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Top Story: Oyster craze

Oyster farms and harvesters are struggling to feed a growing restaurant demand for the shellfish

By Steve Coomes
June 01, 2014

Whether and wherever they’re called oysters or “ersters,” sales of the briny bivalves are booming in North America. Happy suppliers say demand is outstripping supply and that price escalation has yet to stall diner desire for the homely mollusks. “Buck a shuck” happy hour prices can be found in cities near supply sources, though some oyster bars are charging $2.50 to $5 in San Francisco.

Part of the boom can be credited to restaurant sales. New menu research from Technomic of 5,000 independents and 2,000 chains shows a 7.5 percent increase of oyster items year over year between Q1 2013 and Q1 2014. The Chicago-based research firm says oyster bars are popping up all over the United States.

“A lot of oysters on the half shell are being showcased in bars,” says Darren Tristano, executive VP at Technomic. An oyster bar “has become a great way to increase sales pretty inexpensively. Operators can make some decent money by opening it just a few days a week.”

Bob Rheault, executive director at the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association in Toms River, N.J., says even in his humble hometown of Port Edith, R.I., there are three new shellfish-centered restaurants. He estimates farmed oyster production has doubled in the last five years and says new farms are opening up regularly on the Eastern Seaboard. No farmer he’s spoken with recently is meeting customer demand. 

“On the East Coast, I have 400 niche marketing name-brand oysters, mostly mom and pops, and these guys are just kicking ass,” says Rheault. “They know that if you run out of product in July, you’re leaving money on the table because you should have raised your prices.”

Pressures are similarly high on West Coast suppliers, according to Margaret Barrette, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association in Olympia, Wash. She says new oysters bars are turning up all over major restaurant cities like Portland, Ore., and chefs want to menu as many as six types of oysters.

“Customers want variety and they’re willing to pay for it,” says Barrette. “That started this whole phenomenon where growers are trying to grow a better oyster for the slurping experience.”

To make them more “slurpable,” growers want oysters that are deeply cupped rather than flat, and hold the mollusk’s saline juices. To achieve that shape, oysters are grown in bags and agitated as tides advance and retreat.

“As it tumbles in the bag — which it can’t in a natural setting, because they’re connected — it chips off the edges of the oyster, it causes the shell to harden and that cup to deepen,” Barrette says. “That makes a smaller oyster that’s easier to slurp, which is preferred for live consumption.”

But while Barrette says West Coast farmers “have not yet met demand and are years from it,” they’re not exactly happy about it. Unlike on the East Coast, where oyster farm starts are constant, West Coast growers are finding it nearly impossible to create new ventures or expand existing businesses. Be it at the local or federal level, permitting is expensive, unpredictable and approval takes years, she says.

“In terms of new farms coming on board, there are very few, and in terms of farms expanding, very few are able to withstand the cost of permitting and the wait to expand,” she says. “Everyone’s looking to different methods to increase production and efficiencies rather than increasing their footprints.”

Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Wash., is one West Coast farm that has been able to endure and diversify. (See our Behind The Line article on page 32 for an in-depth look at its farm and restaurant operations.) 

Meanwhile, Louisiana restaurateurs are having no trouble getting oysters for restaurants, which is OK with Haley Bittermann, who sources only Gulf oysters. But as director of operations for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in New Orleans, she knows those businesses wish they had more oysters to sell throughout the United States.

“It’s tough on those guys, so I know we’re fortunate to get what we get,” Bittermann says. Of the seven restaurants in the group, only Red Fish Grill serves oysters on the half shell. When told prices are surpassing $3 per oyster, she adds, “If I tried to charge $2 to $3 per oyster, locals would protest. We’re spoiled down here.”

AmeriPure Oyster Co. co-owner Pat Fahey wishes he could take part in the current sales bonanza.

“Our supply is down considerably from previous years, and so our prices are at historic highs,” says Fahey, whose company is in Franklin, La. “Meanwhile, we’re still getting product, and we’ve not lost customers, despite having to raise prices 50 percent.”

