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After five years in business and two appearances on ABC's hit show "Shark Tank" the idea of eating a protein bar made with crickets is no longer creepy, says Pat Crowley.
"There is a growing population that is excited about insect protein, so we've moved beyond the shock value," explained Crowley, the owner of Chapul, the Utah-based company that makes gourmet energy bars using ground cricket flour.
Since launching in 2012, the company has expanded every year and, to date, has had more than $1 million in sales, he said.
For those who have been hesitant to try the product, Crowley says it's time to be adventurous. Chapul which means cricket or grasshopper in the Aztec language recently reformulated its bars to contain more protein and less sugar. Instead of 6 grams of protein, the bars now have more than 10 grams; they also have dropped to less than 10 grams of sugar.
Feedback from focus groups prompted the recipe change, said Crowley. "They're so much better tasting now than they used to be."
The cricket bars, which also have new packaging, come in four flavors, inspired by cultures where insects are traditionally consumed: Aztec (chocolate, coffee and cayenne); Chaco (peanut butter and chocolate); Matcha (green tea and banana); and Thai (coconut, ginger and lime). Depending on where they are purchased, the bars cost about $3.29 each.
Some 80 percent of the world's population intentionally eats species of insects for food. People eat red tree ants in Cambodia, bee larvae in Japan and grasshoppers in Mexico.
In Utah, American Indian tribes, such as the Utes and Southern Paiutes, were known to have eaten insects. And many Mormon pioneer diaries have references to eating insects. The bugs were roasted and ground and used in winter storage. They also mixed with pine nuts and berries to make something called "desert fruitcake," Crowley said.
More Americans have become interested in products made with insects, as they look for foods that have less of an impact on the environment. Crickets, for example, require one-tenth the amount of water needed to produce the same amount of beef.
For proof that insects are becoming more mainstream just consider the chapulines toasted grasshoppers with chile-lime salt seasoning that were served last year at Safeco Field in Seattle. The item proved quite popular, selling out during Seattle Mariners baseball games.
Crowley started Chapul in fall 2012 with three partners and $16,000 from a Kickstarter campaign. The team did everything from bake and grind the insects into flour to mix and package every bar by hand. They do not raise the crickets themselves.
The company had its breakout moment in March 2014, when Crowley appeared on "Shark Tank" and billionaire Mark Cuban agreed to a $50,000 investment for 15 percent of the company. The infusion of funds and the national exposure boosted sales, said Crowley.
Cuban's business expertise was helpful in other ways. He encouraged Chapul to sell its ground cricket flour to other companies interested in using the protein, creating an additional source of revenue.
"It allowed us to grow to another level without having to raise money from investors," Crowley said. Now the company operates out of a larger warehouse in Salt Lake City with eight employees.
In January 2017, Crowley returned to "Shark Tank," updating viewers on the company's progress. Chapul also has been able to expand with the help of a $250,000 low-interest sustainability loan from Salt Lake City. About 50 stores in the region, including Harmons, Natural Grocers and Caputo's and other specialty food markets in Salt Lake City, sell the bars.
While Chapul has "moved into its second phase," Crowley said the company mission remains the same. "We are really trying to be revolutionary and create products that are going to be healthy and sustainable in the future."