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Are Insects the New Quinoa?

Oatmeal with a difference at Know Thy Food, a Portland food co-op. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan Oatmeal with a difference at Know Thy Food, a Portland food co-op. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

 

On a chilly December evening, a hundred daring eaters and enterprising home cooks packed into the WeWork event space to taste delicacies such as Brown Butter Jiminies and Hopped-up Miang Kham, a spicy Thai leaf wrap topped with fried crickets. Portland’s first ever cricket cook-off, organized by food meet-up group Food Bytes, not only sold out — it quickly ran out of the tastiest dishes.

Portland, as it happens, is going through a cricket craze. While San Francisco has just one cricket flour company, Portland boasts three: Cricket Flours, Poda Foods, and Thinksect.

“Crickets are twenty times more efficient than beef at creating protein,” says Charles Wilson, founder and CEO of Cricket Flours, one of the three start-ups that donated flour and whole crickets for the cook-off. The startup founders were also present to proclaim crickets’ health benefits and their potential as a sustainable food source.

Crickets, Wilson notes, are not only high in protein, iron, calcium, and magnesium, they also contain B12 and Omega-3s. It goes without saying that they are also gluten-free — a distinct advantage when one-third of Americans are trying to cut gluten from their diets. In addition to cricket baking flour, Cricket Flours sells instant oatmeal and ready-to-go protein shakes in three flavors, including peanut butter chocolate.

“In the future, Portland will have insect food carts,” says Ebin Barnett, one of the founders of Thinksect, which imports cricket flour from Thailand. But first we have to get over the “ick factor.” Barnett showed a slide of a California roll and reminded his audience that Americans were grossed out by sushi when it first appeared on menus in the 1970s.

“Now eating raw fish is normal. Will insects be the new normal?” asked Barnett. 

Yesenia Gallardo and Kenny Cloft, co-owners of Oregon’s first cricket farm, Poda Foods, think it’s just a matter of time before restaurants like Pok-Pok put crickets on the menu. Indeed, chefs at ethnic restaurants across the country — from Brooklyn to Ballard — are already popularizing insects by serving them atop tacos, in soup and even in sushi. 

“There are so many benefits to eating crickets,” says Gallardo, whose mother is from Oaxaca, Mexico, where chapulines (grasshoppers) are a delicacy. She believes crickets-as-food will become more mainstream as people realize the bugs’ health benefits.

Gallardo (CEO) and Cloft (COO) are farming crickets in a heated warehouse in Molalla. Crickets need heat and humidity to thrive— 80 degrees is ideal. The duo met at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where they proposed a cricket salad topping in an entrepreneurial business class. But as they researched the emerging edible insect market, they realized that despite an increased interest in cricket products, there was a striking lack of raw material in North America.

“The bigger companies were finding it hard to get a steady stream of food-grade crickets,” says Gallardo, a Salem native. Unlike crickets raised for the pet food market, food-grade crickets must consume food-grade feed themselves. 

Poda Foods — the name is a play on the phylum Arthropoda — was born. Winning the $25,000 Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize at Yale helped finance start-up costs. But Cloft and Gallardo have not sought a first round of equity investment because they first want to prove to would-be investors that there’s demand for edible crickets. “We’re boot-strapping our way to building up the cricket production in the states,” says Cloft. 

Cricket powder is still expensive, averaging between $30-$40 a pound, wholesale. Poda Foods, which will eventually produce cricket flour, too, hopes to bring the price down to $25 a pound.

They already have their first customer: Portland "paleo" bar company Grok. Thinksect, because it sources from practiced cricket farmers in Thailand, can get the wholesale price down to $20 a pound, but that’s only for a bulk order of 300-500 pounds.

Thinksect supplies a handful of “entomophagy start-ups” around the country, including San Francisco-based Chirps — “Eat What Bugs You!” — a cricket snack food company founded by three Harvard grads. Demand is still fairly small overall, though; a good month sees Thinksect moving 200 pounds of flour. 

At least two billion people world-wide regularly eat insects, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. The practice is particularly common in Asia and Africa but also in Australia, Central America, and South America. But the trend has only recently started in the U.S.

In addition to Chirps, which makes cricket flour tortilla chips, two U.S. cricket energy bar companies have gotten serious investment: Chapul scored $50,000 from Mark Cuban of Shark Tank, and Exo had an impressive first seed round of $1.2 million. Tyler Florence’s Florence Group holds equity in Bitty Foods in San Francisco.

Back at the Cook-off, Portlanders who lingered into the evening were rewarded with cricket creations by professional chefs: hamachi crudo in a squid ink and cricket cornet, topped with cricket chicharrones made by chef Todd Radcliffe from Chicken & Guns and cricket churros made by Isabel Sánchez from Churros Locos.  

“I think we’ve greatly underestimated the palate of Americans,” says Cloft. “There are a lot of people who are ready to make the whole cricket jump. Seeing chefs doing it in places like New York City and Portland, will start to open that door even more for us. The sky’s the limit at that point.”

 

Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based writer.

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