Deb: Hello, listeners. Thanks for joining us for Tiny Sparks Big playing have you ever wondered what it’s really like to follow your dreams? If the answer is yes, come along as we get the inside scoop from creative innovators and difference-makers who are daring to make their visions a reality. In three, two, one. Welcome, everyone to Tiny Sparks. Big flames. I’m your host, Deb Gott, and today we have the amazing Sarah Schlafly in the studio. Sarah is the founder of Mighty Cricket, an alternative protein company that sells high-protein oatmeal and clean protein powders. Mighty Cricket’s mission is to build a clean protein supply to sustain the world. I love that Sarah describes herself as a cereal entrepreneur. Cricket cereal, that is. Her inspiration for Mighty Cricket was born out of a problem that bugged her the harmful effects of industrialized meat.
Before founding the alternative protein company, Sarah worked as an accountant, chef, cooking instructor, and digital marketing guitar for a national food brand. She was awarded ink magazines, military entrepreneur, special Delegate feast magazines, Rising Star, and St. Louis. Business journals. 30 under 30. She’s passionate about food security, nutrition, sustainability, and the environment. She also actively works in the community to alleviate these issues and promote lasting change. As a former cooking instructor, Sarah donated her time teaching healthy cooking classes for low-income families. Currently, she’s bringing together farmers, tech startups, nonprofits, and corporations to build sustainable equitable food systems. Welcome to the show, Sarah. We’re so excited to have you.
Sarah: Yeah, I’m excited to be here.
Deb: This is a is a fantastic bio. What I’d love to do is talk me through the journey behind the bio of you founding and launching Mighty Cricket.
Sarah: Alright, so the idea starts, it’s about the time my daughter was born. I thought about where the world would be by the time she was my age. So, in 30 years, how was her life going to be? And with my background, being in food, immediately jumped to the food scarcity issues that we’re going to have in just 28 years. At that time, we’re about 35 years out from his scarcity issues and we’re quickly approaching this time of when the amount of food we can produce doesn’t feed everyone on the planet. Now, we already have people going hungry, of course, every day on the planet, millions of people. But given our natural resources, we can still, in theory, feed everyone on the planet. And that’s not going to happen 28 years if we continue down our current food path. So that gave me the motivation to start seeking alternative food sources. And I landed on bugs just based on some information I received in the media about how bugs can become that food source that’s going to sustain us when my daughter is my age. And I thought, wow, that’s really powerful because this is exactly what we’re looking for. But it’s so interesting that here in the US. We have such an aversion to this type of food source. It’s actually clean, it’s healthy for us and for the planet. And really, when you think about it, it’s not that all different than some of the seafoods we eat, like lobster. So I got really excited about the potential of getting Americans over this hurdle of eating bugs. And the reason why I was excited about that challenge is because I had overcome that challenge before. When I used to teach nutrition cooking classes for kids, I’d bring in ingredients like kale and cauliflower, and the kids would not want to eat it. And then we turned it into something that was delicious to them, something that made them go, wow, I never knew that I liked kale. And then they would tell their parents, and that just like getting them over those mental barriers to good food really made me feel like I did something good for the world. And so that challenge with the bug, the bug issue really caught my attention. And I decided that this is a challenge that I have the marketing and culinary skills to overcome. Really
Deb: Really what I love about that is that thinking outside of the current US culture and my understanding is that you did quite a bit of international travel as well that sort of helped you see that different kind of perspective. Tell us a little bit about that.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah. So I started doing some international travel just by myself in my twenty s. I went to Asia and I went to Central America, and Wandered around, basically meeting random people. And through that journey of being on my own and being immersed in a totally different culture, it just breaks you out of this body that you grow up in, of this is how things are done. Because when you’re in a totally different culture, you’re by yourself, the way things are done or the way the people around you are doing it. So you have a totally different perspective on what is good manners. And my biggest takeaway, what is food.
Deb: So how did you get from bugs to crickets?
