Tucked in between stands selling fresh produce and other wares at the Highlands Farmers Market, senior Clare Whetzel offers samples and pitches customers on her unique product: Ento-granola, or more simply put, granola made with bugs. While eating insects might sound like a hard sell, Whetzel has what it takes to make her company, Illegal Oats, a household name.
Whether being featured on-air or speaking directly to customers at her farmers market booth, Whetzel excitedly explains why mealworm-infused granola is good for you and the planet. Mealworm powder is chock-full of protein, amino acids and vitamins, and it contains more iron per serving than beef. Most customers, Whetzel says, are mainly concerned with the nutritional value of her granola, but she sees it as part of the solution to a larger problem.
“People look at their plates and that’s all they see. They don’t think about where their food comes from,” she says. “Being on a plate and being eaten is the last step in a food’s long journey.” Ento-granola offers customers an eco-friendly snack while increasing awareness of the environmental impacts of production, packaging and transportation of the foods we eat every day, Whetzel says. “My goal—my huge goal—is to change the way people look at their eating habits.”
Her journey into the world of entomophagy began with an assignment in one of her first business courses at DU. Whetzel began brainstorming ideas for mock companies and quickly put together a list of more than two dozen pitches, one of which would evolve into Illegal Oats. As weeks passed, she realized that she wanted to take her ideas outside the classroom—just in time for the sustainability-focused Entrepreneurship@DU Spring 2021 TikTok Pitch Competition.
Her pitch: Protein-rich foods made with bugs, rather than meat or poultry. Insects, Whetzel says, offer our diets far more than just a novel snack. Producing insect protein requires significantly fewer resources, from land area to food and water, than producing beef, pork or poultry. Additionally, insects emit considerably less methane, a greenhouse gas more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide, than their animal counterparts. With a convincing argument and a business plan to back it, Whetzel took first place in the competition. She used the $1000 prize to buy all sorts of ingredients—and a variety of bugs—to begin experimenting with.
Initially, Whetzel tried cooking with crickets and beetles before deciding to use mealworm powder. On top of finding the right insect to use, it took countless tries to perfect the recipe. “I made cricket fried rice. I made mozzarella sticks that had ground-up crickets in the batter. I made macaroni and cheese that was baked with cricket crumbles on top. All of it tasted horrible,” she says. “But I kept trying it as I went, and the granola stuck.”
By summer, Whetzel was finding success selling Illegal Oats at the farmers market. She went on to win a second pitch competition at DU in the fall of 2021, and later convinced a local store owner to stock her granola. And Illegal Oats’ fast growth doesn’t stop there. Whetzel has made appearances on Good Day Sacramento, Denver7 News, 9News and Great Day Colorado, convincing potential customers of the benefits of eating insects.
Despite Illegal Oats’ ongoing success, Whetzel notes that she has a long road ahead of her as she pursues what she sees as a career of purpose.
“It’s a rare company that grows overnight. It happens, but mostly it’s long term, with lots of sweat and tears over many years before you can actually go big time,” she says. And in the meantime, she plans to go into market research to help bring more sustainable products to market. Not one to wait for an opportunity to arise, Whetzel is currently a research assistant at the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center within the Daniels College of Business.
On the rare occasion that she isn’t adding to her list of ideas for new business ventures or experimenting with new granola recipes, Whetzel enjoys walking her recently adopted puppy, Lavender, and training for her first Muay Thai (also called Thai boxing) fight in February. Above all else, Whetzel wants people to know that with hard work, anyone can be an entrepreneur. “I want everyone to not be afraid of starting a business,” she says. “All you have to do is just start.”