EUREKA, Calif. — Business is slow for entrepreneur Charity Anais West, but she isn’t surprised.
She owns and operates EscarGrow Farms, one of the only snail farms in the nation.
“I grew up in Atascadero (San Luis Obispo County), smack in the middle of three girls.” she said. “I went to Cal Poly and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism.”
She worked as a television news producer in Santa Maria for three years and returned to Cal Poly to get a certificate in teaching English as a second language.
Her plan was to travel the world.
She worked at a restaurant in Paso Robles known for its wine program and fell in love with wine, moved to New Zealand for four months to work at a winery and then relocated to San Francisco.
“I was naive enough about what it meant to be a tiny fish in a very big ocean and decided to become a sommelier,” she said. “I studied for a passed my intro and certified ‘somm’ exams, through the Court of Master Sommeliers and the advanced certificate.”
Her love for travel remained, and over the next few years she keep going back to France — Burgundy in particular — because of the incredible vineyards.
“This is where the snail idea came,” she said.
(Jeopardy question: Heliculture. Answer: What are snail farm operations?)
After several trips to Burgundy, and eating escargot for practically every meal, she said she would always return to the U.S. to another “chewy, muddy-flavored” dish of snails drowned in butter, garlic and parsley.
She did a little research, read a book by Frenchman Francois Picart titled “Escargots from Your Garden to Your Table” and learned there was no sizable snail industry in the U.S.
She decided to start a snail farm.
Anais West works exclusively with the Petit Gris, or “little gray” snails. They are often referred to as the “common brown garden snail.”
“My first snails came from my mom’s garden,” she said. “But now I forage for them because they are a local pest, and I raise them in a low hoop house.”
It takes about a year for them to reach market size. She raises several thousand at a time.
“I’m trying to speed up the process based on what I feed them. I feed them fresh, organic greens and fruit,” she said. “They love cucumber.”
They also get non-GMO organic cornmeal, wheat bran and crushed oyster shells that build strong snail shells,she said.
She sells snails by the pound, but only in California. The company is limited by its invasive species permit and does not ship outside the state.
Anais West said the operation is small now because, luckily, snails don’t take up a lot of room. She utilizes a curtain method to maximize space.
“Caviar” — snail eggs — have long been a popular item at European bistros. Now they are becoming a hot item at many high-end San Francisco restaurants.
Snails lay the eggs in the soil, and they have an earthy flavor, like fresh green onions.
Matthew Dolan, chef at San Francisco’s 25 Lusk, said his customers are discovering the exotic delicacy.
“Even those put off by the notion at first glance have enjoyed the subtle, mushroom and pine flavors of her (EscarGrow Farms) fresh eggs — unpasteurized so the flavor is pure and amazing,” he said. “I was surprised and impressed by such an undertaking, and as escargots themselves are lovely, I’m much more enamored with their caviar.”
He said the quality of her escargot caviar is “better than any other that I’ve tried, so I wish her well and selfishly hope that her production flourishes so I will have regular access.”
Anais West said her family and friends were not surprised when she announced she was going to start a snail farm.
“I don’t think much I do anymore can surprise them,” she said. “From acquaintances and others in the industry, it’s all been quite positive. Everyone seems to think I’m onto something.
“I sure hope I am.”
Charity Anais West
Hometown: Eureka, Calif.
Occupation: Owner and CEO of EscarGrow Farms
Quote: “I want to make people excited, bring them the prospect of a new experience, excite them by the possibility of falling in love with a new flavor.”