Food Workshop

Making a meal out of bugs

Eat Grub was the first of a small swarm of UK startups selling edible insects. It faces a daunting marketing challenge: getting people to see a pest as something tasty.

17 Feb 2017

Shami Radia wants more people to eat insects. Specifically, his insect powder energy bars and packets of freeze-dried bugs. The problem is, most people won’t go near them.

Radia is unfazed. ‘It’s similar to sushi,’ he says. The average Brit was deeply suspicious of raw fish until Yo Sushi came along with its cool conveyor belts and colourful dishes, he argues. The challenge for Radia is to use a repositioning trick for insects like Yo Sushi once did for cold strips of uncooked salmon and tuna.

Eat Grub isn’t alone in believing there’s money in selling insects as food. Crobar, Crunchy Critters, Gryö and Jimini’s are European startups working in this fledgling area. Radia welcomes the competition, hoping it will help with the job of ‘getting people trying the food, and changing perceptions’.

The novelty of hawking crisp-style packets of ready-to-eat worms, crickets and grasshoppers for upwards of £3.50 (and as much as £12) has garnered plenty of interest, with Eat Grub counting the likes of Time Out, Evening Standard and The Independent in its press clippings.

Eat Grub started out doing pop-up restaurants in 2014, enlisting Smoking Goat’s ex-head chef Seb Holmes to design a seven-course tasting menu featuring crispy citrus insect noodles and caramel-doused buffalo worms. ‘People came as a gimmick,’ says Radia.

Partners in protein

Partnerships are a big part of Eat Grub’s strategy to open up the market, and become the most recognised edible insect brand. As part of this, Radia says his firm develops every new product with a launch partner in mind.

When the startup noticed staff at The Economist were ordering packets of Eat Grub, Radia got in touch with the magazine’s marketing agency. A few months later, Eat Grub produced 10,000 limited edition energy bars in partnership with the current affairs weekly, to be given out at its public events and street promotions.

‘Energy bars are an accessible way for people to embrace the arguments for eating insects, without actually seeing them,’   says Radia. The nutty-tasting bars are ranged in some organic supermarkets, coffee shops and even climbing centres. Late last year, the team landed a potentially breakthrough deal with Ocado.

Getting customers to try eating insects is a challenge that attracted ad agencies Kinetic and Ogilvy, which took on Eat Grub as a pro-bono client. ‘We’re a great case study for looking at [how a new brand] can shift behaviour,’ explains Radia.

Timing it right

If the edible insect industry takes off, Radia expects he will bump into new difficulties.

‘There’s a real risk that we’re too early,’ he says, convinced that it’s only a matter of time before consumers start to take notice of the nutritional and environmental benefits of eating insects and big companies see the commercial opportunity and try to launch
their own versions.

To pump up its defences, Eat Grub has raised £250,000 seed capital from angel investors, and plans to expand its range of energy bars in 2017.

Insect farms

Insects are farmed for human consumption in small quantities in the Netherlands, Canada, the US, Spain and the UK.

‘Crickets are reasonably expensive,’ says Radia, who currently sources most of his crickets from a farm in the Netherlands, paying 4p per gram. ‘It’s a supply and demand thing.’ He hopes scale and increased uptake will reduce prices.

Aside from the cost, flying in dried bugs from across the world is also at odds with the message of sustainability that the bug sellers are preaching.

Farms are now popping up in the UK. In 2015, Radia backed the UK’s first edible cricket farm in Cumbria.

Pest control

Regulation on edible insects varies by country. In the UK, companies are free to sell bugs for human consumption, although they cannot be used in livestock feed (another big potential market). In France, selling insects is a complicated matter, with rules varying from province to province.

An industry body was set up in 2015, and its members, of which Eat Grub is one, are petitioning for an EU-wide green light on eating insects.

Chia seeds are another ‘novel food’ to have been EU-approved recently.