Inc.

Pioneer Woman

Ariane Daguin has spent almost 35 years building the artisanal food company D’Artagnan. Along the way, she’s transformed how Americans think about food. And there’s still so much for her to do.
Free Range Ariane Daguin, co-founder of D’Artagnan, at an Amish farm in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, that raises poultry according to her company’s exacting standards.

“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.

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