On one hand, if a new product or approach to food production is introduced too early and consumers are not ready to try it – or pay for it – a company could be out a lot of money and other resources. But if a launch comes too late, consumers won’t give the company credit for being innovative, but rather will consider it merely to be a follower launching me-too products.
As the owner and CEO of specialty meat company D’Artagnan, Ariane Daguin has learned this lesson multiple times over the past 30 years as she has carefully walked a tightrope to introduce to the US exotic meat, game and poultry that not only taste different from the pork, chicken and beef most Americans regularly consume, but which also is raised and processed differently.
Drawing on her experience as a leader of sustainable, humanely-raised meats, and a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, Daguin shares hard-fought for advice on how to successfully introduce game-changing products and processes, as well as where she sees animal proteins and animal-welfare headed in the coming years.
Tip one: Seize the day
First and foremost, she advises young innovators and entrepreneurs hoping to make a dramatic change to be open to opportunities and to seize them immediately, even if it means taking a risk. She explains, this is how her company first came into existence three decades ago.
“At the time, it was like a lot of things in life, it started with some opportunity [that was] totally by chance,” she said, explaining that two entrepreneurs approached her then-boss with the idea to bring foie gras to the US. “To make a long story short, my bosses did not want to go into it, so I had no choice but to open my own company.”
Recognizing that foie gras alone would not sustain the business, Daguin said she expanded the focus to include specialty meat and poultry from animals that were “raised properly, without stress and lots of space and with lots of light,” which were novel concepts to most at the time.
Tip two: Work with chefs to evangelize new concepts
Because duck and boar were not on consumers’ radars 30 years ago, and probably still not for many people today, the young company created awareness of these “new” proteins and its other products, by working closely with young chefs, who could encourage visitors to their restaurants to try something new in a safe, low-stakes environment.
“At the beginning, our clients were only the chefs … no consumers,” Daguin said. But, she explains this laser focus on chefs helped build consumer demand so that when retail products did become available, there was sufficient interest to sustain the launch.
“The chefs helped us. … They were our spokesperson because they are the ones who passed on the message you are what you eat and you have to be careful about what you put in your mouth, not only for tasting purposes … but also because you are what you eat. So, you don’t want to eat meat from animals that have been pumped with all kinds of medication and chemicals,” she said.
Eventually this strategy worked and what was once exotic, is now if not commonplace, at least familiar.
Tip three: Maintain leadership by continuing to innovate
As D’Artagnan raised awareness about specialty animal proteins, other players saw its early success and entered the category. But, Daguin says her company maintained a pole position by focusing on improving the quality of the meat she sells, in part through better animal welfare, rather than allowing herself to become distracted by entering adjacent categories, such as condiments.
For example, she pushed for the use of free-range chickens that were not soaked in chlorinated water – a process that changed the flavor of the meat and added about 8% of water weight. By skipping this step, suppliers who were paid by weight lost about 8 cents on the dollar – forcing Daguin to pay a premium, which was then reflected in the price of her product.
Given the price difference, Daguin kept a close eye on consumer behavior to ensure they would be willing to pay more for a higher quality product.
Variations on this debate have played out over and over in the company’s history and is currently focused on whether consumers would pay the added cost it takes to keep Berkshire pigs alive for nearly twice as long if it means the meat will have a higher quality marble.
Although, Daguin says this debate is complicate because as the pigs age, they have a higher outer fat layer, which she says makes delicious lard and “out of this world” bacon, but most Americans are still wary of high fat products and unwilling to buy them – potentially making it too early for this move.
Tip four: Tap into other macro trends
The company’s obligation to treat ranchers and animals fairly was the impetus behind its newest product – chicken confit, which is a twist on the more traditional duck confit.
“We have a duty to buy in balance, to buy the whole animal, and because we sell lots of chicken breasts, we needed to find a nice, regular outlet for the legs. But people don’t buy as many legs and thighs as they do breasts,” so the company created ready-to-eat chicken confit, she said.
She said the timing is right for this product because it also hits two major trends: food waste reduction and is a convenient, value-added, ready-to-eat product.
Tip five: Ensure staff supports the launch
The final key to a successful launch in any category – whether it is an animal protein or not – is to have the full support of the company’s employees, because they are, after all, the people who will make it happen. D’Artagnan ensures everyone is on board through a unique management style that was inspired by the Three Musketeers’ motto: one for all and all for one.
Daguin explained that annual bonuses are tied to individual employees’ performance, but also their performance in a larger group, such as their department or geographic region, and the company as a whole.
“That entices people to work really well together,” and ensure their help with product launches as well as every day obligations, she said.
Finally, reflecting on the future of her company and specialty meats as a whole, Daguin sees three paths toward continued growth. One is introducing new breeds and improving the quality of existing animal proteins; two is geographic expansion through new warehouses and increased distribution; and three is to offer more value-added products, such as the chicken confit and dried or cured meats.