Sarah: Well, crickets were the only thing that I was remotely interested in eating. Yeah, maybe not interested is kind of a strong word. Remotely able to stomach. Yeah. And I kind of consider the gateway bug of the US. Because we just have this. Culturally warmer affinity towards a cricket than towards, say, a mealworm, which is also a very popular edible insect around the world. No way I would have eaten a tarantula or scorpion, but a cricket. I grew up with Jiminy Cricket and the Cricket of Time Square, and it just had this persona about it that seemed a little bit more American. Tell
Deb: Tell me about the first cricket dish that you ever put together
Sarah: Oh, that I personally put together. Okay, well, the very first cricket dish I ever ate was Chapel’s brand of cricket bars. And I went to the Pacific Northwest after coming home from my Asian travels, I had, like, a week at home, and I picked up and went to the Northwest, and I was looking all over and all the grocery stores for Chipotle cricket bars because I knew that they distributed out there. And eventually, I found it, and I got this really wacky flavor. Their bars, they had at the time, like, very creative, unique flavors. And I brought it home, and I met my co-founder at Whole Foods. And then we set it on the table, and we cut it in half, and we both ate at it at the same time. And my reaction was how pretty much every single person’s first-time reaction to eating cricket protein is there’s all this anticipation, and you take a bite, and then you’re like, oh, it just tastes like any other food that I’m used to eating. Yeah. So that was pretty much our reaction. We’re like, okay, that was anticlimactic. I don’t know what it’s about. You know, our culture, but we just think that it’s going to be such a unique, weird, different, exotic taste. And then you eat a bug and it’s like, well, I’ve tasted this before. You know, it just tastes kind. It picks up the flavors that seasoned with so that was my very first-time trying Cricket. And then I ordered some cricket flour from some Amazon vendor, and I started experimenting with different dishes. And I think the first thing that I made was I had this concept of, oh, maybe we would launch with a cold cereal, like a kid cereal that has the Cricket protein in it, and it would be flavored like kids’ cereals were. So, the first product I tried was a Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Wow. It was going to be like a Cricut Crunch. And so I made this dough-type thing with cinnamon. I added the cricket flour and rolled it up and cut it into squares and baked it.
Deb: Yeah. And how was it?
Sarah: It was pretty good, and I got pretty excited about the concept. So then I called around to different food manufacturers who could make this product for me, and I quickly learned that an extruded product like a puffed cereal is a pretty big investment. And you’re starting at a minimum production run of £50,000 of cereal. So that would be if you put twelve to 16oz in a box, that’s about 50 to 75,000 boxes of cereal. Okay. Just for the minimum order. And I was like, oh, I don’t know if there’s a market for this. I have to test the market first. So my business partner and I decided to do something that we could mix together in a small commercial kitchen locally. So we came up with the concept of flavored oatmeals because we can buy oats and flavorings at the grocery store online, and add the flour in and mix it all together and put it in a little bag and heat. So that was our very first product. And it turns out that we locked into, like, a very a product that has very strong market appeal. We later found out that the cold cereal market is just has been slowly declining for a long time. But hot cereal has been picking up and more and more people are interested in oatmeal and especially high protein oatmeal. So, then we decided to ditch the cold cereal concept altogether and just go with the oatmeal. But, yeah, the original idea was, okay, we’re going to sell enough of this oatmeal to get to our real product. And that never happened.
Deb: Your product line has really expanded a lot. Talk a little bit about some of the more recent products that you’ve added.
Sarah: Sure. So, the second product line we launched with was a chocolate vanilla flavored protein powder because I would get lots of requests for just like, hey, do you have flavored protein powders? And lots of athletes looking for those supplements. I’m like, I’m getting enough requests for this that I can throw something together and see how it performs. And we’ve gotten great reception from that product, especially online. We get most of our online sales are of the protein powders. And then the last product that we launched with was a chocolate bar. And this concept was more of a we want good brand recognition in a small outdoorsy or equipment shops like bike stores or running stores. And this is something we can put up at the counter and people can try this novel protein source in something that’s totally delicious and you just open up the wrapper and say goodbye. You don’t have to do any prep work. So, it’s just a couple of bucks to try cricket. So, it really lowers the barrier to entry for people who want to give it a shot. I love that.
Deb: Let me ask you this. What are some of the challenges you’ve run up against in bringing this to market?
