"It's the hallway of death!" Ariane Daguin is cheerfully leading a strange parade through a barn's dim back corridor. Normally, this passage conveys fattened ducks from their feeding pens to the slaughterhouse; today, it marks the end of a sales tour.
This duck farm, nestled in the foothills of New York's Catskill Mountains, is where it all began for Daguin, a blunt and unfussy Frenchwoman who keeps geese and chickens as pets, and who has spent a lifetime selling slaughtered poultry. D'Artagnan, the gourmet meat distributor she co-founded in 1985, took in more than $130 million last year from organic chicken, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised lamb, and other, more exotic animal proteins. But her business started here, with the ducks of Hudson Valley Foie Gras--and the controversial, luxurious livers that give the farm its name. And it's here where Daguin now shepherds her salespeople and chef clients past the oblivious animals, greeting them with her usual mixture of familiar delight and wry unsentimentality. "Tomorrow!" she sing-shouts, playful at a formidable six feet. "Foie gras tomorrow!"
The founding pride of D'Artagnan, foie gras has also landed Daguin back in the middle of a familiar, and fierce, regulatory fight--but in the 35 years since she started her company, she's expanded far beyond that niche delicacy. Today, D'Artagnan operates a nearly nationwide network of small farmers who raise chickens, ducks, cows, and other animals by Daguin's exacting organic, free-range standards. The company then buys this meat from the farmers and sells it to high-end restaurants; around 7,500 mainstream grocery stores; and, increasingly, directly to the growing numbers of home cooks who care about where their meat comes from and are willing to pay a premium for it.
Daguin, 61, has established a high-profile circle of famous friends and clients: fellow French-born chef-entrepreneur Daniel Boulud; New York restaurateur and Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer; the late Anthony Bourdain, who featured Daguin on No Reservations and named his daughter Ariane. She's less of a household name than these men, but she's quietly just as influential. Since the early 1980s, her company has been changing how Americans eat meat, by selling sustainably raised, non-factory-farmed animal products long before terms like sustainable or factory farm went mainstream.
"She knows every aspect of what it takes to raise an animal, but also what it takes to transform the animal, and how it should taste," says Boulud, the chef-owner of Manhattan's Daniel and several other restaurants, who's served D'Artagnan meat and game for 30 years. "She has definitely helped many chefs--and many Americans--have access to better meat."
Along the way, Daguin overcame several near-catastrophes, including a wrenching co-founder breakup. Through it all, her relentless drive allowed her to maintain control--and sole ownership--of her company, even as fellow boutique-meat pioneers like Niman Ranch and Applegate Farms sold out to industry giants; to return it to profitability despite her massive post-breakup debts and the Great Recession, which decimated many of her customers; and even, in the past decade, to expand operations to a near-national footprint. Within five years, she declares, D'Artagnan's sales will reach $250 million.
Yet the same determination that's bent the world to her will has at times blinded Daguin to looming problems--or exacerbated them. Take foie gras: Lawmakers and animal-rights activists keep trying to ban the stuff, claiming there's "immense cruelty" in force-feeding ducks to enlarge their livers. But for Daguin, selling foie gras is a point of tremendous personal and cultural pride. She's fought threats to it across the country--including the one under way on her home turf of New York City. But defending this much-contested niche product complicates the tightrope she must walk, owing to the peculiar paradox behind D'Artagnan: Ariane Daguin built a business from slaughtering animals--but she really built it by caring about how they live.
But more on all that unpleasantness in a bit. First, as with all good French meals, let's have some wine.
Daguin is standing at the front of a large black bus, of the sort rented out for wine tours and bachelorette parties, pouring generous splashes of sinus-stripping white Armagnac into plastic cups. "You drink this, and all the calories disappear," she jokes, an unlikely party animal in a duck-printed scarf and mom jeans. "Okaaay, bottoms up!"
