Running a Successful Oyster Bar Means Watching Out for Posers and Scammers
Running an oyster bar really means just having good relationships with oyster farmers, being able to cut through the bastardization of oyster names by big seafood distributors, and just dealing with their fickle nature.
Photo via Flickr user dotpolka
Running an oyster bar really means just having good relationships with oyster farmers, being able to cut through the bastardization of oyster names by big seafood distributors, and just dealing with the fickle nature of oysters.
There are no real sure bets in the oyster business.
If you see 16 different oysters at my oyster bar, L & E Oyster Bar, that means that I called at least a dozen different oyster farmers to obtain and verify them. Calling them individually is the only way to guarantee that they are pulling the correct oyster out of ocean water and that I am getting it 15 to 18 hours after being harvested. A lot of big seafood companies buy oysters in bulk and then have these huge wet-storage facilities where they keep a bunch of different oyster varieties in the same tank.
So, what ends up happening is that all oysters, no matter their respective region, end up tasting the same because they are all going through the same recycled water. Some companies will also fudge the harvest dates. What you see sometimes when you order through bigger companies is that there are two harvest dates on the tags, one for the ocean harvest date and one for the storage facility harvest date. It's this weird thing that happens in the oyster business.
Why are you going to pay top dollar for that Kusshi if it has been wet-stored in the same location as a regular Pacific oyster? It's going to all taste the same. Even in oyster estuaries, different algaes and their blooming affect the glycogen level of oysters, which is what makes an oyster sweet and creamy. If it is grown outside a bay, the oyster will be saltier. If it is grown more inland, the flavor will be more vegetal and sea vegetable-like.
Blue Point has become such a popular name that people will call oysters that just to sell them at a higher price.
This practice of wet-storing oysters is a lot more common than you'd think at places that have oysters on the menu but are not an oyster bar. A lot of the places that have $1 oysters may use wet-stored ones because if you are a giant fish company that distributes oysters, it's cheaper to wet-store them. That way, you don't have to move them as fast. I know there are some places that do $1 non-wet-stored oysters only because they make back those margins with liquor sales. We don't do $1 oysters here because we don't have a liquor license and can't get our numbers to work. I would love to have all of my oysters available for $1, but at the end of the day, oysters cost more than $1 a piece for me. A lot of the times, they're a lot more than $1 because we work directly with farmers.
There are a couple of oyster names out there that really tend to get bastardized. Blue Points, Kumamotos, and Hama Hamas are some of the most commonly bastardized ones. People tend to take oysters from a certain region and name it after a well-known oyster. For example, the original Blue Points are from New York and there's one company that's doing original Blue Points called Blue Island Shellfish. They call them "Blue Island #9" oysters because Blue Points are everywhere now—from the Gulf, from Virginia, even from the West Coast. Blue Point has become such a popular name that people will call oysters that just to sell them at a higher price. It's like a Champagne not being from Champagne, France, yet still being called Champagne—a branding thing.
Another good example are Hama Hama oysters. People identify these giant, huge, behemoth oysters as Hama Hamas, but that's not always the case. When it comes down to it, Hama Hamas are actually small, delicate, nice, and nuanced. A lot of people will call smaller oysters Kumamotos just to be able to get away with charging a higher cost for them, too.
Sourcing oysters in the summer months, dealing with hurricanes or snowstorms in oyster regions, and living through ocean acidification and rising prices are whole other conversations. We will absolutely live to see $5 oysters really soon, and that is coming faster than you'd think.
You can really fudge the names of oysters because there is no commission coming after you to say, 'Hey, this isn't a Kumamoto!'
I've learned all of these things after buying thousands upon thousands of oysters and seeing some pretty shady tags on them at times. We've served over 300 varieties of oysters in five years of being open, and we usually have ten to 15 oysters on the menu on any given day. After a while, you start to know right away when someone is just straight lying to you. There's no regulation on oyster names, either. You do have to disclose the source and location of harvest, but you can really fudge the names because there is no commission coming after you to say, "Hey, this isn't a Kumamoto!" I don't think there ever will be, only because there are so many varieties of oysters, and also it would cost a lot of money. It's even hard for me to be able to identify oysters when tested side by side.
Hopefully, companies will be honest and whatever liquid is inside an oyster is the ocean water that it was harvested from, not recycled water from a wet-storage facility. If you want to have a successful oyster bar, you really have to get into the nitty-gritty of things in order to stand out. Luckily for us, people don't have a problem paying a premium when they know they are getting a premium oyster.
As told to Javier Cabral
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Spencer Bezaire is the owner and chef at L & E Oyster Bar in Silver Lake and eats over a thousand oysters a year. For more information, visit the restaurant's website.