represents 40 per cent space saving over an average round bottle. This is probably the single element that drives most interest…that and the fact our recycled PET bottles are 87 per cent lighter than an average glass wine bottle. We offer a 10-bottle case which has eight bottles packed like books and two bottles packed at 90 degrees in the airspace around the necks of the eight bottles. It’s the world’s most compact wine case and would otherwise carry just four round, glass bottles of the same 75cl volume. By packing more bottles in a case, we can also pack more bottles on a pallet, and this once again means we can pack up to two and a half times as much wine on a pallet. These efficiencies mean we slash both financial and environmental costs benefiting both planet and profits, and ultimately people too. We’re a benchmark example of triple bottom line sustainability.
What was the first major breakthrough on your journey?
Actually getting our bottles prototyped. It’s likely that without this happening, the concept may have risked never coming to market and remaining as sketches and a brief business plan in my laptop. We had tried for some time to get the bottles manufactured but due to the challenging nature of the shape we were looking to produce, and as start-up entrepreneurs without significant order volumes to prove demand or without successful careers in packaging, we kept on being turned away.
It was only as a result of a chance meeting that I had with someone at a social dinner party, that I found out about a TV show being planned – looking for British entrepreneurs with a product. I shared what we were doing on my phone and just a few days later, we had auditioned and been accepted onto the show. Over the following weeks, at the end of 2016, we took our product from concept to budding business, displaying prototypes in a pop-up shop in Central London.
Tell us about other milestone moments since then?
The prototypes we had produced in China generated an immense amount of positive media and at this point we were still planning to launch as our own business-to-consumer wine club in the UK. But after being introduced to successful entrepreneur Ryan Howsam, who became our lead investor and my mentor, we embarked on a very different path. He agreed to fund the business at concept stage and for us to bring bottle production to the UK, extend our intellectual property portfolio to cover a large part of the wine consuming world, and to pivot from being a UK wine club to a multinational wine wholesale and packaging solutions company. The decision to proceed with this bigger and bolder plan was a momentous milestone and one which has proven to be so much more beneficial.
Another huge step on our journey was securing our first order and shipping product. Bloom & Wild, the pioneers of letterbox flowers, were growing impressively and were open to look at more products. Wine and flowers seemed like a perfect match. They agreed to take a large enough order which would allow us to buy wine as a bulk purchase in a transit tank. We packed the wines, the team personally delivered the order to the north of the UK in a rented van, the wines went live on their site and app, and suddenly people right across the UK could have our creation delivered at home. After all that we had done, from the TV show at the end of 2016 to this point in May 2018, the feeling of satisfaction and joy was hard to beat. We had made it happen.
You’ve challenged an industry, steeped in history and tradition, to reinvent the way it operates. How has that been?
We believe the emotional and experiential connection to wine bottles is fundamentally important, and we need to respect this if we’re to stand a good chance of becoming the dominant packaging format for wine in the decades, and possibly centuries, to come. Therefore, we wouldn’t view what we do as challenging the wine industry but more like we’re assisting the industry by advancing its wine bottles and packaging to be more sustainable and to be better suited for the 21st century. We’re confident that what we’re doing is right for the industry, consumers, and our planet, and this confidence is a strong driving force.
In terms of international wine regions, have some been more receptive than others?
Nearly all our commercial opportunities come to us and for this reason, we’re clearer who are the likers and early adopters. It would probably come as no surprise that the most forward-thinking New World countries of Australia, Chile, and the US have shown significant interest, which is why we’re actively looking to establish commercial operations in all three countries and we’ve been in discussions with many leading wine companies there throughout 2019. An interesting one, which I would not have predicted, and many cautioned me about, is France. French wine producers from right across the country have shown exceptional interest and this has pleased us no end. We’ve got some very interesting projects with well-respected producers in the pipeline. After all, we’re offering flat versions of their two main bottle shapes.
What’s on the immediate horizon, in 2020, for Garçon Wines?
It’s the first year in which we’ll start to significantly scale our business. The start of the new decade, and arguably one of the most important decades in human history, will see us launch in the US with Amcor. Additionally, we’ll expand our coverage across Europe and launch a multichannel and multinational collaboration with one of the giants in wine. Their well-loved brands in our innovative bottles will make for the ideal pairing and will see the implementation of our bottles accelerate at a speed that we alone would not be able to achieve.
What does the company aspire to look like 20 years from now?
We’ll be very different from the company we are today. Our vision for the future is that we’ll offer both products and services, across different categories and to different customers in different countries. We’ve started off with wine products. We’re also already working on some projects in spirits. At the same time, we believe that through better packaging you unlock better logistics, and so we’ll likely work on projects in logistics too. The FMCG space is a diverse and large one, and wine is not unique in needing a 21st century upgrade.
In your vision of the future, is there still a place for the old glass cylinder?
There’s definitely still a place. However, this will be for a very small per centage of the finest wines which benefit from ageing in bottle for many decades. There will always be a sentimental part of the market and some brands will also want to offer their wines in the 19th century round, glass bottles for a nostalgia look and feel.