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When Rappahannock Oyster Co. co-owner Travis Croxton drives to his shipping facility on the York River in Virginia, he says he feels like he’s stepping onto the set of I Am Legend, except he’s not contending with mutants. He’s had to lay off all but four of his oyster operation’s employees. What’s typically a hub of activity is still.
“That place is normally bustling with trucks coming in and out,” Croxton says. His company, known for its Olde Salt, Rochambeau, and Rappahannock oysters, is based in Topping, Virginia and also operates a handful of restaurants. “Four people are in the office and four people are packing and shipping. Now it’s just me.”
Rappahannock’s oystermen continue to harvest daily, but in much smaller quantities since restaurant orders have dried up. They’re still selling to several Whole Foods stores across the country and online orders have picked up. “Even though it’s 25 oysters or 50 oysters, it keeps the cycle of daily activity going. That’s buoyed us,” Croxton says.
The oystermen who fill raw bars at D.C. restaurants, like all other purveyors, are adjusting to a new reality under COVID-19. Their primary and ancillary revenue streams have taken a hit. And when living things are your livelihood, timing is everything.
“This is the worst time it could happen,” Croxton says. “We’re coming off winter where our oysters are feeding again and growing.” If Rappahannock Oyster Co. can’t move product, they’ll end up with overcrowded cages and don’t have enough capital available to buy new ones. “You have to make decisions. Do I dump these onto our reef?”
Oyster companies pay significant sums up front for “oyster seed.” The baby oysters arrive the size of grains of sand, then Rappahannock introduces them into their nursery, where they grow for about 24 months. “You spend two years cultivating them and at the end you can’t sell it?” Croxton wonders, defeatedly.
Sapidus Farms’ founder Mike Manyak echoes Croxton’s concerns about timing. His oyster farm is located in the Northern Neck of Virginia along the Great Wicomico River in the mouth of Tipers Creek. “This is the time where they start their spring pop and put on size quickly,” he says. “They’re growing so fast, we’re not selling anything to clear cages out to move things along.”
Fall or winter would have been worse, according to Harris Creek Oyster Co. co-owner Alex Johnston. His family-owned business is based in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “That’s our most popular time of year for oysters,” he says. “Holiday business is huge. We’ll have to figure this out before it comes back in the fall for sure.” (Some experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, predict a second wave of virus spread in the fall.)
That said, Johnston joins his colleagues in their concerns about over-crowding. “You either have to spend more money on equipment or start losing oysters,” he says. “Once the water warms up and they start moving like crazy, we gotta get them out of the way. That’s a month or six weeks from now.”
These oystermen didn’t just lose restaurant sales. Their revenue streams are more diverse. Harris Creek, for example, sells oysters, po’ boys, and crab cakes at Nationals and Orioles games, and Major League Baseball is on hold. Unlike Croxton, Johnston doesn’t have any system in place to sell directly to consumers.
In addition to selling to restaurants like Rose’s Luxury, The Imperial, The Salt Line, and Bourbon Steak, Sapidus Farms typically operates a robust catering business this time of year. “We were booked Fridays and Saturdays to do raw bars at parties for the entire months of March and April,” Manyak says. “We were starting to book into May. All that has disappeared.”
He’s applying to the Paycheck Protection Program that was a part of the CARES Act Congress passed to try to help small businesses. “We’re not making any money right now,” he says. “We’re going to need to take on some debt to make it through this month.”
Manyak says oyster fans can order oysters by phone—(443)-864-3600—or via Facebook and Instagram. Oysters are $1 each and there’s a minimum order of 100 oysters per stop. He says he’ll be making drops in Northern Virginia, D.C., and Columbia, Maryland, this Thursday. If novices are worried about shucking, Manyak recommends throwing them on the grill. “They’ll pop open on their own,” he says
For now, they sit and wait for a return to status quo. But once regular business resumes, Johnston has one request.
“What we don’t need is for fellow farmers when demand comes back to engage in a big price war,” he says. “People with a lot of inventory will start under-cutting each other so they can sell off oysters. We need to band together and stick to what the market was and not try to blast out oysters at the expense of other people.”
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