Thirty years ago, Ariane Daguin's perfect career opportunity walked into her place of work.
“I was studying political science at Barnard College and working for a pate company,” Daguin said. “One day, some farmers came in with some ducks they were raising for foie gras.
“My bosses didn’t want to go into that business, but for me … it was historical.”
After all, it was a chance to capitalize on the first time the U.S. would allow duck to be raised and made available for the French delicacy.
Born into seven generations of cooks and restaurant owners — including her father, chef Andre Daguin, a man famous throughout France for his artistic cooking of Gascon specialties — Daguin already was an expert at preparing foie gras.
“So I brought George Faison — a friend and colleague who had his MBA from Columbia Business School — in with me to invest $7,500 each,” Daguin said.
With her expertise and Faison’s additional investment, the pair leased a small piece of refrigeration in Jersey City and a secondhand orange juice truck to become the first purveyors of gourmet game and foie gras in the U.S.
Today, D’Artagnan — named for the young Gascon hero from Alexander Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” — is a $94 million business with more than 190 employees throughout locations in New Jersey, Chicago and Houston.
Its growth continues to be exponential. Just this month, D’Artagnan relocated from its 33,000-square-foot location in Newark to an 87,000-square-foot location in Union.
The extra space is necessary for all the top-quality, ice-packed meats it’s delivering to restaurants (60 percent), retail and direct consumers (40 percent).
While the company still specializes in foie gras, it’s also committed to providing “the best tasting and most environmentally sustainable meat,” Daguin said, from beef to buffalo, chicken to quail, pork to wild boar, as well as gourmet food products such as truffles and mushrooms.
Now the sole owner and CEO of the company, Daguin continues to build cooperatives of small-scale farms in order to grow her business.
“We only partner with small farms and ranches that have strict standards, never using antibiotics or hormones, and will sign affidavits to that effect,” she said.
BIZ IN BRIEF
COMPANY: D’Artagnan Inc, #77
LEADER: Ariane Daguin, CEO and founder
INDUSTRY: Wholesale meat
and gourmet foods
2014 REVENUE: $94 million
LAST YEAR’S RANKING: NR
“At the beginning, we had to beg farmers to raise animals the way we wanted — it’s easier now that they’ve seen the philosophical and economic reasons behind it. We have a lot more friends in farming now.”
As people become more conscious and curious about the food they eat, Daguin simply continues to surf the trend.
“We were farm-to-table before that phrase even existed,” she said.
“The challenge now is create more groups of farmers that will raise the same types of animals so that every market can be delivered as fresh.”
It’s also still difficult for Daguin to find fellow women in the industry.
“The women-owned companies in this industry all know each other,” Daguin said. “There is a ranch in Texas for beef, a processor in California, a quail farm in North Carolina — I can count all of us on one hand, maybe two, if I think hard enough.”
As a Women in Business member of the French-American Chamber of Commerce in New York City, Daguin believes in helping create such opportunities for women in any industry, but not necessarily making gender the focus.
“My 27-year-old daughter was raised as an independent person — not an independent woman,” Daguin said. “I am very secure in thinking that she’s going to be rewarded as a person, not just as a woman in business.”
Daguin would certainly know how that feels.
“Knowing that we started from nothing, knowing that I’m the sole owner, is very rewarding in itself,” she said.
So is D’Artagnan’s emphasis on educating its consumers about the importance of understanding and appreciating how their food is raised and harvested.
“This farm-to-table movement is so important to nutrition and to feeding our children with more wholesome food,” Daguin said. “I hope to think that somewhere at the base of that movement, we were there.
“That would be the biggest reward.”