Sarah: There have been numerous challenges. So the biggest challenge was in sourcing high-quality cricket powder that was consistent. So, a cricket farm, one farm to the next, will have vastly different tasting powder. As soon as we found like a really great source of cricket that farm shut down, we had to taste crickets from around the world until we found a similar tasting cricket. And then we found that finally. And then they started like getting financially rocky. It’s been really unstable, just the supply side. And then with COVID, we had a noncricket ingredient that we were depending on for our protein powders that completely shut down. And there was no other alternative to this ingredient. No one else was producing this ingredient. It was a locally sourced, innovative startup that I was helping support by incorporating them into my products. And when they shut down, I asked if I could buy the IP or whatever, how you produce it, and they just said it wasn’t going to work. So we had to reformulate. So then I went through a whole reformulation process, started incorporating hemp, because hemp is a carbon negative plant and it goes along the mission of Mighty Cricket, which we’re all about, not just cricket protein, but any sustainable protein source. So hemp is another one that’s going to help get us where we need to go. So then I got hits from buyers in Thailand and Mexico really interested in our protein powders because they already have a history of cricket in their culture, so it’s a pretty easy sell there. So I sent them all the ingredients and all the paperwork and then they said, oh, hemp is illegal to import in our country. So then I had to reformulate for them. And by the time I did that, the buyers were no longer interested. So it’s been quite the start and stop and start and stop. Another thing that happened to Mighty Cricket was in 2019, we were doing a strong restaurant go to market strategy. Kind of like how beyond me did their whole, I think it was Wendy’s campaign or Burger King or something like that. And they got on the menus and I said, oh, that’s great branding. Having the brand name, what helps mainstream it’s. Just like if you can get it into restaurants, especially fast food chains, you know, just. Spurs adoption and makes a position as this is a product for me. So I was doing that in 2019, got into 50 restaurants in St. Louis, and then, of course, we all know what happened in 2020 to restaurants. So I lost all of that business overnight. Yeah, lots of challenges. And at one point at the end of 2020, I had no sales, I had no product. I had to reformulate. And I thought, maybe I just give up. I’m two years into it and I have nothing to show. But then I thought about all the know how I gained, and like, all the connections and retailers, I developed relationships and suppliers, and I thought, like, Mighty Cricket’s whole mission was founded on global disruption of climate change and food scarcity. And they’re going to be this is just the beginning. There are going to be more and more of these. So, if I build a company that can be highly resilient to these incredible global disruptions that I already experienced two years in the company, then we can build a company that’s going to last for the next 100 years. So, I just decided to reformulate and restrategize pivot your market strategy. And that’s what we did. So, we’re still alive four years later, still hopping.
Deb: It sounds like reformulate is one of your superpowers.
Sarah: Yeah, we’ve reformulated a lot. And it’s going to be easier and easier to do that. And that’s something I’m thinking about as we grow this food company. The bigger the food company gets, the harder it is to reformulate. It’s not an overnight process. It’s really hard to pivot when you’re a giant. But if we’re going to be resilient to like, for example, right now, there are wheat shortages because of the whole Russia-Ukraine ordeal. So last year no, in 2020, I think the summer 2020 oak crops got hit really hard in Canada, so the oats supply was cut in a third. And that’s just going to keep happening. Like, there are going to be random ingredients that just take a hit. And so, we’re going to have to figure out how to navigate that. I don’t have a solution yet. But that’s something that I’m thinking about as I’m building this company because I know that food scarcity is going to become more and more prevalent in the next 28 years as I build. Sure.
Deb: What are some of your strengths that really have helped you through this process of really ups and downs and ups and downs? What do you draw from when you’re going through that?
Sarah: Hum, interesting question. I kind of turn off emotionally, which might not be the best way to do it, but I’ve been an entrepreneur before, so I kind of knew where I was getting into. I was almost reluctant to start this company, but something in me was just like, you have to do this for the resiliency of your future family. But I don’t want to have a food CPG company because I know CPG and I know how hard it is. And yet here I am having a good CPG company. So, I think that my coping mechanism or whenever I get really good news, I kind of do maybe a minute-long celebration like, woohoo, but half anticipating it to somehow my plans get foiled because they always do. And then when I ever get bad news, like a retailer says no or something, I’m just like, all right, let’s call the next one.
