European Food: Eight years ago, you ate insects for the first time during a trip to Thailand. Was this culinary experience really so amazing, that it convinced you to become an entrepreneur?
Baris Özel: My co-founder Max and I have been best friends for 20 years. When we arrived in Thailand, we had already been travelling the world for seven or eight months. We had seen a lot, and in such a situation, you are much more open and willing to try out new things. The wonderful smell from the woks in which the insects were fried attracted us immediately, and the memory of the fantastic taste really defined our travel experience – although at that point, we hadn't yet had the idea for the Bugfoundation.
Later, when we were back home, Max wrote his Bachelor thesis on this subject. The result revealed an indisputable scientific fact: insects as food are tasty, sustainable and healthy. We then said to ourselves: You can't get them here; let's bring Germany's first insectburger to the market.
The wonderful smell from the woks in which the insects were fried attracted us immediately, and the memory of the fantastic taste really defined our travel experience. Baris Özel
European Food: There is a profusion of different types of insects. Why are buffalo worms particularly suitable for making burgers?
Baris Özel: Around the world, there are around 2,000 species of edible insects. We chose the buffalo worm for many different reasons, but mainly because it tastes great and is readily available in Europe, where larvae intended for consumption must be specially bred. In addition, buffalo worms have a slightly better nutritional value in comparison to mealworms, and we can use the whole insect without any waste. Last but not least, we loved the name!
We don't want to be associated with the jungle camp theme. As the Bugfoundation, we produce a serious product made from insects. Baris Özel
European Food: Eating insects – we are familiar with this from the jungle camp TV show. How difficult is it to convince western consumers with your burger creations?
Baris Özel: This point is extremely important to us. We don't want to be associated with the jungle camp theme. As the Bugfoundation, we produce a serious product made from insects, and we clearly position ourselves in the mass market.
In principle, the same thing happens at every trade fair and other tasting events. When we throw our burgers in the pan and fry them, people are hooked by the smell – exactly as we were in Thailand – and then they ask us what it is. We openly and proudly reply that this is Germany's first insect burger, which is generally followed by a skeptical look and the comment “but it looks like a normal burger”. Most people are then willing to try a piece; when they have tried it, most of them want a second piece.
I don't believe that there are any great inhibitions here. It's true that many in the western world have a particular picture in their head when they think of insects as food, but this image can be fairly quickly changed if you manage to get people to try the product. That only works for us because we have really focused on creating products that look good and taste great. That's what matters most, because if the product didn't taste good, no one would buy it, no matter how healthy and sustainable it is.
Many in the western world have a particular picture in their head when they think of insects as food, but this picture can be fairly quickly changed if you manage to get people to try the product. Baris Özel
European Food: Your first business partners were two restaurants in Brussels in the autumn of 2015. What did you learn through this first cooperation?
Baris Özel: The start in Belgium was hard, which was partly because we were trying, as a small start-up, to operate in a country we basically knew nothing about. We were able to communicate well in English, but in the end there were clear cultural differences that, to begin with, we were not sufficiently aware of.
At that time, our product was not so well developed and ready for presentation. We had to work really hard to convince restauranteurs that our insectburgers taste good, are nutritious, and would do well on their menu. One of the two restaurants still has our products on its menu. Our main target market however, from the outset, was always Germany.
European Food: Your burger has recently found its way onto the shelves of Rewe. Won't this mean it loses some of its exoticism?
Baris Özel: No, in Rewe our burger is in exactly the right place. We want our product to be integrated into everyday life; we don't see it as exotic. True, for Europeans it might sound exotic, but that is not our aim. On the contrary, we happy that our burger is available in Rewe and that it has been so well received.
Our goal from the outset, was to make the consumption of insects in Europe an everyday event. Baris Özel
European Food: How much convincing did it take, to get Rewe to stock your product?
Baris Özel: None. That was the great thing. In January during Green Week, we told the press that we wanted to enter the mass market this year. After that, our telephone didn't stop ringing. The entire trade in Germany wanted our products.
We ultimately opted for Rewe as a sales partner, because the discussions were, from the outset, on an equal footing. There was a friendly atmosphere, which for us was very important; business is hard, and as a start-up, you need to get to know the trading environment. The quantities that we sold in the past are not really comparable. We now produce our burgers in the double-digit ton range. We have had to start thinking very, very big. We informed our partners - both the breeders and our burger producers - of our ambitions very early on. Our goal from the start was always to make the consumption of insects in Europe commonplace. Being well prepared helped us a lot.
That 'Die Höhle der Löwen' was not successful for us, is simply due to the fact that they didn't recognize our value. Baris Özel
European Food: Earlier this year, you wanted to generate additional capital by appearing on 'Die Höhle der Löwen', but you decided against the offer you received. Didn't you, as the Bugfoundation, relish the prospect of a prominent investor?
Baris Özel: That 'Höhle der Löwen' was not successful for us, is simply due to the fact that they didn't recognize our value. We had a clear view of what we wanted to achieve with this programme. I believe it was clear from watching it, that we stayed true to our concrete aims, although unfortunately not everything was shown. In the end, we secured investment through the PHW Group. All the decisions we have made, from 'Die Höhle der Löwen' on, have been exactly right for us.
Interview: Julian Miller / Pictures: Bugfoundation