SAN FRANCISCO —
They hop. They crawl. They squirm. And they could be coming to a dinner plate near you.
An increasing number of "entopreneurs" are launching businesses to feed a growing appetite for crickets, mealworms and other edible insects.
These upstarts are trying to persuade more Americans to eat bugs, which can be produced with less land, food and water than other sources of animal protein.
The United Nations has been promoting edible insects as a way to improve nutrition, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and create jobs in insect production. At least 2 billion people worldwide already eat insects as part of their diet, according to the 2013 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
But it could be a tough sell for Westerners who are more likely to squash bugs than savor them.
"Insects are viewed as what ruins food - a roach in your soup, a fly in your salad. That's the biggest obstacle - edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet.''
Inside San Francisco's La Cocina, a commercial kitchen for food entrepreneurs, Monica Martinez empties hundreds of live mealworms, each about 2 inches long, into a plastic container. She uses chopsticks to pull out dead ones before pouring the squirming critters on a tray and sliding them into an oven.
Martinez started Don Bugito PreHispanic Snackeria to entice American consumers with treats inspired by popular snacks in her native Mexico. Among her specialties are spicy superworms and chocolate-covered, salted crickets.
"The idea is to offer another type of protein into the food market," said Martinez, an artist and industrial designer who launched Don Bugito as a street food project in 2011. "The biggest job that we have to do is to try to get more people to try our foods."
Don Bugito snacks are sold online or at a La Cocina kiosk in San Francisco's Ferry Building, where retail workers recently offered free samples of chocolate-covered crickets and spicy superworms.
"No!" said a young boy when asked to try one.
But more adventurous eaters gave them a try.
"It doesn't really taste like a bug. It tastes like crunchy spices," said Leslie Foreman, who works at a medical technology firm, after sampling a chili-lime cricket. "I'm not sure this is going to be my everyday snack, but I think it's fun and I think it's cool."
Across San Francisco Bay inside at a kitchen in Berkeley, Megan Miller and her assistants shape clumps of orange-ginger cookie dough, carefully arrange them up on a tray and slip them in an oven. The key ingredient: flour made from ground-up crickets.
Miller's startup, Bitty Foods, sells its cricket-based cookies and baked goods online and at upscale grocery stores. Many of its customers are moms looking for a healthy snack for their kids.
"We like to say our cookies have twice the protein and half the sugar of a regular cookie,'' said Miller, a former journalist and tech entrepreneur.
Miller said insects have a "branding problem,'' so she's trying to change people's minds and palates by mixing them into familiar foods in attractive packaging.
"We're going to see people start trying insects in a powdered form - incorporated into foods so they're invisible - before people are going to make the leap to eating whole insects,'' Miller said.
Big Cricket Farms, one of only a handful of North American companies producing crickets for human consumption, is struggling to meet fast-growing demand for the chirping insects, said CEO Kevin Bachhuber, who launched the warehouse farm in Youngstown, Ohio, last year after getting his first taste of bugs in Thailand.
Bachhuber's startup currently produces about 8,000 pounds of crickets a month. He hopes to increase capacity to 25,000 pounds per month, but still doesn't think that will be enough to meet demand from restaurants and health food makers.
"We're constantly slammed by orders. We simply can't keep up,'' said Bachhuber, a Wisconsin native who's had a long interest in urban farming. "The speed at which people have been willing to eat bugs is crazy. It's cool.''
Oakland-based Tiny Farms is trying to address supply crunch by developing more efficient ways to mass-produce crickets and other bugs. It eventually wants to create a large network of insect farms to supply food makers such as Don Bugito and Bitty Foods.
"The goal is basically to make it easier and cheaper to produce industrial-scale volumes of insects that can be used in food products,'' said Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, a software engineer turned entopreneur. "We're really just scraping the surface in terms of figuring out what the potential is for insects to be part of our food system.''