Deb: Yeah, one of the fun things I’ve heard about the word no is it actually stands for next one. Oh, nice. I love that. That’s cool.
Sarah: That’s great.
Deb: Well, now, what is a CPG company?
Sarah: Consumer packaged goods, also known as fast-moving consumer goods, so just any product, like most of the products on the grocery store shelves.
Deb: Okay, good deal. If that’s your superpower, what’s your Kryptonite, organization?
Sarah: I would say yeah, that’s definitely the number one hurdle that I always am combating. I appear very organized. People tell me that. I did not know I appeared that way, but that’s what people tell me. But under the hood, I am very disorganized. So even though my office is a mess, I know exactly where things are, and my husband’s office is pristine, and every day, he asked me to find something for him.
Deb: It just goes to show you, right?
Sarah: Yeah. I don’t know how that works, because he’s way more organized than I am, but I know how to find things.
Deb: Nice, good deal. Let me ask you this. What are some of the highlights? We talked about some of the challenges. What are some of the highlights of this journey?
Sarah: My favorite thing, hands down, is just working with a team that I got to pick. So, I have three employees right now, and every one of my employees I truly love on such a personal level. Like, I just really appreciate them so much. And having that sense of appreciation for someone outside the family is not something that I had before I started the company, because I really depend on them to make Mighty Cricket go. We would not be going if it weren’t for them. And that’s kind of cool, like becoming so dependent on such talented people who are willing to give their time even though I pay them. But there are a million companies that could work for and companies that would pay them even more than I pay them, and yet they chose Mighty Cricket. And that’s just really, I’m so honored by that. I just think it’s the coolest thing.
Deb: The other highlight that I want to point out and I don’t know if you’ll do it, so I’m going is you recently gave a TEDx St. Louis presentation. I understand it went big on ted.com. Tell us about that.
Sarah: Oh yeah, that was super fun. So, one of my answers when I was interviewed for 30 under 30, they said, what is one thing you want to do before you turn 30? And I thought I want to give a ted talk. And then the pandemic shut that down. So, I turned 30 before I was able to give a TEDx talk. But it was something that had been on my mind for a few years and I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about. So, when finally, the auditions opened, I quickly signed up and I had been bugging the organizers for all two years like, hey, when are you going to open auditions? And so finally they let me know, okay, you can apply now. So, I got selected for the pitch. And the pitch was fun and so, I enjoyed the whole process. I had never spent so much time on one talk because usually I slapped together a presentation of 20 minutes and don’t have the luxury of taking so much time. And so, the end product showed me that I could it’s put in the time and the work. I could put together a really compelling reason why to eat bugs. And as I was doing it, I realized that this talk isn’t just about bugs. It’s about expanding your mind. And you can apply the talk to so many different perspectives online. And that was cool, too. That was an unintended consequence of going through the process. I was like, yeah, you know what I’m really talking about? It’s not about the bug at all, actually. It’s about opening your mind and how to open your mind in the talk. I give different examples of how to go through those different thought experiments to expand your mind.
Deb: I love that. Congratulations. It’s a beautiful talk. It really is.
Sarah: Yeah. And doing it was so much fun. I’m eager to do something like that again, just to have an audience of people who want to listen to what I have to say.
Deb: Yeah, for sure. So, I have a very fun question for you. You ready? If you could invite any chef to join you in the kitchen, who would that be? Why that person? What would you cook? And, what would you talk about?
Sarah: Okay. A chef. Oh, man. So, a couple of chefs come to mind, but the ones I would be most interested in are the ones whom I look to in history as altering our food landscape here in the US. So, there’s a chef in the 1960s in California who is attributed to sparking the sushi scene across the US. And what he did was to gain adoption in a culture that was not okay with eating raw fish and seaweed was he put the rice on the outside of the wrapper. So, he inverted it. So, we’re looking at rice and not the seaweed. And then he stopped the sushi with avocado in California. And that was very popular. And so just through the presentation, he got Californians over interested in trying this food, and then Hollywood stars start eating and then start coming up in movies. And now we’re seeing sushi everywhere. It’s in the freezer of the grocery store. I mean, there are so many sushi shops in rural America, and what an amazing story that is of how we can really change the way we eat. So that’s the first and probably foremost chef that comes to mind.
