The filmmaker who makes chocolate
Path #12: Vincent Mourou's journey from Hollywood to the cacao fields of Vietnam.
“Through all the challenges and success that you’ll experience, you have to make decisions. And if you make decisions based on your values, you can get through pretty much anything.”
In 2017, Kim and I took a big trip to Vietnam, and on one swelteringly hot day in Ho Chi Minh City, we decided to look for some chocolate. But not just any chocolate. We learned that two crazy French guys had moved to Vietnam, started crafting unbelievably tasty bars entirely in-country, and were selling it under the name Marou. Word-of-mouth was growing that this stuff was divine. And it just so happened that they’d recently opened their first shop-slash-cafe. Off we went.
When we landed at Maison Marou, past the heat and bikes and commerce on the streets, it was an oasis. The smell of freshly-roasted cacao. Ice-cold chocolate drinks. Air conditioning! And the chocolate itself was next-level.
In the years since launching the business, Sam Maruta and Vincent Mourou have grown Marou into an influential chocolate powerhouse. Below, Vincent opens up about the passions and challenges of his adventurous life—from his years as a filmmaker, to searching for meaning on a motorbike in Vietnam, to his business partner Sam’s tragic passing in 2021—and what he’s learned on the journey.
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Got a map?
Where I’m from isn’t so simple. I’m French, but I was born in Quebec, where my father was studying physics. Then we moved back to France, before heading to Rochester, New York, where we lived for 10 years. We eventually landed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I decided to stay for school. I studied pre-med at the University of Michigan and finished with a degree in science and neuropsychology.
Anyway, I didn’t want to pursue any of those paths. I’d always been interested in films. My father was a film nut and I saw Citizen Kane when I was like seven years old. Film was this whole world with so much for me to learn. So I started working on student films with friends at Michigan. Then I bought a motorcycle and drove cross-country to LA. I thought it would only be for the summer, but I ended up not leaving!
Finding a groove in filmmaking
In LA, I had an opportunity to get into editing, which I thought would be the best place to learn filmmaking. With films, you’re translating something from the page into a visual and audio format, and editing is where everything comes together. I was really into it. But I never saw myself as an editor. I didn’t have the personality type, nor did I want to live in a dark room for the entire day and only see three people.
So I thought, why not try directing? I started doing my own projects and realized I was really interested in short-form films. Which drew me to commercial films. But this was 2003 and a time of budget cutting. There was a recession in the ad world. It was feast or famine. No one wanted new directors. It was really tough. And then I got headhunted…
Life in 3D
I moved to London to work at an agency that specialized in super high-end 3D visualizations. This was the genesis of creating photo-real images from CGI. It was pioneering. The company was doing work for Sony, Nikon and Apple, but they didn’t really know how to make content. When I came onboard, I really pushed the medium. But even though I was at the top of my game, I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. I’d been so focused on career-building for years that I hadn’t taken the time to see the world. So I eventually resigned. An old friend was living in Ho Chi Minh City at the time. He said, “Come on over, it’s awesome here”. So I did.
Pack your bags
Vietnam is such a youthful and dynamic place with so much potential. I just felt there was something there for me, even if I wasn’t sure what yet. I met the expat community through my friend, and everyone was so welcoming. No one cared who I was or what I had done in my career. I was just Vincent Mourou. I said I wanted to reinvent myself, to discover and try something new.
I’ve always been drawn to what’s good for people, natural things. So in Vietnam I started researching different plants and botanicals and taking trips to see them firsthand. But nothing was really sticking. I felt like I was forcing it. I was trying a bit too hard.
Nine months later, I did a weekend survival trek in the jungle led by a former French Foreign Legion commando guy. I saw it on Facebook and I signed up for it. I knew no one. There were 10 of us. And I met a guy named Sam.
“There’s cacao in Vietnam?”
Sam had recently taken a sabbatical from the French bank Société Générale. Over the course of some weeks we’d run into each other here and there. I had signed up for intensive Vietnamese classes at the local university and I bumped into him there, too. We quickly struck up a friendship.
Around this time I was involved in kite surfing and a friend brought some chocolate with him to the beach. “Vincent, you're looking for ideas,” he said. “Why don’t you do something with cacao in Vietnam?” I said, “There’s cacao in Vietnam?”
I love chocolate. I’ve always loved chocolate. It just fills with goodness. It reminds me of my childhood. I had one grandmother who was really into dark chocolate and another who was into milk chocolate. My mom would always find a way to get good chocolate into the house. It was a staple for me. So I started researching this path.
Plotting and planning
I ran into Sam again a few weeks later. I asked him what he was up to, and he told me he was helping a Vietnamese friend who was selling cacao powder. That’s funny, I said, because I just found out that cacao grows in Vietnam!
Two months go by. It’s now February 2011. Sam said, “Why don’t you come over for a beer tonight, meet my wife, and we’ll continue our conversation?” That night, I explained my frustrations, how I’d been trying to visit cacao farms and meet farmers but, as a foreigner in Vietnam, I wanted to do things by the book, through official channels. Yet I wasn't getting anywhere with that strategy. “Tomorrow,” I said, “I’m going to get on my motorbike and go to the countryside and find some cacao.” Sam’s wife said, “Sam, you should join him. You need to get out of the house!”
