Solve For Complexity And Your Customers Will Love You

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Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan Foods

Copyright: Geert Teuwen

One of the key lessons that I’ve learned from years of working with successful entrepreneurs is that if you can solve a key problem for a B2B customer more efficiently than they can, you can take that difference all the way to the bank. In 1985, the elite restaurants of New York City had just such a problem. Their kitchens were being taken over by young, uncompromising chefs who wanted to bring European-quality ingredients to the table: farm-raised heritage pork, traditional foie gras and the like.

The problem? America is not Europe. In the 1930s, Americans ate an average of about 80 pounds of meat each year. By 2010, that figure was more than 180 pounds. To keep up, the agricultural industry, well, industrialized. It bred turkeys with breasts so large they couldn’t mate. It pumped antibiotics and hormones into animals to make them grow faster, and it consolidated into huge factory farms, slaughterhouses and conglomerates. In a way, it was a triumph of capitalism: Even as four million largely family-owned farms disappeared in the U.S. between 1948 and 2015, total output more than doubled.

When Ariane Daguin, now CEO of fine food distributor D’Artagnan, first arrived in New York City from her native France, there was no such thing as “farm-to-table.”

“I’m from Gascony, in southwest France, where everything is about food,” Daguin explains. “We live to eat; we don’t eat to live.”

Farming there is typically on a much smaller scale, and animals mature more slowly in open pastures rather than feedlots, which means they consume more in their lifetime. “The slower you go, the better results you get,” she says. “It’s what farmers who respect animal husbandry have been doing for centuries in my part of France.”

Her first impression of American chicken: “Mushy and tasteless. Sometimes it even tasted like fish,” she recalls with a shudder.

But back to those chefs. In the 1980s, the American culinary scene was on the cusp of a revolution, a backlash against commercial agriculture that prized heritage breeds, traditional humane husbandry and knowing where your food came from.

When D’Artagnan began delivering farm-raised meat and poultry from the Hudson Valley in a rented truck, the response was immediate. Chefs began designing their menu around D’Artagnan products. They would place weekly orders on Monday and receive delivery on Thursday. “And there were no substitutions, no freezing, and no out-of-stocks permitted,” Daguin explains.

As you might imagine, getting an animal that was mooing or clucking contentedly in a country field to a Manhattan dinner plate in four days required complex logistics.

The rapid growth, she recalls, “almost killed us. One of us was driving the truck, the other one was on the phone, picking the product in the warehouse or putting out fires. I had a partner at the beginning, and there was not one day that one of us wouldn’t tell the other, ‘That’s it. Take my 50%. I’m going home.’”

Not exactly a scalable business model.

Still, by 2005, D’Artagnan was ringing up $5 million in sales a month and reaching the upper limits of its musical-chairs distribution system. Chefs now expected overnight delivery and access to popular cuts of meats on a regular basis. For every Chateaubriand it sold, D’Artagnan had a whole cow’s worth of less popular meat to move.

Enter Andy Wertheim, who brought badly needed experience in marketing and operations to D’Artagnan as president in 2006. To give the company an outlet for its unsold products, Wertheim launched a direct-to-consumer e-commerce site and began distributing to supermarket chains.

That made distribution even more complex, but also gave it a Zen-like balance. Carefully portioned, fresh cuts went to the restaurants. Supermarkets received products with the longest shelf life. And the remaining meat was flash-frozen and cryo-packed for drop shipment to eager foodies. All in a symbiotic dance that now brings in more than $150 million in annual sales.

There are a lot of lessons you can glean from Daguin’s 37 years at D’Artagnan’s helm: Find an untapped need. Do what you know and love. Start small and build organically by reinvesting profits. Focus on value. But the one I like best might be “keep innovating.” Daguin never wavered from her mission to bring traditional French animal husbandry to America, but as D’Artagnan grew, she found new ways to achieve it. As a result, she’s built something of a paradox. In a world of industrial-scale agriculture, she has found a way to scale the unscalable — bringing small-batch, high-quality (and highly perishable) niche products to an ever-growing market she had a hand in creating. How are you innovating to scale your operations?

To see more of Ariane’s story, click here to visit How I Did It.