He insists the immediate future isn’t bleak for Louisiana oystermen, but says it’s not particularly bright, either. Not only are there fewer boats out harvesting oysters, those on the water are bringing in less, and natural oyster reefs aren’t spawning as plentifully as in the past. 

Greg Voisin, VP of marketing at Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La., admits the market is extremely challenging given supply tightness, yet he’s optimistic the tide will turn soon for Gulf oysters.

“We’re happy that East and West coast farms are doing well right now, that’s good,” he says. “But while man has a lot of control over farms, nature knows how to do it better. And when Louisiana bounces back with its wild reefs, you’ll have a giant amount of oysters that hits the market eventually.”

That’ll happen with what he calls “a super spawn,” when nature bounces back from the remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster.

A chef-driven trend 

Voisin believes chefs’ increasing use of oysters — be they served fresh, fried, baked, barbecued or grilled — and diners’ growing desire to experiment is helping drive oyster consumption. Modern chefs understand the importance of a sense of place with food, typically called terroir. Regarding oysters, however, the word has a modern marine twist: merroir. Voisin believes that when a tourist visits Louisiana or Maine or Oregon, they want oysters from those areas.

“If they come from England, they want to know the oysters they’re being served came from where they are,” he says. 

Both Tristano and Rheault believe greater consumer confidence in oysters is helping spur sales. Rheault says the industry has reduced oyster-related illnesses and controls inherent to oyster farming yield a cleaner, and less gritty product. Tristano says oysters have achieved that hallowed halo of freshness and are healthful, natural and sustainable. “Those are all on-trend and lend to their appeal.”

Seeing is believing, he adds. “We’re seeing more shucking out in the open, which gives guests the chance to see and smell it. When you see an oyster bar in an establishment, they become top of mind.”

The drive to serve oysters comes mostly from growth at midscale and quick service operations (QSR), according to Datassential MenuTrends. Oyster QSR menu penetration increased from 2.6 to 2.9 percent of restaurants from 2009 to 2013, while midscale operators saw 8.6 percent penetration in 2009 and 9.1 percent last year.

Ken Berry, owner of Bluefin Seafoods in Louisville, Ky., says oysters have become an affordable protein so good that customers can choose them as an alternative to finfish and even beef.

“You can have several choices and the price will still be less than a piece of swordfish or a steak,” Berry says. Three years ago, he was moving 40 cases of oysters weekly through his operation, but now he’s selling 200 per week. “Good oysters are in vogue. It looks good on a menu when describing where they’re from. Like wine, where they’re grown influences their flavors.”  

And when paired with wine, that flavor is even more marketable. Tim Parsons, VP of sales and marketing at Cherrystone Aqua Farms in Cheriton, Va., says many of his restaurant clients are pairing wines with oysters.

“We’re seeing restaurants serving a flight of wines and a flight of oysters matched on the flavor profile of both,” Parson says. “If there’s a wine tasting happening, you’re going to find more oysters paired with those wines.”

Robin Song, executive chef at Hog & Rocks, a cured ham and oyster restaurant in San Francisco, serves an average of six types of oysters on the menu simultaneously, blending West Coast and East Coast options. Prices can be as low as $1.50 an oyster during happy hour, and rise to $5 each for Belon oysters harvested off the coast of Massachusetts by deep-sea divers.

“Belons have to be plucked by hand, bound and shipped here,” says Song, who sells West Coast Kumamotos for $4 each. “Belons are not available year round and are hard to get, but they’re on trend, so we can charge what we do.”

Complicating supply and cost issues was this year’s long and harsh winter, which meant waters were cold longer than usual. That kept oysters from feeding until late spring, and when oysters don’t feed, they don’t grow. That slowdown will delay the summer harvest by several weeks, sources say, which is potentially bad news for Harding Lee Smith, chef-owner, Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room in Portland, Maine. Rising oyster costs are chewing up his bottom line (see NetWorking, page 40, for interview with Smith).

