The patron saint of insect candies is a kind, soft-spoken septuagenerian named Larry Peterman. Peterman founded HOTLIX, which bills itself as America's "original edible insect candy creator," 35 years ago in Pismo Beach, Calif. Its beginnings were humble, as is its flagship product: a mealworm embedded in a tequila-flavored, non-alcoholic lollipop.
Peterman has since scaled HOTLIX into a company staffed by 49 people, and it now boasts a wide portfolio of bug-infused candies. HOTLIX sells everything any pest-hungry gourmand may pine for: a Dessert Scorpion sheathed in chocolate; a Cricket Lick-It Sucker; Ant Candy with "Real Black Ants" in either cherry or apple flavor.
Peterman, now 78, lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fl. He's retired and assumed the role of an advisor to the company, which is headquartered in Grover Beach, Calif. We spoke to Peterman last week about the state of the company, whether he's seen America develop an increased tolerance for consuming insects since he began the business, and if his own appetite for insects has waned as he's grown older.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Larry. So, how long have you been selling insects for?
Larry Peterman: Heh, well, at least for 35 years. How it got started is that we had a line of suckers, and we were thinking of different flavors. In thinking about the flavors... well, you know how Life Savers has the butter rum flavor? We were thinking of doing liquor flavors. So we came up with tequila. And we thought, why not put a worm in it?
Who is "we"?
Oh, well, me, I guess.
Got it. So what did it taste like?
The worm or the tequila?
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Well, actually, since they're roasted, they have a nutty flavor.
OK. And the tequila?
The tequila flavor isn't all that wonderful. A lot of people don't like it. That was our first one. It was more of a novelty type thing than a real lollipop.
How did you make the jump from selling a few novelty items to becoming a much bigger business?
Well, the tequila suckers sold very well. Then we thought, why not put a cricket in it? We'd make them grape-flavored and banana-flavored. So we start putting the crickets in them. Museums particularly were fond of them. Smithsonian, for one, always orders a lot. Then, we just expanded from there.
Around what time of year do you see the best sales?
Right now, we're backordered for several months because of our capacity to make the candies. I do think they sell a little more well around Halloween, because a lot of people call and say, we got this sucker with a bug in it. Is it safe to eat? We get a lot of calls around this time of year, and especially right after Halloween
What is your most popular candy now?
Right now, the Scorpion Sucker.
Why do you think it's so popular?
Right now, we sell it a lot at the Phoenix airport. People want to get a little souvenir at the airport. Like I mentioned, one of our biggest customers like museum-type gift shops.
Who is your typical customer? Who is the kind of person who buys your candies?
It's usually women, aged 30 to 50, who get them not for themselves but for a grandchild, a husband, a boyfriend. Of course, the kids really like them, too, especially when groups go to museums and that kind of thing.
In the 35 years you've been running this business, do you feel the societal squeamishness surrounding eating insects has eased at all?
Oh, certainly. Originally, people wouldn't go anywhere near them. But because of all of the shows like Survivor, there's been greater acceptance for our products. When we first started, we would get phone calls and certain counties would ban us from shelves. But we haven't had any of those problems for years now.
When's the last time you got one of those calls?
It's been a long time as far as those kinds of calls go, that allege that a product's contaminated with an insect. Gee, I can't even remember the last one. It's been a very long time. But in the beginning, it was very frequent.
Got it. So what's your favorite product you guys sell?
My favorite is the Scorpion Sucker because it sells so well!
What do they taste like?
They're crunchy. If you cover them in chocolate, they taste kind of like Kit Kat bars. A little crunchy. A little bit of a roasted nutty flavor.
Can you name all the insects you've ever eaten?
I could give you a list, but it'd be really long. We're always trying to do things. Right now, our newest product that just came out this week is earthworms. In the last few months, I've probably eaten thousands of earthworms.
What does an earthworm taste like?
It tastes like dirt.
Does eating that many earthworms make you ill or anything?
No, no. It's just another food! Most of the world eats insects. If you happen to have seen the Chinese Olympics, they had skewers with crickets and scorpions on them. They eat water bugs. We're one of the few countries that doesn't eat insects on a large scale.
Well, there are certain insects that are poison. They'll give you that signal if they're red. That's a sign to other creatures, like birds, that they're toxic. There are some insects that are really not edible, but I've eaten cockroaches and all that kind of stuff.
Have any customers ever gotten sick from eating your candies?
Nothing. We have had a business like this for 35 years and sold millions and millions of insects. Nothing. One time, I got a letter from somebody saying, I got a worm in my sucker so I'm going to sue you. But no, we've had no instances of anyone ever getting sick on these.
Have you ever eaten spiders?
Spiders? There's not much there. If you try to prepare them, well...most spiders are small. They just shrink up into basically nothing.
What about tarantulas?
Oh! Tarantulas! There's a great book called Man Eating Bugs, and they have a couple segments on tarantulas there. They put them on a stick and fry them. I hear they're quite good but I haven't had the opportunity to try them.
READ MORE: How to Cook Bugs: Tarantulas
So what other critters are you hoping to try soon?
Oh, I don't know. The process we've developed [at HOTLIX]... we've tried many, many insects. The problem is that the insects we eat have to be ones that you can grow and have a steady supply of. You can't go and pick them out in the wild. For example, there's a thing called a Jerusalem cricket and they're really ugly-looking. They're very good, except they're very rare.
One more thing I want to add: I've really seen a shift in people's attitudes towards eating bugs. More and more people every day are discovering that they can eat insects and that they like them!
Indeed. Thanks for speaking with us, Larry.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.