As a native of Gascony, France, and the daughter of a French chef, duck fat has been a part of Ariane Daguin’s palate since childhood. In 1984 while working for Les Trois Petits Cochons, a French food company specializing in sausages and paté, she noticed a gaping hole in the U.S. culinary landscape: fresh foie gras. At the time, the fattened liver of ducks—a specialty of Gascony and one of the most highly prized ingredients—were virtually unknown in the United States. “It was a tragic state of affairs,” she says. In 1985, she left Trois Cochons to found D’Artagna and began marketing the first U.S.-produced foie gras. D'Artagnan is now the leading purveyor of foie gras, pâtés, sausages, smoked delicacies, and organic game and poultry in the country.
“I had no idea it was going to become a success,” Daguin said. “My old bosses didn’t see the potential in the product, so how would I know if it was going to sell?” And there was a bigger problem to deal with—an anatomical one: Even when they managed to start selling all the foie gras they produced, “with every liver comes two legs and two breasts. At the time, there wasn’t clear potential for those byproducts.” Chefs weren’t used to working with the large breasts of foie gras ducks, known as magrets. “But obviously, this is how an animal comes. If we could have raised just the liver, we would have.”
“The irony is that today, if every duck came with four legs, we’d actually be better off!” Confit duck legs (duck legs slow-cooked in duck fat until tender) are one of D’Artagnan’s great success stories. Almost unheard of at the consumer level 20 years ago, they are now available in nearly every high-end grocery store, largely due to the role chefs have played in introducing it to the public palate.
“Selling specialty products has always been about education,” Daguin says. As a producer, there are essentially two options: “Either you sell something that other people are already selling, and just do it better than them—better price or better quality—or you have to choose another path and sell something nobody else is selling.”
But convincing the public that it actually needs a product it has never heard of is the challenge.
“At first, we thought it would be simple. We’d open a retail store and sell our products directly to consumers and home cooks. This was the business plan that we wrote.” Of course, it was never followed. “We immediately realized that consumers won’t buy a product if they don’t know how to use it—particularly if it’s expensive. So we instead turned to chefs.”
Always on the lookout for a new offering to set their menus apart, chefs have the critical combination of will, resources, and technical know-how to work with heretofore unheard of products. As more and more chefs introduced items like fresh foie gras and duck legs to their menus, they “helped educate consumers, who eventually came around and created demand on the retail side.”
“To this day, we follow that same marketing strategy for every new product we introduce,” which by now has diversified to include everything from squab and Guinea fowl to truffles and fresh Berkshire pork (a breed of pig noted for its dark meat and intense flavor). “We first bring new products to chefs, then the public becomes aware of it, then the media picks it up, and finally we are able to sell it to consumers.”
It’s a cycle that requires patience and, above all, a commitment to carry only the best products. “In America, people don't immediately understand the value of good food. They look first at the price. If a chicken is selling for more than $5 a pound, they don’t buy it. Chefs understand that it costs more to raise the best chickens, and are willing to pay the premium based on their flavor.” Once the chicken has the chef's stamp of approval (many restaurants list their suppliers directly on the menu), “then you find that people are willing to pay for it.”
Expanding D’Artagnan into the $50 million business it has become “wasn’t a simple matter of scaling up operations.” Daguin's commitment to responsible animal husbandry and the correspondingly superior meat it produces means that large farms are out of the picture. “If I know a pig farmer who is supplying me with 80 beautiful pigs a week, I cannot simple ask that farmer to start giving me 120 pigs a week. He makes compromises, and all of a sudden, the pigs are overcrowded, and the meat quality changes.”Instead, Daguin explains, D’Artagnan relies on a series of small contracts. “When we need more pigs, instead of increasing output from a single farm, we add more farms and farmers. It’s the only way to maintain the quality we’re known for.”