This is her "Cassoulet Crawl"--a gut-busting Manhattan restaurant tour tied to a competition over the hearty French stew that's largely made from several kinds of D'Artagnan-endorsed fatty meats. It's February, and Daguin's fifth year organizing and judging the showdown, one overseen by an official French body called the Great Brotherhood of the Cassoulet. (Really. Because France.)
The Great Brothers on hand, in red velvet robes accented with yellow trim and cassole-shaped hats, resemble an order of Harry Potter wizards devoted to duck fat and slow-cooked white beans--especially when they bestow an honorary membership upon John Lithgow, who's come straight from rehearsing a new Broadway play, and who accepts this silly honor with a sincere speech in decent French. If he's charmingly bemused by the whole thing, he's also unstinting in admiring his friend, its organizer. "Ariane," he says, "is a force of nature."
She's also food royalty. Ariane is the oldest child of André Daguin, a renowned chef in France's Gascony region, who earned two Michelin stars for the family restaurant-hotel he'd inherited. He became internationally known as "the undisputed leader" of Gascon cuisine, especially for foie gras, as The New York Times declared in 1982. All his offspring followed some version of the family vocation--but Ariane, who knew that her gender meant she wouldn't be heir to the restaurant, moved to New York City in the late 1970s to study at Columbia University. There she met George Faison, an MBA candidate from Texas who shared her love for French food and humanely raised meat.
Daguin and Faison became friends, and then colleagues at Les Trois Petits Cochons, a New York City charcuterie company that now competes with D'Artagnan. There, Daguin first met Izzy Yanay, an Israeli immigrant and entrepreneur who was trying desperately to find buyers for his products. Yanay was raising ducks at his farm 100 miles northwest of Manhattan, to produce foie gras--which was then largely unknown to Americans, and not an easy sell.
Unless you were dealing with the daughter of André Daguin. As soon as Yanay started his pitch, Ariane exclaimed, "Of course--foie gras!" Still, Les Trois Petits Cochons passed, so she and Faison formed their own company in late 1984, to sell Yanay's foie and the ducks that created it. "I owe her everything," Yanay says today. "She saved my life."
Daguin and Faison named their company after another Gascon--the 17th-century musketeer who inspired Alexandre Dumas's fictional hero--and adopted the motto made famous by Dumas: All for one, one for all. The co-founders knew the rising chefs at the forefront of what would become the locavore movement, who wanted great-tasting, transparently raised ingredients and would pay a premium for them. "My interest at D'Artagnan became: How do we change the way Americans eat?" Faison says.
Gradually, they built up a network of small farmers who provided those ingredients and followed D'Artagnan's specifications for feeding, housing, aging, and slaughtering animals. Soon, the partners started selling other meat and game--rabbit, quail, Berkshire pork, bison--and finding suppliers who made high-quality terrines, sausages, and other European-style charcuterie. Within two years, D'Artagnan was profitable; within 14, its revenue neared $20 million.
It was also beginning to live up to Faison's vision. In 1993, before the USDA finalized its recognition of "organic" as an official designation, D'Artagnan became one of the first companies to sell free-range organic chickens in the U.S., ones that "taste the way your grandmother says chickens used to taste," according to the Times in 1994. It wasn't the only high-end meat company: Applegate Farms was founded in 1987, while Bill Niman was building Niman Ranch into a national brand. But those companies have since been sold--to Spam maker Hormel Foods and poultry giant Perdue, respectively--while Daguin still owns D'Artagnan. And industry experts say her company was and remains unique in the breadth of products it offers and its role in introducing Americans to truffles, venison, wild boar, and the like.
"Other organic suppliers are out there, but D'Artagnan takes it to the next level for game meats," says Mike LoBiondo, who oversees meat for Rochester, New York-based grocery chain Wegmans. He also praises D'Artagnan's salesforce for teaching Wegmans, and its customers, how to cook and enjoy these more exotic proteins: "Nobody provides the same level of education."
