Alter Eco Offers Delicious Fair-Trade and Organic Foods You Can’t Get Locally

Maybe, like me, you live in Minneapolis, or someplace else in the United States where coffee, cocoa beans, quinoa, and rice don’t grow. Maybe, like me, those are some of your absolute favorite things, and you’re not willing to give them up. Maybe, like me, your spouse has even suggested that giving them up would be detrimental to your marriage. What are you going to do?

I recently had the chance to speak with Mathieu Senard, co-founder of Alter Eco’s United States division. I first discovered Alter Eco’s products at Linden Hills Co-op about a year ago. I was looking for a selection of delicious organic, fair trade chocolates for my wife’s birthday, and my friend Jeanne (now Marketing Programs Specialist for the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA)) recommended Alter Eco’s Dark Chocolate Quinoa and Dark Chocolate Velvet bars (she also recommended Equal Exchange’s Mint Chocolate with a Delicate Crunch, by the way - another organic, fair-trade favorite). Jeanne has good taste.

Mathieu told me that Alter Eco started in the year 1998 with a storefront in Paris, selling fair-trade products (including furniture and crafts) sourced from Africa. In 2002, sensing both a market opportunity and a way to make a big, positive impact, the company started focusing on developing fair trade food products for the retail market. In 2004, Mathieu and his business partner Edouard Rollet (both born in France) launched the U.S. division of Alter Eco. Currently, the company supports more than 50 small-scale farmer cooperatives in 30 countries. Its sales exceed $20 million globally.

Mathieu comes from a self-described "wine family," but 18 months in Cambodia -- much of which was spent volunteering at an orphanage -- opened his eyes and changed his life forever. On his return from Cambodia, Mathieu went to business school in France. According to Mathieu, Alter Eco is the perfect job for him, allowing him to explore his passion for good food and to flex his "B-school" muscles at the same time.

I wanted to better understand Alter Eco’s ideals, so I asked Mathieu what it means to be a global company in the context of the growing local food movement.

“I fully support the local food movement,” Mathieu told me. “When you can’t get it local, get it fair trade. We connect what we do to the local movement. A typical co-op we buy from is made up of 400 families selling heirloom products, so when we partner with them, we’re supporting their local economy, not just a single family.”

The products Alter Eco sent me included several types of quinoa (red, black), rice (black and purple jasmine), and chocolate (described above) -- all were delicious, packaged in lovely ways, and easy to deal with. The flavors and textures felt exotic but familiar enough that my kids would eat them too. If I had to live the rest of my life on sticky jasmine rice and Dark Chocolate Velvet bars, I could be happy.

Lots has been written about food that is local, organic, sustainable, fair trade, and humane (even by me!). Mindful consumers will be careful to support businesses we feel good about, and may give up products that we love but can’t buy sustainably. And yet, although we're thoughtful and idealistic, we're also practical; none of the local food fanatics I know have given up chocolate or coffee, and none of us plan to. In Minneapolis, our choices for non-local organic, fair trade foods include Peace Coffee, Equal Exchange, Alakef, and others. Alter Eco is now on my list as well.

“We sell healthy artisanal foods that are good for us and good for our planet,” Mathieu told me, “we’re concerned about ethics and quality.” Me too.


Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. E-mail him at or follow him on Twitter.