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Bitch at Us: Ryan and Travis Croxton of Rappahannock Oyster

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You know them for the best happy hour in Union Market–Rappahannock Oyster Bar–but Travis and Ryan Croxton, the cousins behind the business have much more to offer. A tasting room, an AirBnB houseboat, and five restaurants and counting–you can expect lots of exciting news and developments from the dynamic duo. And know this–you can always count on Ryan and Travis to put the environment and Chesapeake Bay first–as well as high-quality oysters from a family-run company.

In 2001, cousins Ryan and Travis got a phone call from their fathers asking if they had any interest in taking over the family’s 200-odd acres of oyster leases–the contract with the state was expiring. They jumped at the chance to revive their grandfather’s legacy. Just a little over a decade later, Virginia is seeing oyster harvests not witnessed in a generation, and now leads the entire East Coast in oyster production. Needless to say, it was a smart decision for the business and East Coast oyster ecology.

So guys, tell us what first went through your heads when you got that phone call back in 2001.

At the time, we had careers we were invested in. When we got the call, we just saw an opportunity to preserve a little piece of our heritage. I’d like to say it was a Eureka moment, but at first, it was kind of mundane. Then we started doing research. What we came away with was a profound respect for the oyster and the foodways – and for our particular place in time. Basically, we learned, that if you take the oyster out of the ecosystem, the whole Chesapeake Bay is off balance. And in 2001, when we were doing our research, we had 1 percent of our population left. It went from nostalgia to a mission real quick.

You grew up around oysters—it’s in the family. How much did you know about the industry?

Very little. It was our grandfather’s businessour dads were told not to go into it because of the instability. It had its ebbs and flows. For instance, when Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954, it wiped out all of our grandfather’s beds and all of his boats. He had to start over. The business was much more vulnerable to those sorts of things back then. They were harvesting wild oysters and didn’t have the control and flexibility that we do with aquaculture today.

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What made you want to takeover the family business? Nostalgia? Boredom? B-12 deficiencies?

Definitely nostalgia. We don’t have a lot of “things” from our grandfather, or that part of his life, so this was definitely something to cling to. So, for sure, we fell in love with the idea before we fell in love with the oyster. But this has been an amazing journey and it hasn’t always been comfortable. We learned that the decisions of those previous generations were responsible for the predicament we found ourselves in in 2001, when the talk of the day was about putting the native oyster on the Endangered Species List. And, yes, our family was complicit in that. Folks back then just didn’t know what we know now, and when they realized it, they lacked the will (or at least the political influence) to change it. It took bringing the oyster to near collapse before we realized that we had to do something different. Thankfully, at least in the Bay, we learned this before it was too late.

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How did you decide on pursuing off-bottom aquaculture?

We did our research. And it was apparent that we couldn’t repeat the past. That we didn’t inherit a fleet of boats and an antiquated process was probably the best thing that ever happened to us. We got to start from scratch and scour the world for best practices. Fortunately, we didn’t have to look far. Some local retirees who’d been dubbed “oyster gardeners” were working with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to experiment with “off-bottom” oyster aquaculture. That became the spark. Like most people, when we first heard “aquaculture,” we thought of inland fish farms with GMO’d fish living shoulder-to-shoulder on a diet of antibiotics and chicken pellets. But that couldn’t be farther from the reality of oyster culture. With oyster aquaculture, you’re talking about the exact same animal, living in the exact same environment, eating the exact same (naturally occurring) food, and providing the exact same ecological benefit to the Bay. Not to mention, we’re continually adding to the oyster population, not subtracting from it. It’s utterly amazing how great oyster aquaculture can be.

What were some of the biggest challenges starting a business?

Clearly money is a big one, particularly if you’re trying to do something new. Know-how is obviously another challenge. You really have to be a student first (and remain one). Staffing, though, is one that people tend to underestimate and it’s also probably the most rewarding aspect of having a business. We operate in some of the most rural places in Virginia, and having come from here, we know the difficulty of keeping talent “home” and bringing talent in. But if you have intellectually challenging and rewarding work, you can attract the most amazing people, wherever you are. And let’s be clear, people who grow up in these areas, by and large, aren’t wanting to leave, they’re having to. So to have an industry that can only happen here and is enormously impactful to the local economy and ecology is pretty amazing.