But as the company grew, internal tensions mounted. When Daguin had a daughter in 1988 and then brought her infant to the office, Faison felt she was distracted from the business. A listeria outbreak in 1999 sickened customers, triggering a voluntary recall of 70,000 pounds of meat during the all-important holiday season. Then, in 2001, D'Artagnan opened a well-reviewed but doomed Manhattan restaurant--weeks before the September 11 terrorist attacks upended the local economy. The restaurant--one of Daguin's passions, and another source of friction with Faison--closed in early 2004.
Months later, Faison decided that their differences were irreconcilable and that he wanted out. Or, rather, that he wanted Daguin out. As chronicled in a 2006 Inc. feature, Faison stunned Daguin in June 2005 with an offer to buy her D'Artagnan shares for several million dollars. A shotgun clause in their partnership agreement gave her 30 days to accept his offer, or to buy him out for the same price.
Daguin started cold-calling banks, and eventually scraped together enough from a French lender and some savings to buy out Faison. He went on to help run another high-end meat purveyor--DeBragga and Spitler. Daguin was left with sole control--but was deeply in debt and overseeing a staff with sharply divided loyalties, not long before the global economy collapsed.
"It was--oof," she says, with Gallic understatement. Today, asking the former co-founders about each other is a bit like talking to parents who went through a nasty split but still see each other at functions for their adult child. "Sometimes, divorce is the best thing. It was for Ariane and me," says Faison. "We are cordial." Daguin, who retains a sense of betrayal, is less diplomatic. The breakup "was all his fault," she says. They have done their best "to avoid each other" at industry events for years. Will they ever be friends again? She snorts: "Friends? Non."
Last year, Faison co-founded the Great American Turkey Company, a startup selling humanely raised, antibiotic-free turkey products to supermarkets and online customers. Perhaps coincidentally, D'Artagnan is expanding its turkey offerings later this year.
That first year on her own was terrifying. Taking on another partner or giving up control was out of the question--"I learned my lesson," she says--but she knew she needed someone to take over Faison's operational and financial duties.
"We were iconic, but we were a little close to the cliff," is how Andy Wertheim, a consumer-products veteran who became D'Artagnan's president, describes what he found when he came on board in 2006. "Our margins were very low. We were in debt. And while we were ubiquitous in an East Coast/chef world, we were largely unknown everywhere else."
Daguin and Wertheim raised prices and slashed their product line, from 2,500 SKUs to 800. They also stopped selling to other distributors, to cut down on the inventory they were freezing instead of selling fresh. To broaden the customer base, Wertheim stepped up marketing, and launched an e-commerce line to ship meat directly to the well-heeled food obsessives who'd absorbed factory-farming exposés like Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me and The Omnivore's Dilemma. Some were adopting the reduced-but-deliberate meat consumption habits endorsed by the likes of Omnivore's Michael Pollan.
By 2009, D'Artagnan had climbed back into the black, overcoming new setbacks from the ongoing recession. (Spending $20 on an uncooked organic chicken is tough to justify if you've just lost your job or home.) Still, by 2011 Daguin had paid off her loan--and was mulling what she could do with her company's returning profit.
Half goes to annual employee bonuses, which Wertheim says "virtually everyone" gets--and which can help with retention in a company that's as intense as its founder. ("The hours are crazy; the chefs are crazier," one former employee recalls.) The rest has helped fuel expansion. To get beyond those East Coast/fancy-chef confines, D'Artagnan needs farmers and slaughterhouses and warehouses across the country: The company can overnight whatever a chef in California needs for dinner service, but if it wants to become a staple in West Coast shops, it needs to supply such stores with chickens or ducks that were raised a couple of hours away, so that days of shelf life are not wasted as they get schlepped across the country.
