Restaurants have been one of the industries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. As of July 10, 2020, more than 26,000 restaurants closed; 60% of those have closed permanently, according to Yelp Economic Average. With Covid-19 cases still rising, more full or partial lockdowns are expected, which will result in more restaurant closures in the future. It’s not just restaurants that have been hit hard. Those who provide their ingredients, such as farm-to-table producers and distributors, have been, too.
Beginning on March 14, 2020, restaurants shuttered, as public health restrictions increased. “Seventy five percent of my business disappeared,” said Ariane Daguin, founder of D’Artagnan and a farm-to-table pioneer. D’Artagnan provides quality poultry, meats, foie gras, charcuterie, mushrooms, and truffles to fine restaurants.
Locally sourced food is fresher, more flavorful, environmentally friendly and, often, healthier. No wonder many fine restaurants source their ingredients locally. Diners are willing to pay more for farm-to-table ingredients because doing so promotes local economies, safeguards the environment, and supports proper animal treatment.
As it turns out, so are home cooks.
How A Farm-To-Table Distributor Got Its Start
In 1985, while working at a small charcuterie in New York City, Daguin was excited when the opportunity to market the first domestically produced foie gras presented itself. She is a French immigrant and the daughter of the renowned Gascon chef André Daguin. She and a co-worker pooled their financial resources to launch D’Artagnan, to be a wholesaler of domestically produced foie gras and other local, farm-raised delicacies. The company name refers to the fourth musketeer in Alexandre Dumas’s novel. He also was from Gascon.
No Other Crisis Prepared Her For The Coronavirus Pandemic
In the 35 years D’Artagnan has been in business, many challenges arose. “I’ve never experienced anything like what we are experiencing today,” said Daguin.
Not when she and her partner started the business with just $15,000. Even back in 1985, that wasn’t much money to start a food distribution business. With no collateral, the pair couldn’t get a loan. “Thank God, we had products that chefs were very enthusiastic about,” exclaimed Daguin. They want tasty meats and poultry coming from animals raised in a natural, sustainable, and humane way. D’Artagnan has been at the forefront of the organic movement in America, pioneering organic, free-range chicken, and humanely raised veal. “The chefs saw we were passionate. Many were immigrants or a son or daughter of an immigrant. They related to us. So they helped us by paying COD [cash on delivery].”
Not when the team opened a restaurant right before 9/11. Despite the great review from The New York Times, it didn’t last long. “It wasn’t intended to be a moneymaker,” sighed Daguin. “It was to educate people. When you raise any animal the right way, without stress, with lots of space to build muscle, they will taste better.” It costs more to raise the heritage breeds that have not been genetically manipulated. They are given higher-quality feed, space to run around in, and more time to mature. That all adds costs. “The restaurant was fun while it lasted,” she continued.
Not when her partner George tried to buy her out and she ended up buying him out. Nor when superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey (where she had a distribution center) and New York City (where many of her clients were based).
“All those things had a beginning, a middle, and an end,” she said. The pandemic, on the other hand, seems endless.
Covid-19, A Crisis Like No Other
Fortunately, 12 years ago, D’Artagnan added an e-commerce site to sell directly to consumers. At first, people panicked and stockpiled whatever poultry and meats they found at the supermarket. As food shopping patterns normalized, people started coming to the website to order sustainably raised breeds that D’Artagnan offers. The e-commerce business surged. However, not all products have done well. It turns out that home cooks do not like to prepare exotic poultry like quail, pheasant, and squab, as well as game such as wild boar, venison and rabbit. They want to go to a restaurant for that.
Guided by the motto “all for one and one for all,” she didn’t lay anyone off or reduce salaries. D’Artagnan has 260 employees in distribution centers in Union, NJ; Macon, GA; Chicago, IL; Denver, CO; and Houston, TX. “We have made some changes and redeployed employees to different departments, but maintained the same number of heads,” stated Daguin.
Restaurant chefs don’t need to be educated as to why D’Artagnan products are worth its premium price. “It’s part of their schooling,” said Daguin emphatically. However, consumers do.
To educate them, D’Artagnan has a blog that covers recipes, tips and tricks, cooking trends, and food culture. “We address why the way animals are raised makes them tastier and are more nutritious,” said Daguin. The company is aggressively using search engine optimization (SEO), and search engine and social media marketing. As a result, retail and e-commerce sales have gone up exponentially. However, e-commerce is a hungry beast needing constant investment in marketing.
As restaurants are allowed to open outdoor dining, the restaurant side of the business has slowly ramped up again. “However, our restaurant business is still far from last year’s numbers—sales are down by approximately 50%,” Daguin said. If the pandemic continues into the fall and winter, she will continue to look at ways to make adjustments.
“We also feel a responsibility to our farmers,” said Daguin. Those that sell chicken and beef are doing well. However, those that specialize in more exotic meats are struggling. As they diversify their animal husbandry, they will do better. D’Artagnan is there to advise on what is selling well.
What changes are you making so your business can survive the coronavirus crisis?