Over the shell — sorry, exoskeletal — shock of pulverizing crickets to a fine flour, recent Brown grads Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis now use the bugs as the ingredients in protein bars. Their company Exo sprang to life over the pair’s mutual agreement about the protein-bar market and state of conventional food sources; the former needed a flavorful, nutrient laden option with a more supple texture, and the latter was dismal at best. Now, they’ve pretty much cracked the code and are turning insectophobes into believers, and buyers.
We chatted with Greg about incubating his new biz in Williamsburg and why we will soon all be gunning for grubs, too.
Edible Brooklyn: Did you play around with other insects before landing on the cricket?
Exo: We actually ordered crickets before we were serious about the idea. We just played around with them. Once we figured out it could work, we never thought twice about finding another option. It’s much harder to track down other types of insects, although some cricket farms raise mealworms. We found people were less grossed out by crickets than worms.
EB: How do people get over the psychological hurdle? Taste first, explain later?
Exo: The response has been really, really good, better than Gabi and I expected. We started shipping, officially, a week ago, and the response is overwhelmingly positive. Our Facebook and Twitter is full of great comments: “Finally there is a protein bar that is paleo and good.” It sounds like a plug, but really our social media isn’t curated. We’ve been so surprised there isn’t one “Ewww, this is gross.” In-person we get some people who are looking to be convinced, who want explanation about why we put crickets in. We walk them through the sustainability aspect. Once they try it, they see that the bars are really good, then they’re sold.
EB: Do you hope to follow in the footsteps of other foods Americans were not receptive to but are now more mainstream? Like, kiwi fruit, stinky cheese, hard cider?
Exo: Kombucha, it’s pretty gross — fermented bacteria in a sour bubbly drink? It definitely tastes like something you shouldn’t be eating. There’s been a huge educational campaign that has convinced people there are properties that make it worth consuming. So now that taste is a mark of pride, people are associating it with the taste of health. Greek yogurt, too. It’s pretty lumpy and sour, but it became such a big trend. Until about five years ago, Americans only ate sugary, smooth Yoplait type yogurt. Companies like Chobani were able to convince people and now thick, Greek yogurt is something people either suffer through or decide is worth eating for its health properties. They’ve overcome the hump, and you find people gobbling it up like crazy.
EB: How does running a young brand in Brooklyn help your game?
Exo: There is definitely a very large, supportive, adventurous food community in Brooklyn. The rise of artisanal, Brooklyn-branded food products has sort of become a cliché. But it gives what we’re doing some context, when people find out where we are based. Being here (Williamsburg) also lets people know we aren’t a mass-produced protein bar. We used to make them out of our house and we’ve graduated, but only slightly.
EB: Have you used cricket flour as a substitute in any other foods?
Exo: From the beginning we’ve been playing around for ourselves, doing informal tests with cookies and muffins.
EB: How’s working with Accell, the new business accelerator that’s helping you grow?
Exo: They have a ton of mentors, weekly seminars and a demo day at the end, where companies present to investors. We literally graduated [from college] in May and had not one ounce of food industry experience. Having the support, somebody to turn to, has been really helpful.
EB: I imagine farmed bugs bouncing around an iguana tank, trying to escape their fate. What sets Exo’s cricket-farming process apart from say, the bred-for-reptile variety?
Exo: The farms we partner with have a separate area for our crickets, where they get certified organic grain feed much like what chickens eat.
EB: You might have the boro on bug watch now. Where else can they get their fix around town?
Exo: There’s a Mexican place that serves grasshopper tacos, and a Thai place in Queens.
EB: “Entomophagy is coming” sounds a little like the Rapture. But it also seems like an idea with legs. Are other food businesses wrangling insects?
Exo: There really aren’t any yet. Definitely no one mass-producing. There’s a lot of caution about putting a ton of money into something somewhat “out there.” Even though to me, it now feels totally normal. Once there is success though, you might see big companies start to buy in.
Photo credit: Exo