The other monumental challenge when we began was that there was no appreciation for Chesapeake Bay oysters.  They weren’t served on menus anywhere and we had to beat down kitchen walls to get our product into the hands and mouths of chefs throughout the country. It forced us to target the highest echelon restaurants and most-acclaimed chefs because we knew that they would be the only ones that might be able to see our new farm-raised product for what it was – a game changer in our region.  Previously, all Bay oysters were dredged from wild, muddy stock or worse yet, relayed from the Gulf of Mexico and mislabeled as a Chesapeake.  These were commodity-driven and the exact opposite of what a farm-raised oyster encapsulates.  Since the Northeast and Northwest had depleted their native, wild oysters centuries ago, they had a huge jump on the aquaculturing of oysters, and thus had been the sole options on menus across the country at higher end restaurants for decades.  So for us to come in with a premium Chesapeake oyster was unheard of, and we are most proud that we broke down walls and barriers to entry for all those that came after us. It was a ton of work, lots of sacrifice of family time, etc… but it was worth it.  And we’ve made lifelong friends with those early adopters.

What should we know about oysters and the Chesapeake Bay?

That we’re damn lucky to have them both. Oysters are a linchpin species take them out of a system and the system can break down. But when properly managed, they can do their ecological service and at the same time provide us with an incredibly healthy and efficient source of protein. As for the Bay … what a unique and fortunate thing to have it right in our backyard. The Bay is an estuary (a transition zone between rivers and the ocean), which basically means it’s a seafood breadbasket – the most seafood dense areas on the planet. And the Chesapeake Bay is one of the largest on Earth. And we get to live here.

Does Rappahannock participate in oyster restoration? What can the average oyster lover do to help?

Yeah, our restaurants recycle their shells, and through groups like the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the shells make their way back to the water for reef restoration. As for what people can do … I know it sounds counter intuitive, but eat more oysters. The more the market demands, the more we plant. The more we plant, the better it is for the Bay. Oysters may very well be the most energy efficient protein on the planet. There’s no food input cost because oysters eat naturally occurring plant matter in the water. The world needs to focus on these types of foods, that are both good for our environment and for us.

Your motto is “good food, grown well.” What inspired this credo?

Initially, our mission was to “put the Chesapeake Bay oysters back on the map.” When we moved into doing restaurants, we realized that are our goal all along had really been to celebrate both the quality of food and the ethic behind growing it. How your food is grown is far more important than how it tastes, but bring those two concerns together and you’ve really got something magical.

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Tell us about your first buyer–Le Bernardin in New York City. That’s a pretty strong start!

It takes about two years to get an oyster to market size. So after many trials, we got our first crop to market, but we had no idea if it was really good. So, not knowing enough to be intimidated, we called up Le Bernardin, one of the world’s best seafood restaurants, and asked to speak to Chef Ripert. We figured he could tell us. Through dumb luck, we got an invitation to do a tasting. They loved them. Go figure, right?

After providing oysters to restaurants, you decided to open your own in 2011 with Merroir. What made you want to venture into the restaurant business?

We use wine terminology a lot to describe how the oysters taste, so we naturally thought a tasting room at our farm made sense. We started Merroir as little more than a place to see our process and enjoy our oysters with some beer and wine. But then people wanted some food, so we hired a chef who started cooking small plates on a cheap Lowes grill that we set up on the side porch. Next thing we knew, we were doing 700 covers a day and that Lowes grill just wasn’t cutting it. But Merroir is still very much a tasting room. It’s small plate and very product focused. It’s the most unvarnished look at what we’re all about – and probably the place we’ll always be most comfortable. It’s home.

Today, you have three restaurants: Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Union Market, Washington D.C., along with Rappahannock in Richmond, Virginia, and Rappahannock Oyster in Charleston, South Carolina. Tell us about these locations.

All of our locations have been very serendipitous. The folks at Union Market approached us soon after we open Merroir about reviving the old marketplace. Their idea was to be very producer-focused and have an oyster bar as their anchor tenant. It was a great mix of history, restoration, and a celebration of great food. It was a no-brainer. What’s most remarkable about this space is that it’s really become a chef’s hang-out – which is a true testament to the unbelievable food Chef Autumn Cline is putting out.

