Thirty-five years ago, farm-to-table wasn’t a common phrase in the United States. But Ariane Daguin , a France native devoted to humane farming throughout her life, was one of the movement’s pioneers. Daguin, 61, is at the helm of D’Artagnan, a $130-million-plus purveyor of sustainably farmed, free-range meat and poultry used by restaurant chefs and home cooks. In 2020, the company celebrates its 35th anniversary.
“I was born into a world of great food,” Daguin says. As the daughter of celebrated Gascon chef Andre Daguin , she had big shoes to fill. Rather than live in her father’s shadow, she seized the opportunity to mold her own future through the founding of D’Artagnan in 1985.
Daguin was attending journalism school at Columbia University and working for a New York pâté producer when she was presented with the idea of marketing the first domestically produced foie gras (fattened duck liver). Beyond foie gras, however, she says that a changing American palate was ready for a world of Gascon specialties. Her new venture was a way to introduce foods prepared in her native country as well as a more sustainable and humane approach to farming, selling, and eating meat, which, at the time, wasn’t customary in the U.S.
D’Artagnan’s products hail from farms raising their livestock without medication and in low-stress environments. Quality and animal welfare have always been the motivation behind the New Jersey-based brand, which sells beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, wild game, charcuterie, and, of course, the heavily debated delicacy that started it all, foie gras.
After a New York City Council vote last year, foie gras is slated to be banned in New York City starting in 2022. Daguin says D’Artagnan and others in the industry plan to appeal it. She explains that she’s always been committed to ensuring humane and sustainable practices, and with foie gras ducks, that pledge is no different.
Recently, Daguin spoke with Penta about D’Artagnan, foie gras, and food’s evolution over the past 35 years.
PENTA : How did your upbringing in France help shape D’Artagnan?
Ariane Daguin: I wanted Americans to experience food the way I had. Not just the final product, but the understanding and nurturing of the entire process. It was the concept of farm-to-table, but it was 35 years ago. In Gascony, France (and so many other parts of the world outside of the U.S.), we waste no part of the animal. So quickly, we went from foie gras to selling all the other parts of the duck. We partner with small, family-owned farms and organized cooperatives that focus on the welfare of the animals, much like it is done in France. This approach is what continues to drive the business today.
There are different theories about terms like “organic” and “free-range.” What does organic mean to you?
Not only are there different theories and definitions, but there is a lot of confusion among the industry and consumers. For D’Artagnan, the cattle have been raised outside all their lives. They have not had antibiotics, medications, growth hormones since birth.
For our chicken to be certified as “organic,” it must be fed only organic grains, chlorine-free spring water, no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no animal by-products, protein supplements, growth hormones, tranquilizers, or antibiotics. Today, most of the organic chickens on the retail shelves are not free-range.
D’Artagnan has been at the forefront of the organic movement in America, pioneering organic, free-range chicken even years before the FDA allowed the word “organic” on a label. Despite the confusion in the industry, our definition of organic has remained the same for 35 years.
Some are surprised at the foie gras ban in New York. How do you anticipate the ban to affect your business?
I was not surprised at the outcome, but I was certainly disappointed. The ban will, of course, be detrimental to the company. It will impact more than 10% of our business or between $12 million and $15 million in revenue. But that is not it. We have 3,000 employees, 120 of whom are in the metropolitan area, so if the ban were to be enacted in 2022, we would have to adjust.
That said, D’Artagnan is in a much better position than the foie gras producers. A New York City foie gras ban will cost more than 400 immigrant workers their jobs. If humane treatment is truly the issue here, we should be looking at factory-farm practices before we shut down small farms.
But for today, the pending ban is affecting our business in the other direction. We have seen a 30% growth in foie gras sales within the five boroughs of New York City since the ban was announced, including 100 new accounts, because many of the chefs and restaurateurs, I think, want to say loud and clear that they are with us.
D’Artagnan partners with some of the world’s top chefs. How have American chefs changed their approach to food in the past several decades?
When we started D’Artagnan, we were at the beginning of the wave of growing sophistication in American cuisine. This was, of course, driven by the chefs we all know by name today. Chefs have always known that great food demands great ingredients, but we have seen that ingredient list in the U.S. expand tremendously over the past decades. In addition, consumers follow in the chef’s footsteps and want access to the same quality of food and ingredients offered in restaurants. Today, they, too, are questioning more about the process of getting the food and how the animals were treated.
Growing a business for 35 years is no small feat. What has been the formula for D’Artagnan’s success?
Being authentic and remaining true to our vision is certainly a driving factor, but I owe much of this to my team. I was very lucky to have met a lot of talented people. Everyone is passionate about what we do, the philosophy, and the passion behind what we stand for. We remain true to the small company values that fueled our start 35 years ago.