A few Fridays ago, many of the inhabitants in the Haymarket-located FUSE co-working space were invited to try a chocolate-flavored protein shake concocted by three recent University of Nebraska-Lincoln college graduates who also work in FUSE.
David Stasiuk, who’s working on his Ph.D. in architecture, took a precious few minutes to get up from his corner spot at Fuse and join in. Stasiuk said he spends hours upon hours at his computer, to the point where he’s grown interested, and invested, in the concept of meal replacement shakes like Jump, the one he tried that day.
The back of a one-serving packet of Jump boasts of 26 grams of proteins, of 54 percent of a day’s recommended iron intake and 56 percent percent of its fiber, of 70-plus percent of a day’s worth of vitamins A, C, D and K.
A camera filmed Stasiuk as he downed his, and offered his thoughts.
“It tastes more or less like a chocolate milkshake,” he said later. “It looks and basically tastes like a traditional nutritional supplement shake.”
Then Stasiuk was told the main ingredient in a Jump shake -- cricket flour.
No Jerry Lewis-level spit takes followed this big reveal. If anything, Stasiuk grew further intrigued.
“I thought it was super cool,” Stasiuk, 42, said. “I’m not at all squeamish.”
Plus, Stasiuk said, “there are tons of cultures that eat bugs.”
Others who volunteered for the test had similar, positive reactions.
“Crickets,” one taster said. “Really? I mean it’s not bad. I would still … it really is crickets? I would still totally do it. I would still drink it.”
“That’s surprisingly not disturbing,” another reported.
And that’s how Alec Wiese, Kelly Sturek and Julianne Kopf hope more and more people will react after giving Jump, the first product released by Lincoln’s Bugeater Foods, a try.
On Tuesday night, Bugeater will be one of seven startups presenting at Demo Days, the NMotion-sponsored event held at the Rococo Theatre. The startups have been working for 90 days with backing from NMotion to get their companies up and running.
During that time, Bugeater’s Jump went on sale both online and at Lincoln and Omaha Hy-Vees. (Jump packets had a prominent display at the end of a health food aisle as of this past Sunday at the 5010 O St. Hy-Vee, next to a grind-your-own peanut butter processor. They retail for $4.99 a packet.) Another thousand packets of Jump are shipping out in Lincoln-based Bulu Boxes, too.
Sturek, 22, said they’ve been struggling to keep up with demand since bugeaterfoods.com went live this year.
“I can’t even get those for free,” Sturek said as he looked at his Fuse desk, where packs of Jump took up a decent amount of the territory.
As evidenced by the company name -- a nod to an early football team name of the Huskers -- and accompanying website, the trio of UNL alumni isn’t trying to slip one under its customers’ palates.
“It’s getting over the initial mental hurdle of eating bugs,” Wiese said. “A lot of it has been through trying to taste the product. There’s nothing weird about it -- it’s a protein shake.”
Before that, it was an idea that formed over tacos at Grata between Wiese, 22, an economics major, and Sturek, who studied entrepreneurship. Friends since they were freshmen, the two marveled at how Grata could make this valuable source of college nutrition on the cheap. They started looking into non-taco ways to fill stomachs in this country's growing pro-protein consumer (think Paleo dieters) environment, as well as the stomachs of those experiencing hunger worldwide, and landed on crickets.
The insects require a fraction of the water needed to raise one gram's worth of protein from dairy, chicken and beef options, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The cricket, Sturek said, is good for sustainability as well as milkshakes.
"This little guy is an awesome food source," Sturek said.
So the two ordered some processed cricket powder from Thailand and tried to make shakes with it.
"It was like drinking gritty mud," Wiese said. "It was not good. We've come a very long way."
For that they credit Kopf, 23, and a graduate of UNL's School of Food Science and Technology. She'd work with cricket-based food for three years at the school's Food Processing Center. She, like Stasiuk, wasn't squeamish about cricket consumption, and volunteered to work with insects, while many of her classmates turned down the opportunity.
By the time the ones Bugeater uses get to them, they have been roasted in U.S.-based cricket farms designed for human consumption. They blend well with chocolate, peanut butter and coffee, Kopf said. Vanilla, not so much. The flavor of a cricket changes subtly based on what it's fed, she said, and a burst of apples thrown in with the feed in the final days before they are roasted and powdered can shine through in a final product.
Bugeater is about to begin blending its protein shake powders at Gratitude Cafe and Bakery in Lincoln. The three are also working to get their next provisionally patented product ready for shelves.
Talk to the three co-founders of the company and they address solving world hunger as often as they discuss cornering the $4.7 billion and growing U.S. protein shake market. Months ago, they brainstormed on the best way to bring the nutritional benefits of ground crickets to the most people.
“What do most people eat?" Kopf said. "Rice.”
"This might look like a normal rice, but this is, in fact, a cricket-rice protein, made with cricket powder and rice flour combined back into rice," Sturek said at a Demo Days rehearsal last week as a slide of the company's latest product projected on-screen behind him. "This is the high-protein, high-iron rice that we think can make a difference in a lot of countries that are in need of aid and relief, but also this would be a great product for protein-minded consumers here in America."
Now, he said, they just need to continue convincing its potential American customers of one thing.
"Pretty much that it's normal," Sturek said.