D'Artagnan notched $132 million for the year that ended in June, $11 million more than it did the previous year, and triple what it made the year Faison left. Since 2011, it's set up warehouses in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta, expanding its network of farms and suppliers along the way. Daguin won't disclose profit, but there was enough to buy a distribution center in Denver last year--and enough for her to start shopping for another in California, to give D'Artagnan a truly national footprint. The company continues to diversify its sources of revenue: Its third-largest line of business, direct-to-consumer online sales, brought in $13 million last year. (Sixty-five percent of revenue comes from restaurant sales, and 25 percent from grocers and other retailers.) To commemorate all this, Daguin plans to fly all 280 employees to New York for an elaborate 35th-anniversary party in early 2020. Which won't be for the faint of heart: "In addition to being a fantastic entrepreneur and businesswoman, Ariane wants to have fun," says Boulud, ruefully recalling Parisian bar crawls he barely survived. "And she wants to drag everyone with her."
This April, Daguin talked expansion plans with her new banker, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, over lunch in his executive dining room. Yet while being courted by one of the world's most powerful CEOs, Daguin was characteristically uncowed. JPMorgan's corporate caterer isn't a big D'Artagnan client, so Daguin ate the fish "to make a point," she recounts, grinning about her "smart-aleck" order. "I said, 'Oh, when I don't know the provenance, I try to avoid factory-farmed chicken.' "
She's a long way from begging banks to bail her out. (And JPMorgan Chase executives seem unruffled by their client's sense of humor: "Ariane's leadership and drive is inspiring," commercial-bank executive Maria Lucas says.) But not all of D'Artagnan's problems have stayed in the past. Today, Daguin is facing a resurgent threat, aimed straight at the heart of her company.
Which, of course, is its liver.
The New York City Council, in mid-June, debated a bill banning foie gras. No vote had been scheduled by presstime, but if it passes, the result could be especially damaging, particularly for Hudson Valley and the few other small U.S. farms that focus on producing foie gras, because it would prohibit restaurants from "the provision of foie gras in any manner." (Chefs have protested other bans by giving away foie for free.)
The newest proposal is a significant threat to Hudson Valley Foie Gras; at least a third of its sales come from the city. Daguin estimates she stands to lose about 10 percent of her business--$15 million in sales of livers and the ducks that produce them. While the hit to her business seems survivable, her pride is another matter. For the daughter of the Gascon chef who made foie gras famous, such a ban is an attack on her identity and heritage. "Culturally, not just for our company but for the whole world of gastronomy," Daguin says, "it would be a huge, huge loss--the beginning of the end."
This summer, Daguin and Yanay and other farmers mobilized to counter the passionate editorials and protests of the foie gras foes. It's a tricky issue for the woman who proclaims that she cares just as much about animal welfare as "vegan activists" do, even if she sometimes expresses this in a decidedly Daguin-esque way. "We agree with the vegan people, up to a point," she says. "And that point is when I kill my animals."
Such talk, of course, won't charm her opponents. "The costly French delicacy involves force-feeding ducks and geese several times a day by shoving metal pipes down their throats and swelling their livers to 10 times a healthy size," proclaimed, somewhat inaccurately, an op-ed written by the executive director of Nyclass, a controversial lobbying group that backed the New York bill. (See "Duck, Duck, Foe," below.) "It is a disgusting practice and it must end."
Yet foie gras is, at most, an asterisk to the meat industry's substantial systemic issues, which have the United Nations and international coalitions of scientists sounding alarms. "I can't believe we're going through this again," says Marion Nestle, the author and nutrition expert. "Other issues in meat-raising are much more critical."
It's a generally weird time for the meat industry, which claims $1 trillion in U.S. "economic impact." Americans are eating record amounts of animal protein. Only around 5 percent identify as vegetarian. Yet we're increasingly aware of all of the downsides of how meat is produced, and seeking plant-based alternatives from the fast-growing likes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which raised $240 million in a May IPO.
Large factory farms have been widely criticized for releasing immense amounts of waste and pollutants into our air and water; for juicing their livestock with so many antibiotics that bacteria become resistant to their effects, causing potential health crises for humans; and for raising their animals in cramped, filthy, torturous conditions. And while Yanay processes maybe 500,000 ducks per year, factory farming churns through about nine billion chickens in the U.S. annually, and roughly 32 million cows.
