Insect eaters

Shanghai Star. 2002-05-30

Thai supermarkets foster a new food concept:Worms are not an unhygienic health risk
A Thai mother and her daughter stop to buy fried crickets, worms and grasshoppers at one of 31 supermarket outlets of the Insects Inter chain at Bangkok's Central Plaza Shopping Mall on May 24. Insects Inter chain founder Satapol Polprapas watches from behind his insect kiosk.

TUCKED in a corner near the supermarket checkouts at Bangkok's teeming Central Plaza Shopping Mall, the food stand raises more than a few eyebrows.

On its brightly lit glass shelves sit trays piled with crispy crickets, grasshoppers, other insects and worms. Curious shoppers stop for a free taste and many pay 30 baht (US$0.70) for a 25-gram cup of the crunchy snacks.

Along with this unique fare comes either ketchup or a spicy hot Thai chilli sauce for dipping.

"We sell about 4,000 baht a day at the weekend and a little less on weekdays," said a salesgirl, wearing a bright yellow Insects Inter uniform.

The Insects Inter stand is part of Thailand's first insect fast food chain, a 31-kiosk network launched in March that has already made more money than its creator expected.

Insects have long been a common staple for Thais, especially those from the country's northeast region. But for many Bangkok residents, they are seen as an unhygienic health risk.

Insects Inter's founder Satapol Polprapas has taken the bold move of trying to elevate the business of selling fried insects from grimy sidewalk pushcarts to upmarket stalls next to sausages and chicken in modern supermarkets.

"The real challenge is to get people to give it a try. If you can do that, you are in business. Our slogan is: 'Never mind the look, it tastes great'," he said.

Most of Satapol's customers now are young, middle-class Thais with a taste for exotic food. Some say it goes well as bites with beer or wine.

Although Insect Inter's snacks are priced much higher than similar fare from roadside hawkers, the adventurous are prepared to pay more for better hygiene at supermarkets.

No hygiene worry

The 29-year-old entrepreneur said urban Thais should discard a mistaken belief that worms and insects were dirty creatures.

"We buy only live insects free of insecticide from our 5,000 contracted farmers in central and southern provinces. Our insects are fed with vegetables, fruits or rice. Skeptical buyers will change their minds if they see how they are raised," he said.

The Insects Inter owner expects the chain to earn him 10-15 million baht ($233,000) in revenue within a year, of which one third would come from a targeted 100-150 franchisees each paying 50,000 baht to be part of his new business.

"We impose strict quality control. The secret of success is our special recipe and the unique sesame oil used for frying our food," said Satapol's business partner and girlfriend, Pailin Thanomkait.

Insects Inter's franchisees fry processed frozen worms and insects in cooking oil supplied by the company.

Pailin said Insects Inter would add grasshopper salad and cricket tempura to its expanding menu in June, and vacuum packed frozen insects would soon hit supermarket shelves.

Satapol has seen several ups and downs in his short business career since he got a computer engineering degree from a Bangkok university in 1996.

Back in early 2000, the 29-year-old businessman was near bankrupt, saddled with 7 million baht ($163,000) of unpaid debt from a failed shrimp farming venture in Thailand's eastern Rayong province.

"Disaster struck one day. My farm was hit by a deadly virus that killed all the shrimps in three days. I was wiped out with nothing left except millions of baht of debt owed to shrimp feed suppliers," he said.

Wheel of fortune

Satapol's wheel of fortune turned a few months later. Surfing the Internet aimlessly one day while still nursing wounds from the shrimp farming fiasco, he found an advertisement for an agriculture ministry seminar on commercial cricket breeding.

"I went to the seminar out of curiosity with only 160 baht in my pocket and returned with a bag of crickets. Little did I know that investment would change my life," said the businessman, his new found wealth evident by a 30,000-baht gold bracelet on his right wrist.

"I have absolutely no doubt that our crispy, crunchy crickets will replace popcorn as a favourite snack in cinemas," he said.

The Thai insect king is not a man short of ideas. He plans to open Insects City, a restaurant with specialised insect menus, in the southern Thai tourist resort of Phuket later this year.

"It will be a restaurant-cum-living museum where patrons can observe and study the whole life cycle of a wide range of insects while having a unique meal," he said.

(Agencies via Xinhua)

Copyright by Shanghai Star.