Deb: What would you cook?
Sarah: Oh, well, I love Sushi. It would have to be sushi, right? It would have to be sushi with maybe a little bit of cricket dust on the top.
Deb: Nice. What would you talk about?
Sarah: I think we would discuss different ways to manipulate foods to get people over their mental barriers.
Deb: It sounds like a fun conversation.
Sarah: Sounds delicious.
Deb: I love that too. Right. Let me ask you this. What do you dream of accomplishing in the next five years?
Sarah: Taking over the world.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s kind of my line. Accomplishments would include being the international leader in alternative proteins, which is a very ambitious accomplishment. But yeah, I would love to become a staple provider for people, especially in economies where food sources are scarce or volatile or there’s not there’s just no access. And that’s even right here in the US. There are so many people who don’t have access to good food.
Deb: So lofty goal, lofty to achieve in five years, and yet lofty goals are what drive you forward anyway, right?
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, the challenge of getting American sea bugs is pretty lofty.
Deb: Hey, but so was sushi.
Sarah: And so is lobster. 200 years ago, it was not accepted, and I guess maybe a little longer than 200 years ago, 400 or so. Our society is changing at such a rapid pace today because we’re so accustomed to change with technology, and it’s really not that far-fetched in five years when Gen Z starts aging into having more buying power, they are going to adopt this pretty quickly. Because when I go to college campuses and talk about this, there’s very little hesitation amongst that generation to try it. And they are so driven by sustainability and environmental impact
Deb: You are cooking for the future.
Sarah: Yeah, but I want people to realize that we can’t wait for the future to start building more sustainable food sources because we only have 28 years. That’s not a very long time to build such needed infrastructure. This could happen. Our need for resilient food could happen a lot sooner. As we’re seeing how the pandemic disrupted our food supply chain, it really broke it. We were having farm animals euthanized on the farms. Our grocery store shelves were empty. It was just we have such fragile supply chains.
Deb: Yeah. We don’t really think about how fragile things are. And yet the pandemic has taught us that.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s taught us a lot.
Deb: Yeah, it has. Let me ask you this. If there was any advice that you would have for somebody who really, really has a passion like yours, what advice would you give them for pursuing that passion, particularly if they’re feeling fearful about it?
Sarah: So, one of the biggest fears is risking it all. And there is such an idea in the startup community that to be a true entrepreneur, you have to risk it all and you have put all your life savings into your company. And I really push back against that idea because what happens is if people do that, their runway for making that company successful gets really short because it’s just like the runway is based on how many years can I go without a paycheck or living on savings or whatnot? And that’s too risky for me. So, I would say if you want to pursue an idea, don’t quit your day job. Keep that going, because that’s going to give you the time to breathe through all of the things to work through. And you don’t have that pressure of having to make it successful overnight, because it’s probably not going to be successful overnight and it’s probably going to fail, but most of the time it fails because you run out of money. So don’t quit the day job. And then also something I always struggle with, but I know in theory I practice fairly well, is not. Waiting until the product is perfect before testing it in the market. Finding the most just like the bare bones, stripped-down product that you could possibly put together. For example, we did the Oatmeal, not the Extruded Fancy Cereal. And in doing that, I took a cricket I found on some free Image website and slapped it on the sticker, and put it on a bag that I bought from Amazon that said Mighty Cricket on it. Yeah. And I took this little product to the farmers market and started selling it, just seeing what the reactions were, and that’s how Mighty Cricket started. And now we have beautifully designed packaging and well-vetted recipes, but we just iterated over and over again, very small, incremental changes that have made a mighty impact. So, starting at the smallest unit that you could possibly think of to start is what I recommend. And then when you do that, it doesn’t seem like a big week. It’s like, okay, I can do this one weekend or a few weekends, and there’s no risk.