Those are the horrific processes that Daguin has dedicated her life and her company to countering, and for which she provides her widely praised alternatives. But her fierce allegiance to foie gras--and the production process that sounds so inhumane, for what's essentially a food for the 1 percent--puts her company in the cross hairs of the animal activists with whom she otherwise claims common ground. "My animals have one bad day," she insists while driving to the farm, her long frame folded into the red Mini Cooper her daughter decorated with duck decals.
Such determination built Daguin's company, rescued it from the wreckage of her breakup with Faison, and kept it independent when fellow organic-meat pioneers sold out. But it also has generated other obstacles for D'Artagnan--including the question of its future.
Daguin ducks this question as much as possible, perhaps because it's a rare example of her plans getting thwarted. In her oft-told gospel of How Ariane Kept D'Artagnan, her daughter is Angel Gabriel, the herald who encouraged her mother to fight for the company. Alix, then 17, was visiting her grandparents in France when Ariane called to tell her that Faison might force her out. "And then she says to me, 'Are you going to let George do that? What if, one day, I want to join the company?' " Daguin recounts, proud and wistful. "That's the one thing--that one little sentence--that made me really fight hard for this."
Today, Alix is an architect, with her own design firm and no plans to take over the company she inspired her mother to fight for. "My mom has raised me to think for myself," she says. "At this point, I have my own path."
At 61, Daguin does not seem to have retirement in her vocabulary, and she admits she's not doing much planning for an Ariane-less D'Artagnan. Maybe she'll sell some of it to her employees, through an ESOP--"as long as I can keep some control," she muses.
But for now, there are foie gras battles to fight, a property in California to find, and sales to double. She's also looking for a farm in upstate New York, planning to turn it into a D'Artagnan foundation and self-sustaining restaurant--one where people can milk the cows or learn how to make cheese and bread before dining at the sure-to-be-spectacular farm-to-table restaurant, which Alix will design. If it comes to fruition, the nonprofit could slyly accomplish goals that have long eluded Daguin: work with her daughter, resurrect her doomed restaurant--even, finally, become her father's heir.
All of this is on her mind as she drives her tiny car across the George Washington Bridge, en route to Hudson Valley, a summer morning sky and the Hudson River stretched out endlessly on either side. "It's good to get out of the office," Daguin sighs, brightening as she contemplates her planned nonprofit. She's just found the right farmland, she confides, and is waiting to hear if her offer is accepted.
She lifts both hands, fingers crossed for her latest hope and dream. Letting go of the wheel, if only for a moment.
Duck, Duck, Foe
The process known as gavage is hard to describe in a way that doesn't sound unpleasant, though what I observed at Hudson Valley Foie Gras in July did not seem to unduly distress the birds. Three times a day, a worker enters the in-barn but open-air pens holding about 10 ducks each, checks every duck's gullet to make sure it's fully digested its last feed, inserts a thin rubber tube down the duck's throat, and dispenses liquid feed. Then the tube is removed and it's on to the next duck. The feeding takes about five seconds per bird.
Animal-rights activists and foie gras foes call this process torturous. Foie gras producers, and some outside observers, however, argue that duck physiology is made for this; unlike humans, the birds have thick esophagi and livers that enlarge without showing signs of disease. "This has become an issue that people get angry over because it's an easy target," says Michaela DeSoucey, a North Carolina State associate professor and the author of Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food. "People are nuts--on both sides."
Many foie gras bans have been proposed around the country. The biggest so far was in California: In 2004, state lawmakers passed a ban that went into effect in 2012, which has since ping-ponged through the appeals courts. (Current status: Upheld.) In 2006, Chicago aldermen passed a short-lived, much-mocked ban, which Mayor Richard M. Daley called "the silliest law that they've ever passed." (It was repealed in 2008.) The bill New York City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera introduced in January would ban the sale of foie gras in the city by restaurants and vendors--which would affect businesses outside of the city, too. At presstime, the bill hadn't been voted on, and producers were in limbo. "For us," Daguin sighs, "it's a big cloud over our heads."