Are edible insects the food of the future? One Salt Lake City-based company thinks so. Chapul Inc. has cooked up an energy bar with an eye-popping ingredient -- crickets.
Chapul Bars come in three flavors -- peanut butter, chocolate and Thai -- and sell for $2.99 to $3.59 each. They're made from natural ingredients such as dates, agave nectar, coconut, ginger, lime and dark chocolate. And all contain cricket flour.
"Most people don't know that crickets are a rich source of edible protein," said Patrick Crowley, 33, an environmentalist and Chapul's founder. And compared to cows and pigs, crickets are also a more environmentally-friendly source of protein, he said.
Cattle and pig farms, for instance, require a huge amount of animal feed and water. But crickets need very little water to live and eat mostly agricultural by-products, like corn husks and broccoli stalks. And crickets have a similar protein content as livestock, with less fat, according to Crowley. "So there's both an economic and environmental benefit to farming insects for protein," he said.
Still, there's no denying the obvious cringe factor. Although insect-based foods aren't unusual in many countries, they're still very much a novelty in America. But American consumers seem to be warming up to the idea, at least as far as Chapul in concerned.
The bars launched late last year and are now in 75 stores, mostly independent health food and sporting goods retailers, in 15 states, said Crowley.
He declined to disclose his revenue, but he did say the start-up is profitable and that sales should top $1 million in the next two years.
Crowley has a degree in hydrology, which is the study of the Earth's water bodies, and had worked in the area of water management and conservation. Then a 2011 podcast about how insects are nutritious and eco-friendly food sources captured his imagination.
He researched insect farming and learned that insects convert grain and grass into edible protein as much as 10 times more efficiently than cows and pigs. This gave Crowley the idea to create an all-natural snack made with cricket protein. He recruited a chef friend and a business-savvy college buddy to help launch his idea.
It took them eight months to line up a cricket supplier from California, rent a commercial kitchen, perfect recipes and get the necessary approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the energy bars.
"Our product was a first-of-a-kind, so we had to provide lab test results that showed our cricket flour, and the food we were feeding the crickets, were safe for human consumption," he said.
Next, Crowley went to crowdfunding site Kickstarter last June with the goal of raising $10,000 in 18 days, but he raised $16,000 instead.
"We were surprised at how much interest it got. We had donors from 13 countries," said Crowley. The startup used the money to set up a website, buy ingredients in bulk and make the first batch of 2,000 cricket bars, which were sold online and in stores.
As demand picked up, Crowley contracted with a company to make the bars in larger quantities. "We've also moved production to a bigger facility," he said.
Large retail chains have also expressed in the bars. Crowley is in talks with Whole Foods(WFM) to bring them to some stores this summer.
For now, he's pleasantly surprised by how retailers and consumers have responded to his cricket bars, but he's realistic about the challenges ahead.
"Most Americans are still skeptical about foods made with insects," he said. Just last year Starbucks (SBUX)faced a consumer backlash when it disclosed that it used insects as food coloring in some of its drinks and food products. The company subsequently announced it would transition to a tomato-based extract.
But Crowley is still confident about his product. The bar's wrapper even features crickets and trumpets the phrase "The Original Cricket Bar" in bold lettering.
"The hardest part is getting people to overcome that psychological barrier of putting the bar in their mouth,." said Crowley, "If you can get past that, they're pretty tasty."