“Let’s make chocolate!”
The next day, with a map, we headed to the province of Bà Rịa, about two hours away, on a mission to find cacao. And we eventually did. On the side of the road, we actually saw a sign that said Selling cacao. We pulled in, met the farmer and his son, and tasted his cacao. As a thank-you for the impromptu tour, we bought a few kilos. Then we got back on the motorbike and continued exploring.
At the end of that day, it was time to head home. On the ferry crossing the Đồng Nai River to go back to Ho Chi Minh City, I turned to Sam and said, “So, what’s next?”
He looked at me and said, “Let’s start a company!”
“Doing what? Trading cacao?”
“No, forget trading. That’s a volume game. Too capital intensive.”
“So, what should we do? Wanna… make chocolate?”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “Let’s make chocolate!”
Not bad. Not bad at all…
There was a website called Chocolate Alchemy written by a guy named John Nance. He shows you how to start with some very basic equipment in your kitchen. So we went back to Sam’s house with our three kilos of cacao. We put the beans on a baking tin in Sam’s oven, roasted them, pulled them out, and then started grinding them in a little cocktail grinder. We soon burned the motor completely.
But we ended up with a paste. It was extremely raw, powerful and intense… but not foul! It was a eureka moment. With some time, tools and technique, we could get somewhere. It was possible.
Are your values my values?
Sam said, “Let's meet tomorrow and talk about how we want to do business.” I said, “Great, let’s do that, but I also want to have a conversation about our values.”
We met the next day and had a conversation about what we wanted to get out of this. What’s really pushing us to do this? We realized that our values were aligned. And then we put those values into Marou. It was the most important conversation that Sam and I ever had. Because through all the challenges and success that you’ll experience, you have to make decisions. And if you make decisions based on your values, you can get through pretty much anything.
Sam and I wanted to grow a passion project. We weren’t going to build this thing up in five years and sell it off. Our goal was to make a difference, while also making the best chocolate possible—natural, authentic, local. To be a company that provides for the community. To pay farmers well. We realized very few people were making quality chocolate in the country of origin. There were four or five companies in the world that were able to export from the producing country. We wanted to prove it was possible to bring value to the country where the chocolate is produced. That was our quest.
Back of the napkin
Our original 3-year business plan was to set up in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, with a shop up front, a workshop in the back, and export overseas to get the chocolate known abroad. But as we looked for locations in the center of the city and worked on the legal side of things, we were quickly confronted with the fact that the authorities wouldn’t allow us to manufacture in the city, even on a very small scale. We weren’t able to do something like Dandelion does in San Francisco, for instance.
What we wanted to do, it turns out, was risky. To create something in Vietnam, you’re either a factory out in the industrial zone and have a license to export, or you do something in the city, but then you’re not allowed to export. So we said, let’s forget the shop for now. We’ll just manufacture. We went out to the edge of the city, found a 300 square meter warehouse, got the paperwork for manufacturing, and we began.
I got a guy in Cambodia…
At the time, the bean-to-bar movement wasn’t big enough for machines like chocolate grinders to really be on the market. But we needed some desperately. So I went down the street to an Indian restaurant and asked if they had any. I knew they use them to make dosas. They had one, but not any to sell to us. Instead, the owner gave me the contact of a guy he knew in Cambodia who apparently had some. But he didn’t. The guy in Cambodia told me I’ve gotta visit Mustafa’s in Singapore, which is this huge, sprawling market. And finally, there at Mustafa Center, I found these little grinders, which we brought back to Vietnam. It was amazing, because all of a sudden we were starting to get the texture and taste right.
Enter Mr Hoa
Alright, so we learned how to start a company and how to make chocolate. Now we had to find some cacao. We got in touch with a guide who we’d met during our jungle trek, Mr. Hoa. He lived out in the countryside and on weekends he was free, so we paid him to scout cacao for us. He would travel out to all these different provinces, find cacao fermenters, get a small sample of their beans, and then ship it back to us by bus. After every weekend, we would end up with samples from all over Vietnam. It was really exciting. Hoa would send us a sample, we would make a test with it, and if we found it interesting, then we’d go out to meet the fermenter and get a good sense of the place and build a relationship.
Nailing the brand
Meanwhile, we knew we needed to develop a strong brand identity. There was a lot of competition out there, so why would people choose this bar of chocolate from an origin they’d never heard of? We had everything going against us. We weren’t from the chocolate world, we were producing in a country not known for cacao. So the chocolate quality had to be great, but we needed a brand that looked great on the shelf, too. We met some designers who had recently quit working for an agency and were starting their own company. We shared our idea and they said they’d deliver an award-winning design. We were like, Wow, these guys are confident. Let’s do it!
Standing out from the crowd
We also needed an approach people would connect with. For us, that was making authentic chocolate by working directly with farmers and fermenters in Vietnam.
I remember it was August and we were at Sam’s place. It was a tropical house, really hot and damp. We were waiting for our business license. We were waiting for machines. And we were dealing with the brand identity. But we still had no idea what we were going to release. What will we offer as an experience? What will our first line of chocolate be?
