Students' cricket flour might put chirp in your step
EUGENE — In a region that is becoming known for startups — particularly food and beverage companies — Charles Wilson and Omar Ellis have found an unexplored niche where they face little competition.
Following — sort of — in the footsteps of companies like Euphoria Chocolate, Carmen's Chips, Toby's Tofu and Red Duck Ketchup, Wilson and Ellis have launched Cricket Flours.
The name is not a play on words. The main ingredient is just that: ground crickets.
The two University of Oregon students realize that there may be some skepticism about whether the market will embrace their product. Ellis himself was skeptical when Wilson broached the idea.
"I had a class last year in winter term and I ended up working with Omar in a small group," Wilson said. "I first approached him with the idea because I was hoping he could help me with Web design and making a logo."
"My first thought was that this would not work in a Western culture," Ellis, an MBA student, said.
But Wilson, a law student, had come armed with a 2013 UN report, "Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security," that detailed the importance of insects as a food source.
As the two continued to talk, Wilson began to come around. Among the factors they considered:
The world is hungry for protein, but raising livestock for mass consumption requires enormous resources.
Seafood has long been a good source of protein, but intensive fishing has depleted many wild populations, governments around the world are scrambling to prevent over-fishing, and fish farms are criticized as polluting the water.
Crickets, which are related to shrimp, are high in protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12.
While crickets are rarely eaten (except maybe on a dare) in the United States, they are consumed in other countries.
"Eighty percent of the world eats bugs," Ellis said. "It's just Westerners who don't."
He and Wilson recognized, however, that selling crickets in anything resembling their original form would likely be a tough sell in the West.
So they settled on cricket flour as a more palatable, and versatile, option.
They obtain live crickets from a U.S. farm, which they declined to name, that produces food-grade crickets for human consumption.
The crickets are shipped to Eugene, where they are chilled until they automatically fall into hibernation. At that point they are humanely killed by freezing, Ellis and Wilson said, then roasted and ground into flour.
About 5,500 crickets are needed to produce one pound of flour.
The company does not disclose financial information but, the partners said, sales have increased steadily since they opened for business in November.
"We're selling about 50 pounds a month," Ellis said.
Sales are online only; In addition to the company website, the flour is available through Amazon, Etsy and eBay. The company also has just released a cookbook, "All Cricket, No BULL...: Cricket Flour Recipes," written by Wilson.
Nathan Lillegard, program manager of the UO's Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship, said Cricket Flours is still in the very early stages of development and its founders will have some critical decisions to make in the coming months.
"They took this idea into my class in the fall," he said. "It's an interesting opportunity."
One challenge will be determining where the opportunity lies, whether it's being a retailer, a wholesaler or something else, he said.
"I think there's enough other buzz around crickets as a protein source so other people will address it," Lillegard said, "The challenge for them is finding the right niche."
Other challenges will be dealing with competitors and such pragmatic issues as maintaining a reliable source of crickets, he said.
"They'll have to decide in the next six months if they're going to go 100 percent into this," Lillegard said. "I think that's where success lies. It's about the commitment."
The company already has won one business competition, the Lab2Market Pitch at the Portland State University business incubator, and will be competing at an international event for startups in Bangkok in February.
Although food products made from crickets are still a novelty, Wilson said, more people are beginning to take them seriously, particularly in the Northwest.
"The Eugene and Portland market are ripe for this," he said.
In the past year or two, national news outlets such as The New York Times, Business Week, Time Magazine and NBC have broadcast or published stories on edible cricket products and speculated about their future.
"There are articles coming out almost daily about entomophagy," Ellis said. "We think this is a massive market and big corporations will eventually take an interest."
"We're really hoping families in general might start incorporating this into their diet because it really boosts the protein of whatever you're eating," he said.