Deb: Yeah, that sounds like some pretty good advice. So, I have two more questions. The first one is a fun question. It’s what do you do for fun? What do you do for play?
Sarah: That is a fun question because that balance is really important. I love the balanced lifestyle. That’s me. In fact, sometimes with my employees. Like, one time I was like, hey, can you hop on a quick meeting in prompts, too? And my employee was like, oh, I was just about to eat lunch, but sure, I can cancel. I’m like, oh, no, you eat lunch. That’s way more important. So, yeah, I’m all about balance and taking time off. And when I do that, I’m a lot more productive and focused in my company. It’s kind of interesting how, like the less time I spend in it in, like, the day-to-day stuff, the more focused and inspired I become. So, what I do for fun is I love to dance. I love to go salsa dancing, and swing dancing. I love to meet up with friends at fun places around St. Louis, like Forest Park or the art or art museum, or whatever rooftop bar. I love hiking and rock climbing and skiing. Those are really, really fun, outdoorsy things that I like to get into. And of course, travel. Yeah, definitely. Always down to travel anywhere in the country. And if a friend moves to a new place, I’m like, I’m going to go visit you. And then I actually do. Yeah. My favorite place right now in St. Louis is Venture Cafe. It’s a community of entrepreneurs and even corporate people. Just anyone who has interested in new ventures or different ideas and their talks and presentations and stuff. I never go to those. I just go to see friends. And I’ve been there long enough that everyone I always see people I know. And it’s a small community of entrepreneurs and in St. Louis and so it’s fun to meet up with my friends every week it happens and then yeah, that’s funny. Like my jam.
Deb: Okay, last question. All right, what’s next for you?
Sarah: Oh, what’s next? I’m working on cricket farm right now. It’s in my garage. They just started chirping, so pretty soon I’ll get some eggs. But what I’d like to do is pull food waste in the St. Louis food system, feed it to the crickets, find a really good feeding algorithm, and then for conversion, and then be able to upcycle this waste back into protein that we can then eat. So I’m getting leftover trimmings from Companion Bakery and Schwaffley Brewery is giving me some spent grains, and another distillery is giving me their waste. And basically, the idea is not producing cricket protein out of, like, another protein source that we could be eating, but taking the things that we normally couldn’t eat and then letting the crickets process that, and then we can eat it again. So, it’s like this idea of taking such limited resources and maximizing them to their fullest potential. I’m always about recycling things. For example, my friend gave me a shirt and she bought it from my second-hand store, wore it for a few years and got tired of it, gave it to me. I wore it for a few years, and then I gave it to my daughter and she turned into a pillow last night. It got four lives, and we’ll see where that pillow ends up, but those are my favorite things to do.
Deb: I love that. Sarah, thank you so much for being on the show. I just have enjoyed every moment of this.
Sarah: Yeah, thanks for having me and letting me talk about bugs.
Deb: And thank you, everyone, for listening to the show and spreading the word about us to all your family and friends. Sarah, how can people get to know you better?
Sarah: Okay, so I’ve always been very active on LinkedIn, and I accept any connection request. So, if anyone wants to connect with me, you can do so. I’m just Sarah shrapnel on LinkedIn. Or you can follow me. And then lately I’ve been playing around with Instagram a lot. I’m Sarah Schlafly, so you can follow me on Instagram too.
Deb: Beautiful. Where can people find Mighty cricket products?
Sarah: So, we just got on the shelf at the Fresh Time on the Foundry location, and it’s been performing pretty well. So hopefully this test market then will be proof of concept that we can expand to other fresh time in the area. We’re also at little shops around town, and we have a Store locator page on our website. So, our website is mightycricket.com. And if you search the store locator, you can find a store near you.
Deb: Beautiful. Everyone, check out Mighty Cricket’s website and her TEDx Talk on TED.com. You can see her in action. It’s a beautiful performance. So, thank you again for joining us, Sarah. Thanks, Ed.
Final: That’s it for this episode of Tiny Sparks. Big flames. If you enjoyed the conversation, definitely check out our web page at tiny sparksbigflames.com. You can find more great information, information about today’s guest, see what they’re up to and even follow their work. until next time, dream big and thanks for listening.