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Behind the Line: Shellfish growers give new meaning to farm-to-table
Oyster farmers on both coasts dive into restaurant operations
By Lauren Kramer
June 01, 2014
As the farm-to-table movement becomes increasingly popular, oyster farmers like Taylor Shellfish have found the restaurant environment an ideal place to tell their story.
The Shelton, Wash., company just opened a restaurant in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood in April and will open a fourth this summer in Pioneer Square, not far from Pike Place Market. Taylor opened a location in Seattle’s Melrose Market three years ago and also has a store at one of its farms in Samish Bay.
While its restaurant segments will only constitute approximately 10 percent of the company’s overall revenue, they have allowed Taylor Shellfish to tell its story.
“For city diners this is the ultimate fresh experience, with oysters harvested in the morning and served the same afternoon,” says Jeff Pearson, president. “Our goal is to explain our product and our story of super fresh oysters. The restaurants have allowed us to have direct input and feedback from our customers, which has been the impetus for opening additional sites.”
The 1,000-square-foot, 30-seat Melrose store has been consistently profitable, with revenues exceeding $1 million for the past two years and growth up to 30 percent each year, Pearson says. “But we’re out of room there, which is why we’re opening more locations.”
The Queen Anne restaurant is 1,700 square feet, with 50 seats inside and 30 outside, while the Pioneer Square restaurant will be 2,500 square feet. Both new locations are good for transitional dining, quick bites before or after dinner or prior to an event. Their menus will include steamed clams and mussels, a variety of sauces, cooked crab, salads and raw oyster bars. “We want people to come in, have a plate of oysters and a glass of wine and then go to an event,” he says. But educating consumers about shellfish and water quality is also a key part of the experience.
“One of the issues we face for our business to survive is clean water, so we want to talk about the efforts and activities we’re undertaking to promote clean water in Puget Sound,” Pearson explains. “We get to tell our message in the restaurant environment, and you can see the results of our efforts in the product you eat, because the oysters are a representative example of the water environment in which they grow.”
Another oyster farmer who has seen success with oyster bars is Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, R.I. He started out selling oysters at farmers markets, where he learned the extent to which his buyers valued local food. In 2009 he opted to expand the farm-to-plate theme by opening the oyster bar overlooking Potter Pond, where Matunuck oysters
At first Raso thought the bar would be a seasonal business but diners kept showing up all year round. These days Matunuck Oyster Bar sees up to 1,000 diners a day at the height of the summer season, with a menu that includes halibut, lobster rolls and beef in addition to chowder, scallops, oysters, littleneck clams and jumbo shrimp.
“Being able to sell my oysters retail and wholesale has allowed me to invest more in the farm and increase production,” Raso says of his 7-acre oyster and clam farm. “Before the farm opened I was selling 500,000 oysters a year, but now I’m able to sell more than a million.”
There’s no question that oyster bars tied to oyster farms have helped grow brand awareness. In the case of the Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury, Mass., that brand awareness was impetus enough to build a restaurant under completely separate ownership. Jeremy Sewall, co-owner of the Island Creek Oyster Bar, opened his 160-seat Boston restaurant in October 2010, selling mostly Island Creek Oysters, steamers and razor clams, among other seafood from different purveyors.
“My partners and I felt there was a void of seafood restaurants in Boston that went back to the sea and connected to the source,” Sewall says. “We wanted to take the spirit of the farm and the Island Creek Oyster brand, which is very well established in Boston.”
The bar is an opportunity to talk about the farm and where the oysters come from, says Sewall, who despises the expression “farm-to-table,” describing it as “just white noise. If you’re operating a restaurant and you’re trying to be chef- or food-driven, of course you’re farm-to-table,” he says. “What we did was the next iteration of that. We partnered with the oyster farmer, taking the spirit of the farm and weaving it all through the restaurant. It gave us legitimacy in what we were doing, and it’s been really well received.”
The bar sells up to 8,000 oysters each week, the majority of them from Island Creek Oyster Farm.
Back at Taylor Shellfish, the restaurants are also helping to grow the brand while delivering great input from diners. “The fastest-growing product we have requires a full year to grow, so we have a lot of time and effort invested in our products,” Pearson says. “It’s nice to be able to share it directly with the smiling faces of consumers at our restaurants.”
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia