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Insectpreneur Series: Interview with Grub Co-founder Neil Whippey

Insectpreneur Series: Interview with Grub Co-founder Neil Whippey

Insectpreneurs: Neil Whippey of Grub

Welcome to the first of many exciting interviews with up and coming Insectpreneurs! That’s right, a new word for you all.

These are the movers and shakers of the insect/entomophagy industry. People who have started businesses and making a difference in the field, and in the world.

I will be presenting one amazing person each month and look forward to sharing their stories and insights with you.

Our first guest: Neil Whippey of Grub

How Did You Get The Idea For Grub?

It was late 2012 when a series of interesting conversations took place between Shami (co-founder) and I. Shami had recently returned from a trip to Malawi as part of his role for Wateraid, the International Charity. It was a case study trip, collecting info and stories from a number of projects the charity was running.

This particular trip was slightly different in that he’d seen first hand communities eating insects as part of their diet. In one part it was out of necessity – protein sources were in short supply and people had to make do with what was available, but the other part that became the topic of conversation. A number of the insects/bugs being consumed were considered a treat, a delicacy if you will.

Conversations started, as you would expect, over a few beers, and we started to discuss whether we’d consider trying them for a bit of fun. What would they taste like? Would they be just like in I’m A Celebrity (a British reality show where it’s made a bit of a novelty, and frankly does no good for the concept) and all squishy?

In truth we had a bit of a laugh about it and were perhaps even thankful we could go and have a steak when we wanted to. The conversation soon turned back to the usual: work life, Premier League, where to go and get some food etc… but this was essentially the moment which sowed the seeds of Grub.

What Prompted You To Look Further Into Insects?

Over the last few years I have become very interested in nutrition, mostly because I happen to suffer from Crohns disease. It comes in bouts, and fortunately I’m well at the moment, but I always have in the back of my mind that getting enough protein and other minerals is an important thing for me, perhaps slightly more than others. I won’t cover much of that here, but you can read more about it in an article I wrote for the Grub website (Living With Crohns Disease). Suffice to say, the idea of insect nutrition is one that certainly got me thinking.

Over the next few months, we individually noticed a number of articles in National Geographic magazine, various newspapers etc that started talking about the need for the West to adopt new protein sources that were more efficient on the world’s resources due to the growing population. It was incredible absorbing, all of this information from around the world, and seeing the growing movements in the US, Holland and Belgium.

What Were the First Steps You Took To Start The Business?

Shami was going traveling to South East Asia and quite fancied the idea of wrapping in a bit of research. The people of Thailand have been eating insects for hundreds of years as part of their daily diet, so what better place to find out how they should be cooked and whether they taste nice.

I was doing the groundwork from London while he was traveling, and when he got back we both agreed that we felt like edible insects was a viable and extremely exciting idea. He and I decided that we wanted to make a business out of it if we could, but we realised very quickly it had to be taken seriously, as a food that had the potential to feed an awful lot of people, and not just a novelty idea. Taste and quality was going to be very important here, probably more-so than with any other food product.

Shami and I are not chefs by any stretch! We had managed to source some frozen locusts from an exotic meats company in the UK, and invited some of our braver friends over for a tasting session. Let me tell you now that if we had based our plan on what we made that night, Grub would not exist.

What Early Lessons Did You Learn?

The first thing we learned from that experience was that insects are a new meat that not many people in the western world know how to cook with.

Our history (in the UK at least) is with beef, chicken, pork etc, and we learn to cook these meats from our parents, celebrity chefs on the television, or from cook books. This really was starting from scratch!

Tell Us About Finding Your First Chef To Cook Insects…

Our attentions quickly turned to finding a chef who would be able (and willing) to learn to cook with them in order make the best of their flavour, and provide some kind of template of basic cooking principles that others may be able to learn to use in the future.

Another series of events brought me to meeting a young chef who was working at The Begging Bowl restaurant in Peckham by the name of Seb Holmes – in between all of this we had managed to source dried insects specifically reared for humans. We had a couple of pints and in the middle of the pub I brought out a series of tupperware boxes, containing Grasshoppers, Crickets, Mealworms and Buffalo Worms. He was curious and wanted to sample them straight away – as any self-respecting chef would.

I still don’t know exactly what he was thinking, but I’m sure it was along the lines of “what the hell have I just gotten myself into” – And he probably still is!

How Did You Starting Selling Insects?

Fast forward to Jan 2014 and the Grub website was launched selling dried insects for human consumption. Our mission is to change the way people think about insects as a food source, to make insects delicious to the British public, through quality nutritious food, education, and developing tasty new products.

Seb, in the meantime had developed a brilliant seven course tasting menu for a pop-up restaurant that we were to open for a week in East London. This would really test the concept that if you put a great meal in front of paying customers, then they will enjoy it regardless of the protein source, and we would prove that insects do have the potential to be a viable food source in the UK.

It was probably one of the most exciting (and stressful) weeks I’ve had from a personal perspective, but it was a great success for many reasons. We received a lot of press before and after the event, but most importantly our first customers really enjoyed the food that Seb had prepared. We had good reason to continue that was for sure.

What Challenges is Grub Facing Right Now?

In America, over the previous six months, there had been quite outstanding success for a couple of startup food companies, Exo and Chapul, (and now Bitty Foods, Hopper etc) who had been using a new insect product to great effect – cricket powder. It’s a product that we had been very keen to get hold of in the UK for some time, and so far the only way to get hold of it is to import it from the US or Canada, where there are a number of specialist farms.

After a lot of deliberation, and a realisation that asking the British public to buy a product which you had to work out how to use yourself (just as we had done with the aid of Seb) was not going to be a quick solution in getting insects into the mainstream (although our recipe page  and a cook book we’re currently working on will definitely help!). We needed to cater for all tastes; the brave who would embrace eating insects whole and those who bought in to the idea of eating insects but needed an easier way in.

The question we then asked ourselves was how do we emulate these successful American products in our own way? We’d created an amazing product with the help of Seb, a Grub Bar containing cricket powder that has been tried by over 1,000 people to date. The reaction has been outstanding, with the main issue being ingredient cost that has been stopping us going into production.

One problem ourselves, and fellow companies in the UK have had this far is that there’s no product over here to use without incurring monumental shipping and import costs. There is a clear gap to be filled here in order to provide a platform for businesses to move forward and the sector to grow, and one that we’ve been working on over the last 8 months – a UK farmed supply of cricket powder.

There is so much potential for a product like this, and it’s not something that Grub can cover every aspect of.

There’s

  • cricket protein smoothies
  • nutrition bars
  • baked goods
  • flour blends
  • food additives
  • sports nutrition

and even breaking the protein down into its purest molecular form so that you’d never even know that it came from an insect.

What Are Your Current Aims for Grub and the Insect Industry?

This is a sector that needs to be taken seriously, and we care passionately about showing that insects are a delicious and viable human food, so are working alongside university researchers to prove that insect are safe to eat.

We’re aiming for our research to be useful to the FSA in enabling clearer legislation for insects as food in this country.

We hope that we can help other food startups (and existing companies) make use of a new and exciting product that is not only good for you, it’s also extremely tasty.

No other protein powder on the market can boast both nutrition and taste to such a degree, coupled with the added bonus of being incredibly sustainable to farm.

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