Well, we were getting cacao from all these different provinces, each of which has distinct differences in taste, just like the terroir of wine. The notes went from very fruity and acidulated to rounder and spicier. It was so interesting. We realized that no one had really taken a producing country and presented the variety of its cacao that’s discernible through taste. People could actually experience this. It wasn’t BS. We were getting cacao from five provinces, so we decided to make five dark chocolates!
State of play
We found two investors that were crazy enough to believe in this. We put our own money in, too. We had just enough funds for a year. Everything started coming together. The machines started arriving. We had our cacao. We were in our space at the edge of town. And we started making chocolate at the end of November 2011, only 9 months after coming up with the idea! A very, very intense (and fun) nine months.
We started selling to a few shops in Ho Chi Minh City. All our friends thought we were crazy. No one thought we would get this off the ground. People were like, Chocolate? You're gonna make chocolate in Vietnam? But when we launched, they were excited. The chocolate was good. There was nothing like it on the market. The only other products here were industrial chocolates, not artisanal.
A few big breaks
One of our investors went back to London and had dinner with the editor of Wallpaper magazine. He had our little gold bars with a little sticker and Sam had written on them with calligraphy. It was simple but sharp. And she was like, “I love this! Can these guys make something for Wallpaper?” We had only been in business for a few weeks! He writes to us, “Guys, Wallpaper wants you to make a chocolate for them.” So we did. They wanted to release it in Milan for Design Week, which they did. Soon our chocolate went viral on design blogs and websites. We started getting contacted by distributors, journalists, designers, everybody. It was incredible, and helped us to build momentum for export.
My sister-in-law was distributing us at first in the US. We didn’t have a distributor, so she just set up a company and started importing it! Our first export was to the US, to a friend of my sister's who had started a specialty coffee shop in Detroit called Astro Coffee. We were also connected to Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, which is well-known in the food world. Those were our first two customers.
The early years were extraordinary. Going from zero to the best stores in France, the UK, the US, Japan. A breakthrough for Marou was the article about us in the New York Times. The journalist they sent was the novelist Lawrence Osborne. A real character. We took him around the countryside and had a lot of fun. All of a sudden we were getting contacted from people in Peru, Pakistan, Kazakhstan. That was a great moment for us as a brand.
The wonderful thing about the bean-to-bar community is there’s a lot of sharing. One insight was from a company in the US. They told us that by having their own retail and workshop in the same space, they were making three times the revenue we were making, by producing by three times less chocolate!
We were seeing that in Vietnam, the middle class had really started spending. This was early 2015. They were starting to buy small cars. Franchising arrived. Starbucks came, McDonald’s came. The country was changing. So we said, okay, let’s open a shop in Ho Chi Minh City.
But we wanted more than just products on the shelf. We wanted to create an experience. We knew that Vietnamese wouldn’t really be drawn to just the chocolate bar. But if we had chocolate, drinks, ice cream, pastries and all these other things, all in one place, we’d be bean-to-bar and beyond. It would be a complete 360-degree experience. That was really exciting. If only we could find the right people to help us put it together…
We contacted a former customer of ours, Stéphanie Aubriot. She had started as the pastry chef of Michel Roux, the 3-star Michelin chef, at La Maison 1888 in the InterContinental Danang. It’s one of the best restaurants in Vietnam. Stéphanie had been using our chocolate. We told her, “Hey, we have this concept. We don't know if you're available, but if you know someone who would be good to work with us, let us know.” And she replied, “I’d love to come in as a consultant and help you start up.” Stéphanie helped us get everything together for all the areas we had no experience in. We knew how to do the bean-to bar-side, but she took care of the beyond.
In May 2016, we opened Maison Marou—the House of Marou—smack in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, on Calmette Street. The area had a bad reputation. People were like, Ehh, do we go over there? But we couldn’t afford the fancier, more touristy areas. The rent was affordable, which was very important because we were taking a big risk. It was a big investment. We needed it to work. But within three months we were doing more than break even. The shop is now a hit.
The company today is growing. We’re expanding our stores. And we’re doing things that frankly don’t exist elsewhere. There’s still a space for that in chocolate. There's still an unknown and a spirit of adventure. That’s who we are as a brand. It’s who I am. And it’s who Sam was as a person.
Cherish good people
In January 2021, Sam passed away. He was under treatment for cancer and was immune-deprived. He had gone back to France for treatment, and he died from Covid, essentially. It was a really long fight.
Sam and I had a unique business relationship from the very beginning. He wasn’t just my business partner—he was also a dear, dear friend of mine for many years. Our relationship was critical to the Marou story. Much more important than the business concept. If you’re going to start a business, it’s important not to fall in love with your concept. Focus more on your values, your mission, and the people who go on the journey with you.
It’s like what Steve Jobs said:
“Great things in business are never done by one person. They're done by a team of people.”
And it’s so true.
If you’re with the wrong people, you get pulled down.
But with the right people, with amazing people like Sam and the rest of the Marou team, you can really achieve incredible things.
Until next time…