AS I TOSSED THE LIVE snails into boiling water, I wondered what emotions I would feel. Pity? Horror? Guilt? Nah. One minute they were snails, the next they were escargots. And having consumed several of their brethren sautéed in garlic butter earlier that morning, I have to say that they were delicious.
Texas, home of the Longhorn, has yet another edible critter with horns: Helix aspersa, the common brown snail familiar to gardeners and gourmets. Since starting production in earnest last June, year-old Escargot International has become the largest producer of fresh snails in Texas. Each month, fifteen workers at its Addison plant cook, shuck, deslime, and vacuum-pack more than one thousand pounds of snails, which sell for $30 a pound retail (slightly more than canned snails). The timing of the venture couldn’t be better: The world’s largest producer, France, which exported 1,500 tons of canned escargots to the U.S. in 1994, is scrambling to meet the demand—so much so that it is buying from Africa and anywhere else it can. Escargot International’s Texas-size goal is to plug the gap, eventually selling its own fresh and frozen snails all over the globe.
The company is owned by Richard Fullington, who retired a year and a half ago as the curator of invertebrates for the Dallas Museum of Natural History; his wife, Lisa; and Jim Cook, an eye surgeon turned corporate strategist. Although none of them have done this sort of thing before, they think they’ve hit on the keys to success. First, they’re seeking a patent on a growing system so secret that even their investors haven’t seen it. All they’ll allow is that soil isn’t used (as in other systems) and that electric wires keep the snails from sliding out the door. “Before we got the voltage right,” Richard Fullington says, “we knocked those poor little things across the room.” Second, they’ve developed a top-quality dry snail chow. They’ve even stumbled on another lucrative use for snail meat: exotic pet treats. “At first I thought that was the silliest thing I had ever heard,” Cook says. But he came to realize that the people who order escargots in fancy restaurants are the very ones who can afford to indulge their pets, so escargot-shaped doggie nibbles made from snails are now in the works.
For now, though, Escargot International is concentrating on its human clients. Several hundred restaurants nationwide feature the company’s fresh snails—including Brennan’s in Houston, Yellow in Dallas, and Restaurant Biga in San Antonio—and chefs are raving about them. “The texture is incredible, very buttery,” says Biga chef de cuisine Mark Bliss, whose escargot orders tripled the first night he offered fresh Texas snails. But perhaps the most gratifying sale has been to the French embassy in Washington, D.C., which bought two pounds last December. The Texas snail ranchers figure the ambassador must have liked the product—or maybe he just wanted to check out the competition. Today France; tomorrow the world.