Rappahannock, in Richmond, is a real partnership story. Our good buddy, Chef Dylan Fultineer, had been working on the West Coast for Suzanne Goin, opening a Hungry Cat for her in Santa Barbara, when he decided he wanted to get back to the East Coast to his roots. He asked us if we had any interest in doing a seafood restaurant. When a chef of his caliber asks you that, you just say “yes” and get out of his way. So that’s what we did. Inside of a year, Rappahannock was named one of the best new restaurants in America by Esquire Magazine.

In 2016, we were approached about doing a restaurant in Charleston, SC. We took the meeting because who wouldn’t welcome an excuse to go to Charleston. But we had little interest in setting up shop in a town full of so many great restaurants – many of which were customers and great friends. But then we saw the space…an 1890 cigar factory, off the main drag (so no real competition), and just dripping with history. We saw a void we thought we could fill. So we asked our then D.C. chef, Kevin Kelly, to take the culinary helm. Six months in, he’s killing it. Hanna Raskin gave him four stars, for crying out loud. The entire team is spectacular. But, of course, I could say that about every one of our restaurants. We’re incredibly lucky.

In addition, Travis has a side project from Rappahannock, Brine Restaurant in the Mosaic District in Fairfax. Brine has a killer brunch as well, featuring the same oysters that we grow and has a huge focus on all things Virginia.

What’s up next for you two? More restaurants? More oysters?

We’ve got two more restaurants in the pipeline – one in LA and another in D.C, at the Wharf – but then we’ll probably hold off for a while. On the oyster front, we couldn’t be more excited about what we’re working on, from opening a couple new farms in other regions to continuing research on new product lines, like our reintroduction of the Bay scallop, which went extinct in the Chesapeake back in 1933. It’s always about the farm for us – that’s where our heart is.

Tell us about the Oyster Bed–your new house boat Airbnb. Where and how can people spend time here?

A couple years ago, we had the opportunity to purchase a little house right next to Merroir. We’re always inviting chefs and fellow growers down to the farm, so this gave us a place to put them up. We got such great feedback that we decided to open it up to the public. It’s a fun little house, loaded with every book you can imagine on oysters. And you’re just a short stroll away from Merroir and a farm tour. Plus, the surrounding area is just amazing, with opportunities for wine tasting, golf, and more history than you could possibly stand.  

How often do you indulge in oysters? What’s your favorite way to eat these mollusks?

Ryan: Once a week, for sure. I’m a bit spoiled, though, so I eat them all sorts of ways – grilled, steamed, raw. My go-to is probably raw with a little lemon and fresh grated horseradish. I’m so not a snob about oysters, though – there’s no bad way to enjoy them.

Travis: Depends, some weeks it’s every day if we’re working with chefs and doing our sales thing.  Then I’ll go for a couple weeks without.  My preference is naked or with a traditional red wine mignonette. I’m also trying to champion people getting into eating steamed and grilled oysters more – Dylan Fultineer has an off menu dish of grilled oysters with smoked paprika butter at Rappahannock. Kevin Kelly does a smoked jalapeno butter at Rapp Bar Charleston – both of those concoctions I could eat all day.

Will your kids join the family business?

Ryan: Travis and I both have three kids each. They’re a little young to get into the business at this point, but who knows. Sure, it’s a nice thought, but it’s not something we think about or would want to push on them. If they’re proud of it, that’s enough.  

Bloody Marys or mimosas?

Ryan: Bloody Marys.

Travis: First a Bloody to wake up and then a mimosa to get going,

Brunch in or out?

Ryan: I have three kids under seven. Brunch in–if only for the sake of everyone else trying to eat.

Travis: Brunch out–so everyone can order what they want!

What’s your favorite brunch dish?

Ryan: Chef Dylan does a Hang Town Fry that will blow your mind. Eggs, bacon, fried oysters–I mean, wow.

Travis: Sausage gravy!

If you could invite five people to brunch, who would they be?  

Ryan: My family. I know, that’s too easy. But any heavy-hitters and I wouldn’t be able to eat.

Travis: David Coleman (3 Stars Brewery) and his wife Nancy, Jason Tesauro (Barboursville Vineyards) and his wife Amy Lee, and my wife Kristi Croxton (James River Distillery)–we’d have beer, wine and booze covered and I’d be hanging out with people that I genuinely have never had less than an amazing time with.

 

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