For Generations to Come
Armstrong’s intends to keep its 64-years of success going strong by sticking to the same formula: narrow focus and quality offerings.
By Michael Ventre
Around 1946, Jack Armstrong’s grandfather, A.T. (Tal) Armstrong, who was a plumber servicing many of the military installations in the South, decided to branch out and sell fish bait as a sideline. All of sudden…crickets.
No, that’s not a reference to the popular term used to express silence and inactivity; quite the contrary. Literally, crickets. Before he knew it, Jack’s grandfather was knee-deep in the tiny critters, and he was making a major racket with a new and booming business.
“In ’46, he said, ‘Heck, I’ll just get into this thing whole-hearted,’” noted Jack Armstrong, who now oversees Armstrong’s Cricket Farms, based in West Monroe, La.
The Armstrong cricket fixation actually started around 1944 when Tal and Jack’s uncle, Gene Armstrong, raised crickets for their personal use while angling. Two years or so later, they began selling them. The operation today has about 85 total employees in two locations, rakes in around $10 million per year in annual revenues, and ships its itty-bitty edibles throughout North America, Europe and South Africa.
Armstrong’s Cricket Farms
Locations: West Monroe, La.; Glennville, Ga.
Owner: Armstrong Family.
Number of Employees: Approximately 50 in the Louisiana headquarters and 35 in the Georgia location.
Years in Business: 64
Areas Of Distribution/Business: North America, Europe and South Africa.
Annual Revenues: $5 million and $10 million in the Louisiana division.
Company Mission: To keep the cricket industry that our family started alive and going.
Sales Growth: Probably about 25 to 30 percent growth each year.
Product/Business Categories: Feeder insects (crickets and worms for animal food industry) and live fish bait.
Product/Business Lines: Crickets, worms and artificial tackle.
But it all started because Tal realized that black crickets aren’t as good as gray ones.
Calling a gray cricket simply “a cricket” is like calling a Ferrari a car; it isn’t an adequate description. Jack Armstrong said that the Australian gray cricket is superior fish bait to all others among cricket ancestry, and having grays can make the difference between a fisherman having a full creel or an empty one.
Tal Armstrong discovered the premium-quality gray crickets during work runs to Montgomery, Ala. He imported some to his home in Glennville, Ga., started raising them, and eventually began to spread the word.
“He would take out ads in Field & Stream advertising gray crickets,” Jack said. “He put up a big old billboard on Highway 301. He invested money he made in the plumbing business into the cricket business.
“He would also go around fishing with people,” Jack continued. “He was an outdoorsman, and real outgoing. The word got out.”
The word remains out, and it’s getting louder, at least in the cricket realm. Armstrong’s Cricket Farms today bill itself as the world’s oldest and largest growers in the country.
“My grandfather started the cricket industry,” Jack said proudly.
The operation has grown beyond the appeal of one insect. Over the years, Armstrong has expanded to include several varieties of worms, containers, fishing tackle and other accessories.
The company has two facilities: the main hub in West Monroe, and a satellite complex in Glennville, Ga. One of the reasons for the two locations--and the addition of two new buildings as well as recent renovations--is to be prepared in case a virus hits the cricket population, as sometimes happens in the industry.
Essentially, the gray cricket--known as Acheta domestica in entomological circles--is the same tasty little fellow that Jack’s grandfather discovered and banked on. But Armstrong’s business has changed radically in some ways.
“The biggest switch was from selling fish bait to feeder insects,” Jack said, whose company now has many zoos among its clientele.
“Fish bait was very seasonal,” he said. “You gear up for big demand, then seven months you sell big, two months so super-big you can’t sleep, then three months with hardly anything going on. Now it’s evolved into a feeder insect business, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. There is no day that there is zero activity.
“The wintertime used to be a nice time for us Southern boys to hunt,” Jack continued. “Now there’s no time. We have to ship live crickets out across North America. It’s exciting, but there’s no down time. I felt guilty taking four days off to go to Dallas for the Super Bowl, and two days off to go to New Orleans and run a marathon.”
At the end of 1976, Armstrong estimated that about three percent of the company’s business came from products outside of fish bait. In the last few years, he said, about 95 percent of sales came from products outside of fish bait.
“It’s been a complete reversal,” he said.
Some of Armstrong’s competitors over the years have cut into the company’s business by offering cheaper prices and incentives. But, Jack said, the customers have come back when a virus decimated other companies’ stock, or when they realized the crickets they were getting weren’t as top-notch as Armstrong’s.
“The program and incentive factors are built on loyalty and continued supply,” he said. “We put our heart and soul into this thing. It’s the only thing our family does to make money. What we guarantee our customers is that you will have the crickets you need when you need them.
“We came to a point when we decided we weren’t going to cut corners to give up quality,” he added. “We’re not going to match the cheapest prices in town. But we’ve maintained our customer base.”
That would include Patty Steigerwald, one of the owners of Heights Pet Center in Billings, Mt. She’s been in business for 17 years, and has used Armstrong’s crickets the entire time, currently maintaining a standing order of 11,000 crickets per week and sometimes more.
“We do great with them,” Steigerwald said. “Since we’re in Montana, if anything ever comes in frozen or not quite alive, they replace them no problem. They’ve been great for us.”
Since ’46, when Tal Armstrong first got the bug about these particular insects, Armstrong has stuck to its main product line. It has expanded somewhat into various worms, but hasn’t really strayed from what it does best. Jack estimated that the Louisiana farm sells 10 million crickets a week, and the Georgia site another 6.5 million per week. After current expansions are complete, Armstrong expects to up each number by one million.
“The thing we have learned in 64 years is that a lot of companies have not been able to survive with too many things going on,” he said. “They’re too distracted.
“We’re not looking to expand our number of products, he added. “We’re looking at securing everything we can to guarantee that we have our product for generations to come.”<HOME>
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