Oh, Give Me a Home, Where the Escargot Roam . . . : Food: Snail ranchers hope to slime their competition with product that chefs at upscale eateries say is more tasty.
Richard Fullington wants to see the products of his ranch on dinner plates around the United States. Trouble is, he may have to negotiate his way across a slime trail to do it.
Fullington is one of only a handful of malacologists--snail experts--in this country. He started Escargot International Inc. in February after retiring from 25 years with the Dallas Museum of Natural History.
He has visions of cutting into an estimated $70-million to $85-million wholesale annual import escargot market by selling fresh snails. Most of the snails sold in this country are canned.
“Over the years, snails have really been good to me and for me,” said Fullington, wearing a red tie decorated with pictures of yellow snails and green lettuce.
“Here’s an absolutely brand-new deal, nobody’s doing it, nobody. The challenge of that really appealed to me, and of course hopefully we’re going to make some money along the way.”
Chefs at the white-tablecloth restaurants now serving his escargot agree the taste and tender, less rubbery texture are a great improvement over canned snails.
Chef Bruce McMillian at Anthony’s in Houston said he has gotten a good reception topping pasta and fish with Fullington’s escargot, while Jason’s in New Orleans sells “a ton” of escargot appetizers pan-seared in garlic butter, owner Jason McDonald said.
“It’s exceptional,” McDonald said. “This is the first time that I’ve ever seen them fresh.”
Gene Watkins, owner of Escargormet in Exeter, Calif., has a similar enterprise.
Watkins, who has been in the business for eight years, said he shipped 143,000 snails, for roughly $40,000 in sales, to U.S. restaurants in 1993 and has seen business grow since. Watkins also has developed three flavors of marinated snail meat called Campfire Escargot that people can heat and eat at home in 15 minutes.
Fullington has big dreams for “the noble escargot,” as a company brochure calls the little Helix aspersa.
The company won’t disclose current numbers, but Escargot International said it ultimately expects to be able to produce at least a million pounds of fresh escargot a year. For now, the company is struggling to keep up with the interest created at a Dallas food show in June, Fullington said.
“The demand was instantaneous. And the truth of the matter, we’ve been running trying to play catch-up given the resources, particularly financial, that we’ve had,” he said.
Escargot International, principally owned by Fullington and his wife, is considering a private equity offering or debt financing. The company doesn’t expect to be profitable for some time.
Headquarters are a small, almost completely unfurnished office in this north Dallas suburb. At an industrial kitchen in the back, snails are kept in containers before they are blanched in a big kettle for four minutes, which kills them and loosens the muscle holding them in the shell.
Workers use toothpicks to poke, twist and shuck the whole meat from its shell, dropping it into colanders. The fresh meat is processed, cold vacuum-packed, boxed and shipped to restaurants, $30 per one-pound bag of about 100 snails.
Reaching this stage hasn’t been easy. Although the company is secretive about details, Fullington said he has developed a new dry feed and container for raising snails that is soil-free and organic. The actual “ranch,” now inside a building, is filled with the snail containers for which Fullington is seeking a patent.
Fullington also sees a market overseas for his snails. He and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry recently made a trade trip to France.
Perry said of snails, “I think they’re a good example of what the future of agriculture is going to look like, people that are willing to go outside the borders of Texas and literally the borders of this country to go find partners in the future.”
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