With a background in water management and conservation, Crowley devoted much of his previous career to figuring out how and where future generations will get their water. Given the limitations of working in a regulatory capacity, Crowley instead turned to the packaged food industry after a 2011 TED talk on entomophagy caught his attention.
“The consumer demand for resource-intensive foodstuff is really driving the agricultural systems here in the US,” Crowley said. “So I knew all along I wanted to create a consumer product that would effect change toward water sources.”
Through his research, Crowley learned that insects convert grain and grass into edible protein as much as 10 times more efficiently than cows and pigs—thus requiring just a fraction of the water required to irrigate the sprawling, mechanized farms for commercial meat production.
'As gentle an introduction as possible'
He recruited a chef and business-savvy friend to help him launch Salt Lake City-based Chapul, and the team began tinkering with formulas using crickets, always keeping in mind the historic “ick” factor when it comes to US consumers and insects.
“We did our homework of other industries getting over the psychological hurdle of acceptance—I’m sure you’ve heard about the parallels between insects and sushi 40-odd years ago," he said, noting Americans' former aversion to eating raw fish. "We were the first ones to create flour with the crickets, in order to take away that visual component. We wanted to make it as gentle of an introduction as possible.”
After drying the crickets whole with low-temperature heat to mimic the Native American and Mexican practices of drying them in the sun, they milled them into flour using a stone mill. Aside from the flour’s strong nutritional profile (good concentration of omega-3s and other nutrients, low in fat), what struck Crowley most was the protein content.
“Our first lab analysis of the cricket flour blew us away with how healthy it was,” he said. “Most surprising to me was the protein content of the crickets themselves. The flour is over 60% protein. You’re getting 22 grams of protein in a 35-gram serving, which is comparable to or better-performing than protein powders out there like whey and soy. It’s relatively low processed, since it’s not a protein isolate. It’s also a complete protein so it’s readily digested.”
Looking solely at the hard data of consuming crickets already made it a much easier sell, he added: “The nutritional aspect could be the platform in and of itself.”
The nutritional aspect could be the platform in and of itself
The bars are available in three flavors, all modeled after the regions of the world that eat insects now or historically did: Chaco peanut butter chocolate; Aztec dark chocolate, coffee and cayenne; and Tai coconut ginger lime. Instead of using rice or processed sugar as a binder, the bars are bound with dates, and are made with all natural ingredients.
Chapul launched a Kickstarter campaign in July 2012, in part to gauge market reception. The company raised $16,000 (exceeding Crowley's $10,000 goal), which helped launch an online store and secure brick-and-mortar retail distribution. Because they were still “bootstrapping”, Crowley targeted a range of retailers, from natural food stores and co-ops to bike shops and rock climbing gym, whose common link was awareness of and concerns about our current food system.
“We didn’t have to sell the problem we were selling solution to necessarily. For most businesses, you have to first sell them on the problem,” he said. “We got great feedback, but that’s not necessarily how people make food choices. That’s a secondary or tertiary motivation. Instead, we focused on highlighting the health benefits of insects.”
Focus on those who already embrace insects as food to encourage wider acceptance
The other reason for targeting the natural foods and outdoor recreation sectors? They already embraced the notion of consuming insects.
“Our marketing approach has essentially been absolute, utter optimism,” Crowley added. “We don’t acknowledge any inclination to not try the product, and we’re very cautious of the language we use on packaging and in our marketing materials. That’s more how we chose to go down this path.”
In the two years since Chapul launched, the public perception landscape has changed considerably. Chapul has signed direct distribution agreements with a handful of new stores every week and is now in 200 locations.
"Early on, we did a few events not in our target audience where maybe 10% were willing to try samples. We remember those 10%, they were typically really excited, passionate and helped us keep going forward. But now it's flipped! There's maybe 10% who won't try it. By far, 99% of people are willing to try it."
How to grow a cricket
It takes about five crickets to make a gram of protein, and each Chapul bar contains about 25 crickets.
The average cricket has a six-week lifespan. Crickets are vegetarian; they’re also exothermic, meaning they don’t expend calories on heating their bodies (which is largely what makes them so efficient as a food source).
For the most part, farms in markets where insect consumption is common, like Thailand, are still fairly small scale, which means growers have a lot of options for how to feed crickets, Crowley said. “You can use vegetable byproducts and waste as feed so it’s very efficient when you have a smaller system.”
The nascent US edible insect market still presents a number of challenges, such as how to approach rearing food-grade insects from a regulatory standpoint and determining how to classify them for FDA purposes (as meat or as their own separate category, for example). Still, Crowley said that leaves a lot of potential to get it right on a commercial scale. Currently, the common practice is to feed the crickets livestock feed.
“There are a couple paths you can take: either put wet food product in and don’t give them water, since they’ll get all the water they need from their food. But you continually have to be changing that wet feed so it doesn’t mold. The other is to put dry feed in and give them water. You feed them once at beginning of their lifespan and that’s what they eat until they die six weeks later.”
Chapul has been able to scale up production consistently alongside its existing farmer partners who have been willing to dedicate a portion of their facility to human-grade insects. The firm is working toward a more sustainable, large-scale supply of organic insects, which Crowley admits will take some time.
“Most definitely our biggest priority now is creating sustainable business making organic insects available at a large scale,” Crowley said, noting that some of the modifications in GMO products are pesticides, so cricket food has to be non-GMO. “There is no organic certification process yet, so that’s next steps. We paid a premium to make sure all our feed is organic.”
Getting into neighborhood grocers is our end goal
Above all, the goal is to make insects as accessible as possible to those who are open to alternative protein sources. For Chapul, that requires a good deal of patience, despite the undercurrent of urgency that surrounds the environmental argument for alternative protein.
Crowley attended Expo West in March with the specific goal of getting Chapul to the “next level” of distribution. Around the same time, he appeared on ABC's Shark Tank, a reality competition TV show for startup businesses, to sell Chapul to a more mainstream audience.
“We’re really just trying to extend our reach. Getting into neighborhood grocers is our end goal,” he said. “It’s not a process that needs to be rushed. It’s an exercise in patience at the same time that there’s an urgency to get people a reliable option for alternative protein.”