When Robert Olivier looks at a handful of squirming, fat fly larvae, or grubs, he sees the solution to two of Austin’s problems.
The problem for restaurant and grocery store operators is a steady stream of food waste, and a looming deadline. The city of Austin will require all food-related businesses to have organic diversion programs by Oct. 1.
The problem for local chicken farmers is the high cost and low return on keeping chickens and selling eggs. A large percentage of farmers’ cost is chicken feed, and they don’t make much per dozen eggs sold.
Enter Olivier, the grubs — and his Austin-based startup Grub Tubs.
Olivier says he has devised a way to provide grubs to farmers at a lower cost than organic soy feed — and to do so by plugging into Austin’s growing demand for composting businesses.
Black soldier fly larva will eat any type of food scraps, and they’re high in protein. Not to mention they’re delicious, at least as far as chickens are concerned.
Grub Tubs breeds the black soldier flies, and then the resulting grubs gorge themselves on food waste provided by Garaj Mahal and le Politique, two Austin restaurants participating in the Grub Tubs pilot program.
Like a conventional composting service, the restaurants pay to have GrubTubs pick up their food waste. Grub Tubs provides sealable tubs to restaurants, and picks them up at regular intervals.
Olivier said he hopes to expand service to 1,000 restaurants within the next year.
“If farmers can make their own feed, not with plants, but with insects … they can make a living again,” Oliver said. “How do you create eggs in two short steps? You collect food, let it be eaten by insects, and let the chickens eat the insects so we can eat their eggs. It’s a much cheaper biological pathway.”
Nora Chovanec, director of marketing for Austin-based Texas Farmers Market, agreed with that assessment.
“Feed is definitely difficult when it comes to selling eggs,” Chovanec said. “Organic feed is very expensive, and then kind of the next step down from that is to use a non-GMO feed, which is significantly cheaper but still expensive. It’s very hard for small or medium farmers to turn a large profit on pasture-raised free-range chickens on organic or non-GMO feed.”
Le Politique executive chef Derek Salkin said his staff has placed tubs from Grub Tubs at several spots in the restaurant’s kitchen – near the prep station, at the coffee bar, the raw bar, the back bar.
“We are now very starkly aware of how much food waste we go through,” Salkin said. “Whereas before, it was easy to just forget how much gets put in the garbage because we had 55-gallon trash cans … and also, just on a very basic level, it eliminated any smell in the hermetically sealed containers.”
Olivier and the Grub Tubs team purchased acreage outside of Buda for a farm where they can raise grubs and test and refine their business model. Olivier and the Grub Tubs pitch team won the city of Austin’s 2016 Reverse Pitch competition, earning a $10,000 grant, and then landed a $360,000 grant through the WeWork Creator Awards.
Olivier said the raising of grubs can be half the cost of buying organic chicken feed for a farmer, and also comes at less cost to the environment. Two 10-foot by 6-foot “bio pods” full of food waste fed to grubs could create enough feed to grow the same amount of protein as an acre of soy, Olivier said.
The company is working with a local farmer to breed Delaware chickens, which Olivier said take longer to grow, but their meat tastes better than your average hen. On a diet of grubs, the Grub Tubs team hopes it proves profitable to produce better poultry.
“That’s why we’re excited to have a chicken partner – we’re finding a way to grow this business in a way he’s always wanted to do and that he couldn’t figure out how to outside of Austin,” said Ashley King, who formerly worked as a business manager with Honest Company and created Dysh App, has come on board as Grub Tubs’ chief operating officer. “So it’s partially the feed (costs), because these chickens have to be alive a lot longer. We’re also making sure he gets connections with a chef.”
Olivier is not the first person to think of growing grubs to create chicken feed, but the FDA has not yet approved insect-based feed for chickens and pigs. Grub Tubs would function by selling the system itself – they would provide farmers with food waste from restaurants and grub hatchlings they can feed themselves, with the necessary equipment sold or leased to the farmers by Grub Tubs.
“If I provide the eggs, one 50-milliliter vial will become a 25-kilogram bag of feed,” Olivier said. “We could ship that anywhere as long as the farmer is close to a city and there are Grub Tubs (food waste tubs) being provided in that location.”
The business model works best for farmers living near a city that has a high demand for food waste removal services. Which is why, Olivier said, Grub Tubs is in the perfect city to get its model off the ground.
“Austin is really a mecca when it comes to progressive policy,” Olivier said, “and then another reason that you kind of love Austin is because it’s got a food culture that celebrates everything from pulled pork to local eggs. It opens the entire ability to come and do something innovative.”
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