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This San Mateo ‘Snackeria’ Wants to Popularize Edible Insects

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An outstretched hand holds dozens of toasted crickets mixed with pumpkin seeds. In the top left there is a "Hella Hungry" logo.
Don Bugito founder Monica Martinez believes her edible insect snacks — including the toasted chile-lime crickets with pumpkin seeds pictured here — can be part of a more sustainable food supply. (Alan Chazaro/KQED)

¡Hella Hungry! is a series of interviews with Bay Area foodmakers exploring the region’s culinary innovations through the mouth of a first-generation local.

If you live in the Bay Area, you probably don’t think of crickets and mealworms as snacks. That’s because munching on insects isn’t particularly accessible or socially commonplace for most Californians.

But with her snack company, Don Bugito, Monica Martinez is modernizing the Mesoamerican insect diet for today’s eaters — and it’s more delicious than you might imagine.

As the founder of one of the region’s only edible insect companies, Martinez has steadily grown her vision to expand North America’s palate. After immigrating from Mexico City to attend design school on the East Coast, Martinez anchored herself along San Francisco’s shores over a decade ago, teaching courses on industrial design and insect-based alternative diets at the California College of Arts. She currently operates the only mealworm (i.e., dark beetle larva) farm in the Bay Area — in Oakland — where her small team cultivates insects to produce snacks like toasted mealworms, coconut brittle crickets with amaranth, chile-lime crickets with pumpkin seeds and chocolate-covered crickets.

Martinez has been an innovator in the edible insect movement for over a decade. (Alan Chazaro/KQED)

Martinez’s innovative approach has attracted attention from outlets like the New York Times, VICE and CNBC, but she says the Bay Area hasn’t fully caught on yet — ironically, most of her business comes from outside this region. But that lack of local awareness hasn’t prevented her from distributing her culinary passion from her chic food innovation space in San Mateo.

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You may not be used to seeing your housemates munch on a chile-doused cricket yet. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a viable option — one report predicts that the edible bug business could be worth $8 billion by 2030. It isn’t about the profit for Martinez, though. She’s more concerned with providing an alternative to the planet’s current, unsustainable food sources. In Mexico, for example, chapulines (large grasshoppers) have long been a prevalent botana. The tradition just hasn’t migrated across the border in the same way that tamales, tostadas, tortas and other forms of Mexican cuisine have. Martinez wants to change that. And I’m all for it.

With the New Year underway, I visited the madly creative, ever-hungry insect advocate at her production plant to learn more about the joys and challenges of convincing Bay Area eaters to snack on toasted crickets instead of Hot Cheetos. The former professor schooled me on all of that — and so much more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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ALAN CHAZARO: Where does the name Don Bugito come from? And how do you explain what you do as a foodmaker?

MONICA MARTINEZ: Don Bugito, as a name, is a play on words. It comes from “don.” In Mexico, that’s how you address an elder with respect. Bugito comes from bug and “ito,” which means small in Spanish. It’s like the big little guy — it’s little but is such a big, powerful food. We’re a business trying to bring diversity into our food systems. Reviving native American ingredients and celebrating the tradition of entomophagy.

Sorry, ento-what?

Entomophagy. There’s a line of academia that studies the culture of eating insects. In Mexico, it’s very common. We want to revive that — pre-Columbian, pre-Hispanic cuisines that aren’t well known in the United States. [U.S. residents] are not aware of indigenous Mexican culinary traditions outside of tacos and tamales. There’s also venison, rabbit, fish, insects — all these proteins that were here before we had pork, cows, chicken. That includes North American Native people. We’re celebrating that.

a foodmaker displays edible insects in her hands
Martinez shows a piece of coconut brittle baked with crickets. (Alan Chazaro/KQED)

I don’t know any other edible insect food companies in the Bay Area. How did you start out?

We launched in 2011 at the SF Street Food Festival. I was a street food vendor making tacos and tostadas with chile-lime crickets, larvae tacos and mealworm vanilla ice cream.

Do you still serve insect-based dinners?

I sometimes host private dinners, but it’s a lot of work. That’s how I started out though. It was a great way to test if Americans were ready for insects, and we sold out. It made me realize Americans will eat insects (laughs). When I worked as a street vendor, I was one of the only ones selling organic [insect-based meals] at the time, competing with fried chicken. It wasn’t easy.

How did your upbringing influence your food making?

When I moved from Mexico City to Boston for school, the first thing I felt was homesick for food. No avocados, no Mexican restaurants. There was just one outside of the city, and it was owned by Indians. It wasn’t even Mexican food. I remember the cafe on campus and had culture shock because the food was horrible. I asked the chef why it was so bad and where it came from. He pointed at the freezer. That made me realize like, wait a minute, there’s a disconnect where our food comes from in New England versus Mexico. My practice started to evolve from there.

When I went back to Mexico to visit, I would go to markets and ask about everything. I’ve been going to farmers markets since growing up. There’s people giving you fresh crema and tostadas, smelling fresh cilantro, preparing fresh meat. That was growing up in Mexico City, an immense city with incredibly fresh, fast-moving food. There is so much demand that the freshness there can’t be replicated anywhere. So I was feeling miserable with the frozen foods in Boston. I was thinking about how food moves in a city. How many tons of product come in and get distributed to supply millions?

