Q: How did you get into the oyster business? R: A few years ago Suffolk County launched a new program, allowing people to lease sections of the Peconic Bay for aquaculture. Things just moved forward from there.
I: In addition to the oyster farm, an exciting catalyst for us this year is opening our market in Greenport, it’s completely transformed the business. With the retail space, we can create an experience and educate people. We don’t want to just be a typical restaurant style retail space. I like to look at the wineries and their tasting rooms- now we have an oyster tasting room.
Q: Did you have an aquaculture background?
R: No. I’m from online media and Ian’s from film and TV, but we’ve both always loved the water.
I: At best, I am Google-educated in aquaculture. Honestly the community of growers is very close and helpful and has been invaluable as we learn and grow. As far as the jump from film and media, it’s not as weird as it might sound, it’s a just another way to put our energy and creativity into life and connect with passionate audiences.
Q: Are you from the North Fork originally?
I: Rosalie grew up in S. Florida, I grew up in Michigan, we met in New York City, bought a house in Greenport about a dozen years ago and lived here part time. Even though we were part timers (until last year), we were always involved in the community. Even living here part-time, I served on the Southold Town Economic Development Committee. I thought that if I want to be here full time I need to invest in creating more opportunity; for myself and others.
Q: Does that community orientation show up in your shop?
A: Absolutely. We are interested in promoting other businesses, too—the whole region, really. So we try to be inclusive and showcase the products of the Peconic Bay in general. We’ve had as many as 8 or 9 different growers in the shop at the same time. The model is a little bit like an old fashioned dry goods store where lots of people can sell their goods.
Customers may come into the shop expecting a traditional oyster bar experience, but they discover that we don’t have the more recognizable oyster brands, we have the local growers. Our guests will often get to meet and chat with the person who grew the very oyster they are enjoying. They get firsthand information about the process. We’ve been creating fans for several oysters, not just our own.
We work together with other local growers to figure out cooperating on shipping and shared equipment. We have a large cold storage facility, centrally located, and with direct access to the water.
A primary goal was to sell locally first, to the city second, and that was even before the retail space existed. That’s still our goal, to make the local market a focus, bringing the best products to market here.
Q: Your retail space is so small; what should a visitor expect to experience?
A: Well, there are plenty of places you can get a very fancy oyster presentation; we set out to provide a different oyster experience.
First off, our building is very cool, a funky shack. Part of it was the wheelhouse of a whaling ship- or so the fish-story goes! For more than a century it was a vital part of the working waterfront, providing bait and tackle, shucking shellfish, until very recently it became a spot for t-shirts and souvenirs. Now we’ve brought it back to the waterfront, in a sense, and we find a lot of our local visitors appreciate that.
We try to make it almost an interactive experience, not just another food transaction. When we opened this summer we decided to open up as the first “U-shuck” spot on the East End, and possibly the east coast. We gave everybody knives, our handy oyster jacks and some really unfashionable gloves that keep your hands safe. We taught people how to open their own oysters. A bit like those crab shops in Maryland where everyone gets a mallet and the whole experience becomes a tradition.
With the “shuck yourself” concept, it also enables people to just pick up oysters to bring home, because now they’re less intimidated by the process. People who only previously enjoyed oysters at restaurants are empowered. Of course we can always do the shucking if you just want to sit back with a cold beer or wine and relax.
Q: Tell me about oysters a bit. What’s the difference between, say, Blue Points and Kumamotos and Wellfleets?
A: There are a couple of parts to that answer. There are many varieties of oysters in this country but these comprise only 5 species total. On the one hand you are talking about these different species- the Kumamoto vs the Eastern Oyster for example. As far as the varieties, such as Bluepoint and Wellfleets, Little Creeks, or Peconic Golds, these are a combination of place names and trade names.
Here in New York we are all growing the Eastern Oyster or the Crassotrea Virginica. This oyster is native to the eastern seaboard and at this time It’s not permitted to grow kumamotos and the like. Concerns include disease resistance as well as invasive species issues. Would the kumamotos have different disease resistance? Would they bring new disease? Would they outcompete native species in some other way? Oysters are part of a complex and dynamic food chain.
But just because east coast oysters are nearly all the same species, that doesn’t mean they all taste the same. Where they were grown matters greatly because of the different qualities of the water, the minerals, the salinity, different kinds of algae or seaweed, or a sandy bottom or a silt clay bottom.
Which means, our oysters can taste differently than others grown just a short distance away. For example, we sell a local oyster that has a fresh water influence, and so it’s less salty and has more of a melon-y flavor, and we also have others, like our own or Peconic Golds that have a real Peconic Bay salty punch.
Q: You weren’t kidding about the winery tasting room analogy. I can hear it now—instead of saying, ‘mmm taste the notes of cherry and oak, along with just a bit of spice….’ People in your shop will say ‘mmm… the salty punch and hints of sandy bottom…’
A: Well, some people come in with very experienced palates and have a complex tasting experience. For most, though, it’s just knowing “I like this oyster best and I don’t like that one much.” We can then translate that, since we know where and how each type of oyster we sell was grown, and we can help people identify other oysters they would like. To further the wine analogy, you can think about how terroir affects the grapes and draw a comparison to how the environmental factors surrounding the oysters as they grow would affect their tastes.
A couple of weeks ago we held a proper oyster and sparkling wine pairing. We took four very different tasting oysters and paired them with a variety of sparkling wines, gave people little cards with words to help them describe what they were tasting, figure out what they liked on its own and what they liked (and didn’t like) in combination. Again it’s an activity, and just enough education so it doesn’t hurt; a fun experience.
We have plans to do similar events with Greenport Brewery and craft beers. Also one with Backyard Brine, looking at different garnishes and the like. We really want our space to be experience-based, not just an eating destination. It’s also a way to showcase the work of other food entrepreneurs working on the East End.
Q: Other than learning to shuck or participating in one of your events, are there any other experiential dimensions to visiting your shop?
A: Yes. We’re really committed to educational outreach. We received a microgrant this year that we’re using as a citizen-science opportunity. Recent Saturday mornings we’ve been building a remote control submersible robot, that people can come check out. When it’s finished, we will take it out on a series of expeditions to see what the bay bottom and oyster farming looks like from underwater. Basically, we’re looking for anything we can do to make living here a richer experience for us, for our kids, for the community. We hope to see the schools, especially Greenport take advantage of this resource.
Q: This weekend is Shellabration. Surely you’re a part of that.
A: Yes; we’ve loved Shellabration as guests, then as oyster purveyors, and now we get to participate even more fully. Admittedly Shellabration’s a little bit of a puzzle for us as it’s our first as a participating business, and we want to do something fun and interactive. There will be so many chefs crafting more complex and interesting tastes. We always wrestle with the question of how much to dress up something that came out of the water so perfect already.
Part of what we’ll do will depend on the weather. If it’s cold, we might do our Peconic Bay scallop chowder or an oyster pan roast. We’ll likely do a tasting of three very different oysters. Of course we will always have our “shuck yourself” option. You can come in, belly up to the bar, and get a shucking lesson. That’s always our interest—how do we not just disappear into just another oyster bar.
During big events, like the Maritime festival, we get a lot of great exposure, but it’s harder for us to spend time on the educational aspects of our business – including teaching people to shuck oysters. Shellabration has a different energy to it, so we’re looking forward to engaging with an interested group and showcase what we’re really good at.