A bucket of crickets is pictured in this October 2015 file photo. The insects have proven to be a best-seller for Lewiston-based company Entosense LLC. Credit: Carlos Osorio | AP

A Lewiston company that makes and sells edible insects is planning a major expansion during the coming year as demand for crickets and other critters as snacks and garnishes grows.

Entosense LLC co-owner Bill Broadbent said edible insects are literally flying off the shelf. The company, located in the Hill Mill across from the Bates Mill complex, expanded its internet sales last month to start selling wholesale.

Plans call for it to double the number of employees to 12 by this fall, and to more than triple its production space by next spring. Broadbent said the company hopes to top $1 million in sales by the end of 2019.

“A lot of people eat insects for their nutrition,” said Broadbent, who with his sister Susan Broadbent, owns the company.

He said the crickets are popular because they contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, protein and vitamin B12.

Sales took off in the past few months after the company began selling a $250 display for its Mini-Kickers Flavored Crickets, which it introduced in December. The display comes with 90 tubes of Mini-Kickers.

“The most popular flavors are cotton candy, because of the kids, and Italian lasagna,” he said. Other flavors are Indian curry, lemon meringue, mango habanero, orange creamsicle, Mexican mole, sun dried tomato, jalapeno garlic and white cheddar.

The Mini-Kickers are small Acheta tropical crickets that are dried, flavored and sold in a vial for $6. Each vial averages 100 crickets, depending on the size of the crickets. Each tube has about 6 grams of protein, Broadbent said.

That product is being sold in four retail stores in Maine: Kittery Trading Post, Ron’s Market in Farmington, Axis Natural Foods in Auburn and at a shop in Hope, near Lincolnville.

Locally sourced insects

While Entosense imports dried insects from Asia and Mexico, which it subsequently flavors and repackages for sale, it plans to once again start raising insects, including the Acheta cricket and scorpions, in Lewiston.

One challenge is isolating the insects so they remain warm in the drafty mill and keeping them away from any environmental contaminants, including potential bug sprays. Entosense had to build an expansive cleanroom for the critters.

“We are about to start production again,” Broadbent said. “We are looking for $1 million to $2 million, probably from angel investors, to set up a large growing facility, up to 20,000 square feet, by next spring.”

Broadbent and his sister already invested $100,000 of their own money into the company. They also have a private investor who put in some money. He would not reveal how much, but said it is “not a ton.”

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About 2,000 square feet of its current 6,000 square feet in Lewiston will be converted into a grow area. There is room to expand in the Hill Mill, but Broadbent said he may look elsewhere in the area for space.

The crickets are fairly easy to grow, he said. They live in densely packed colonies and require only organic chicken feed and warmth for growth. The Acheta crickets live only six to eight weeks, and are frozen toward the end of their life cycle.

Broadbent said his company is the largest general seller in the country of insect products. Others may sell more crickets alone.

He said insects are becoming more popular on the dinner plate. Venture capitalist and Dallas Mavericks basketball team co-owner Mark Cuban, for example, has invested in two edible insect companies, Chapul of Salt Lake City and Chirps of San Francisco. Chapul makes energy bars with cricket flour, while Chirps makes chips made with cricket flour.

The next lobster?

Edible insects typically sell well in the southern United States, and especially among Hispanic and Asian populations. In New England, they remain an acquired taste.

“We are located in one of slowest growth areas,” he said. “But lobster was once a reviled food, and it became a delicacy over time.”

Entosense also sells edible Chapulines, seasoned grasshoppers from Mexico, which compete with Mini-Kickers as the top product.

The company supplies Chapulines to Wolfgang Puck and the Seattle Mariners.

It sells other edible insects to the The Late Late Show with James Corden, the Smithsonian Institution, Sea World and Busch Gardens.

One item Broadbent wants to bring back is scorpions. He currently buys them dry from China, and repackages and resells them. In October 2018, the company sold 20,000 dried scorpions.

“We sell a lot of scorpions to bars for Scorpion Shots, especially in Las Vegas,” he said.

“We were growing scorpions, but it wasn’t warm enough in the mill,” he said. The new build-out for growing will include scorpions and possibly grasshoppers. But the growth area is primarily for crickets.

With some of his products coming from China and Mexico, Broadbent said he hasn’t yet been affected by the United States’ trade wars with those countries.

Trade wars are on his radar, however.

“I worry because the peso may go up against the dollar if the trade war with Mexico continues.” he said. “And with China the insects are considered a novelty food item, so they haven’t yet been hit with tariffs.”

Watch: BDN staff tests out Bugs for Dinner cricket-based snacks

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