The night was dark but the alley way glowed with the lanterns hanging from vendor carts lining the streets. Tourists and travelers chattered excitedly about the variety of clothing, alcohol, tattoos, and novelties available at every turn on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. One cart in particular was surrounded by a crowd of squealing tourists. I approached cautiously, and, to my delight, saw a tray filled with fried scorpions and tarantulas. Friends dared friends to try a bite while I eagerly drew out my wallet to buy as many as I could fit into my purse.
This was my first experience with scorpions (my now favorite bug meal…!) You can only imagine my excitement when I received an email from Lee Rose, the founder of Thailand Unique, saying that he would love to be interviewed for bugible.com!
Thailand Unique is a (very unique) ecommerce site offering specialty foods, drinks, and gifts. Established in 2004 by Lee and Warunee Rose, Thailand Unique now offers Asia’s largest selection of edible insects and bug-related products for both the retail and wholesale markets.
Together, they run the business from their home location in Udon Thani, Thailand, where they have built a private food factory and office onsite. Other cool, creative, and unusual products from Thailand – and Asia – can be found on the site, including our own branded products such as scorpion vodka and whiskey.
Aly: Entomophagy is gaining popularity in the US now. People are only JUST beginning to eat insects. Which markets do you see growing the most quickly for insects? The US? Asia? Europe?
Lee: That’s a difficult question. From personal experience I have received an equal amount of interest from EU and US markets. There has also been a lot of interest from businesses in Australia, New Zealand and most recently Japan and South Korea. There are also a couple of small start-ups in Thailand. Insects are relatively new in the West, people are very curious about them, therefore I see the most potential for growth here.
Aly: What can be done in the US to make people more comfortable with the idea of eating bugs?
Lee: As with all foods I believe that presentation is very important, they should be made to look visually appealing and appetizing e.g. placed amongst common foods. The public could be educated about their nutritional benefits and how they are farmed in clean hygienic conditions. Comparisons could be made to foods like lobster and sushi which were once unknown foods in the west.
Aly: How did you get started in the industry? What made you decide to found this company in 2004?
Lee: Back in 2003 I discovered a shop in northeast Thailand selling canned bugs. I thought it was a unique idea that may catch on in the west. At the time I was looking for business opportunities so I decided to try selling a few cans via ebay. The cans sold like hot cakes and I haven’t looked back since. I originally created Thailand Unique to sell a variety of unique Thai products, however insects sold the best so I focused my attention there.
Aly: What has been one of your biggest challenges as a business?
Lee: My biggest challenge so far has been shipping the bugs to other countries. Insects are a relatively new commodity so information about importing them is almost non-existent.
Aly: Can you tell me a funny story about something that has happened in your years working with bugs?
Lee: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. 😦 We’ve had some strange reviews over the years, this guy reviewed our black scorpion and threw up while being filmed.
Aly: What is your favorite bug to eat? Favorite recipe?
Lee: My favorite bug is fried bamboo worms with BBQ seasoning. My favorite recipe would be banana flour cookies with cricket powder.
Aly: Can you speak a bit about the environmental impacts of farming insects?
Lee: Raising insects for protein has many advantages over other meat products however it still has some disadvantages compared to vegetable proteins. Vegetables require land and water to grow, whereas insects require land, water and a complex feed of proteins and minerals. So essentially you’re giving protein to make protein. The feed is made up of various grains and vegetables which all have to be grown.
Aly: What health impacts have you seen from eating insects?
Lee: I haven’t personally witnessed health impacts from eating bugs, however scientific evidence proves there are many health benefits from eating insects.
Aly: Can you speak a bit about the differences in insect farming in the US and in Thailand?
Lee: I’m not familiar with insect farming in the US. I would imagine the main difference would be the climate, Thailand is warm all year round so the crickets don’t require heating. Solar drying is taking off over here. Labor and materials are cheaper.
Aly: Which bugs are the most difficult to raise?
Lee: Asian Forest scorpions. Their gestation period is 9 months and they only have around 12 babies per brood. They are also difficult to breed.
Aly: What can be done to lower the cost of insects as food?
Lee: As demand increases the cost to produce them will inevitably decrease. Larger production runs will drive down the costs. Producing them in a warm climate will do away with the need for artificial heating, also solar drying will cut down production costs.
Aly: Which bugs are the most popular? Which bug-alcohol sells the most?
Lee: The top 6 best selling insect products on my website since Jan 2015 are as follows:
1. Bag of Assorted Bugs
2. Chinese Armor Tail Scorpions
3. Sago Worm Larvae
4. Weaver Ants
6. Small Crickets
The best selling bug alcohol is the scorpion vodka.
Aly: What’s next for Thailand Unique? What does the future hold?
Lee: I’m currently working on a range of food products containing a selection of insect powders. I will be launching these under a new brand name later this year. I believe food containing insects is the future rather than insects on their own.