When Ariane Daguin came to America for college, she knew she wanted to blaze her own trail to success. Believing her father's fame as a double star Michelin chef might overshadow any name she made for herself back home in Gascony, France, she chose a political science track at Barnard College in Manhattan.
But the rich gastronomic experience of her youth meant Daguin held food — delicious food — in high esteem. So to defray school costs she picked up a job at a specialty meat shop in the city, where after five years a situation prompted an epiphany that would bring her life full circle: Two men starting a foie gras business came looking for people to process and commercialize the whole duck.
It was then that she realized her path wasn’t paved in political science but in fatty duck liver and food for the quality-concerned carnivore.
“My bosses didn’t want to go into [the foie gras business] but I couldn’t let that pass because in Gascony, that’s our big, big specialty,” said Daguin. “I told my [former] partner, who worked with me, ‘It’s time to go. We’ve been here for five years. Let’s start our own company.’”
In her time at the store, Daguin had saved $7,500. With that, and a similar sum borrowed from her partner’s mother, the duo bought the bones of their business and dubbed it D’Artagnan Foods, after the leader of the “Three Musketeers.”
“By the time we paid the first three months of the rent, the first three months of AT&T, and the first three months of the lease of our refrigerated truck, we had $35 left in the bank account,” Daguin recalled. “And then it was too late to back down.”
By 2017, D’Artagnan had a total revenue of $120 million.
When they started, the partners couldn’t have timed it better. The International Culinary Center, a premier culinary school in the U.S., was sending out its first learned chefs, and the nouvelle cuisine movement — a style of cooking that emphasizes the freshness of the ingredients and the presentation of dishes — was alive and well. There was a restaurant demand for their product.
D’Artagnan grew from a two-employee, one-truck duck purveyor in 1985 to one of quality meats, foie gras, charcuterie, wild mushrooms and truffles. The company sells to about 20,000 restaurants in the U.S., and has booming retail and e-commerce arms. All of the farmers producing meat for D’Artagnan’s label — between 700 and 800 of them — abide by company-specific strictures. All meats must be free-range, organic and medication free. No exceptions.
“There isn’t one thing we have that hasn’t been humanely raised. But for us, the organic and humanely raised comes second. The reason [the practice of] organic and humanely raised food exists is because it makes the product better, and our No. 1 goal is good food,” said Daguin.
At this point, the business doubles every four and a half years, and Daguin is in no rush to up that number.
“When we started, there was a luck in that new chefs were popping out from culinary school wanting good ingredients. And the word of mouth in the restaurant business is huge: not only do they talk to each other, they send cooks to each other. The cooks would see our products in a restaurant and then bring them onto the next place they worked. So growth was really fast,” Daguin said. “But sometimes big growth can kill you. If you grow yourselves but don’t have your sourcing, you’re going to start sending stuff to restaurants that you don’t have.
“You convince chefs to buy from you, they put your product on the menu — all of a sudden you don’t have it anymore, they take it off the menu. You have to be super careful about being a reliable supplier. If you grow too fast and you don’t plan as far as the sourcing and infrastructure to sustain it, you die.”
Along with its Jersey base in Union, D’Artagnan has three other hubs: Macon, Ga.; Houston; and Chicago. A fifth hub in Denver is expected to open in about three months, with that location being chosen based on the large amount of FedEx orders going out to restaurants in the area each week.
And the growth continues. On top of the overall 108 percent growth over the last five years, retail has grown 110 percent and e-commerce has skyrocketed 294 percent.
Though proud of her company’s success, Daguin herself remains modest.
“I don’t want to be the richest person in the cemetery,” she said. “I just want to grow my company nicely in a way that will not compromise the quality, and at the same time makes my employees happy. If that makes me the envy of my competition or makes my reputation grow, it’s because people look at this company growing in the right direction.”