There’s a super large market in Mexico City called Central de Abasto. They have a school, a hospital; it’s like a city that’s probably bigger than San Francisco (laughs). That’s where I started to get an understanding. When I decided to do Don Bugito, I didn’t have a culinary background. I only had memories from childhood, and that was the flavors I grew up with in Mexico. I knew crunchy things: chile, lime, amaranth, nuts, chocolate, paletas, alegrias. That’s sold on every corner in the city. Don Bugito started with that.

a plate of two tacos topped with edible insects
Martinez started out by selling insect-topped tacos around San Francisco as a graduate of La Cocina. (Courtesy of La Cocina)

How has being in the Bay Area shaped Don Bugito, and how has your business model changed in the past 13 years?

We went from street vending to packaging online deliveries in an organic way. There was no Shopify when I started. But that’s huge now for businesses. We were one of the first to do that. Square, too. I remember talking to three engineers at Square when they first started out about getting into their system. They invited me and gave lessons on how to use their gadget to charge people, step by step. Being in the Bay Area helped with that. It was a smooth process and in our backyard. I see how big it’s all grown since then. Everything moves way faster now. There was Amazon, but you couldn’t sell edible insect snacks 13 years ago. It wasn’t that kind of platform. Now I can’t imagine my business without any of those.

I didn’t come here to run a food business. But here, I can celebrate local farming. Support local systems. Create jobs. It does suit me very well to be here. Now we have a farm in Oakland.

Tell me more about your insect farm.

We have an urban farm in shipping containers. Our goal is not to replicate industrial farming practices. We use modular systems for small batches. No hormones or antibiotics. We allow the insects to follow their natural life cycles. We respect that. We tap into that to save resources. We call our farm a “holistic farm.” We are an organic farm, zero waste. Nothing gets thrown out. The poop is fertilizer. We are the only insect farm around here.

What are the challenges of running the only urban edible insect farm in the Bay Area, and how has it helped your business grow?

A challenge for us has always been sourcing insects. I worked with a couple insect farms in Texas at the beginning, but I was concerned with sustainability. They supplied crickets. I wanted non-GMO and organic insects, but it wasn’t offered back then. In 2017, I launched Mighty Bugito Farms — we just finally launched the domain and are developing the brand. We farm organic crickets and organic mealworms. Don Bugito will become a smaller brand within that. We also make fertilizer from insect poop. We’re also launching a pet food line.

Insect snacks in colorful packaging displayed on a table.
Don Bugito distributes a range of insect-based snacks nationally. (Alan Chazaro/KQED)

You have a background in visual art and also taught design at the California College of Arts for nearly a decade. How does that influence your culinary art?

Don Bugito came out as a project for alternative farming — for farms to cultivate their own insects for alternative kitchens. I presented that at a gallery in New York when I was an artist. Next door, there was a place called Brooklyn Kitchen. Now it’s super famous. They found out about the edible insects exhibit and hosted a dinner. The New York Times found out, and we did an exclusive during the beginning of the edible insect movement in the U.S., around 2009, 2010. Andrew Zimmern from Food Network’s Bizarre Foods read the story and asked me to cook lunch for him. We cooked for him in our apartment in San Francisco. I told him I wanted to launch a food truck. I felt like I had to deliver, since it was on national TV (laughs). I joined La Cocina and enrolled. They were like “What? Edible insects?” And that’s how we became a business.

But it hasn’t been easy. I never left art. My career is an artistic endeavor, not always about making money. I still feel like an artist. I have a good friend [who is] a designer, and I told her I don’t have studio practice, so I’m not an artist. And she told me my studio is my insect farm. Before Don Bugito, I wasn’t in an industrial kitchen, and so I burned my hand in a steamer. I was used to being in shops and galleries. So I switched my mindset and started to treat my business like an art design project. I’ve been teaching classes on food systems the whole time: the future of foods, biodesign, everything related to the environment, agriculture, food. Agriculture. It goes beyond having a snack package. How does it affect us? Our health? Our environment?

Why are insects the right solution for our future in food?

I don’t want the world to start eating only insects because that can be catastrophic. We don’t preach about only eating insects. We want a balanced diet and respect for the environment. You can eat meat — go for it. But if you have one cricket salad a week, that makes an impact in the long run.

Insects are the future of food because they’re sustainable. They use little energy to yield large amounts of protein. You can replace conventional protein with insects. Again, we don’t preach only that, but it’s possible. If the world collapses tomorrow, I have an insect farm that barely uses any resources to create protein. Insects don’t need water. Very little amounts. The amount of food they need is very little in comparison to a cow. They eat a diet of cereals and can even eat waste if needed. We have thousands of mealworms in a small amount of space. They’re easy to store.

A plastic bin full of thousands of frozen mealworms.
A freshly frozen batch of mealworms arrive for preparation at Don Bugito’s San Mateo facility. (Alan Chazaro/KQED)

When we were cooking at the SF Street Food Festival, we used to arrive with a few boxes, but my neighbors carried large containers of heavy meat. How far do you transport that? How much energy does that take? Insects can be cultivated anywhere, in small spaces, and moved easily. Genetically, they are far more removed from humans so there’s less risk of cross contamination. You’ve heard of avian flu, mad cow disease. That affects humans. There is less risk of that with bugs. That’s all very positive.

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Don Bugito is based in San Mateo and available online. Its products can also be purchased locally at Berkeley Bowl (Berkeley), Foodhall (SF), Casa Lucas (SF), the Ferry Building (SF), Mandela (Oakland) and Rancho Gordo (Napa).

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