“They’re expensive. They’re $1.50 to $2.50, our cost,” Smith says. Winterpoint oysters used to cost 85 cents each, he says now they’re $1.75. “Older folks will come in and see our oyster card and say, ‘$3.75, what’s that for, six?’ No, that’s for one. We mark it up three times, so we’re at 33 percent, which is actually a high food cost for something like that.”

Brennan’s Bitterman is anticipating price increases for Gulf oysters, but not because of supply issues.

“From May to October, boats will now have one hour to get their oysters refrigerated after harvesting,” she says. “I’ve been on a lot of oyster boats, and I can tell you they can’t dredge and get back to the dock in one hour. So they’ll have to retrofit their boats and get refrigeration on board, and that will cost everybody.”

Song has not experienced oyster supply issues, but he believes that’s part of “the nature of San Francisco as a seafood town. You just expect it’s going to be here and it is.” And while he serves some of his oysters barbecued, “95 percent of what we sell is raw. It’s what people like.”

Parsons says his clients are on allocation, though many have offered to pay more to get more. He keeps promising his clients to hold on until late June, when supplies should increase.

“We have to take care of people who buy oysters from us year round by maintaining those relationships,” he says. “Our oysters aren’t going to the highest bidder.”

Patrick McMurray, owner of the Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill in Toronto, has imported oysters from as far away as New Zealand to fill out his list of six live choices. The restaurant shucks about 5,500 oysters weekly for its customers, but the winter tightened Atlantic oyster supplies.

“There are always fluctuations in gas costs and dollar exchanges to deal with, so I have to flex around and buy from different places where they’re available,” said McMurray, a world-champion oyster shucker. “I’m also buying from Europe, so it’s kind of an art form to manage it all.”

McMurray credits retail oyster sales with some of their overall surging popularity. Ordinary folk are shucking them at home, he says, because they’re affordable and they can watch YouTube videos to learn how to shuck properly.

“It’s a new and small trend, but the upswing of people cooking at home has people teaching themselves,” he says. “It’s nice to see these home gourmets and home cooks cracking a few shells for a party and putting out a lovely taste of the sea.”

People also appreciate freshness in oysters, which Rheault says has become a given with great over-the-road distribution. He calls U.S. trucking, “magnificent and insanely good” for its ability to move oysters from the coast to the heartland in only 36 hours and at a cost of $2 per box.

Berry of Bluefin Seafood agrees, adding that every point in an oyster’s journey from sea to dinner table is far better managed than in the past. Improved farming methods have yielded cleaner, safer products, and holding methods ensure fresher shellfish.

“The bigger distributors and bigger farms have holding tanks that extend that freshness,” he says. “The oyster is harvested, it goes into a saltwater tank and stays until it’s ready to be delivered. It’s a much better product now, and people can taste that.”

Rheault is encouraged by the rise in oyster sales, growth and improvements in production and distribution, but he’s a bit concerned all of it could combine to glut the market with supply and cause prices to crash. He says avoiding that calamity hinges on expanding demand for domestic oysters.

“If we’re boosting production at this rate, we better boost the customer base,” he says. “I keep telling my members that if we don’t do some intelligent marketing and maybe get more customers in the center of the country, we’re headed for a price collapse.”

Voisin says markets always correct themselves by supply and demand, but the lifelong oysterman doesn’t foresee as hard a correction as concerns Rheault. As is the case with Gulf oysters, when one fishery’s supplies are short, others are healthy and help to meet demand. He doubts all will produce so well at once that the oyster market will be glutted.

“In the high harvest season, when there are tons of oysters out there and prices fall, people will say, ‘What’s going on? People aren’t loving oysters!’” says Voisin. “But the answer is, ‘No, that’s not the problem. There’s just a whole lot out of oysters out there now, Bubba.’”

Contributing Editor Steve Coomes lives in Louisville, Ky.

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