How Do Direct-to-consumer Oyster Companies Operate?
A few weeks ago, I shucked 50 oysters. It wasn’t in a restaurant kitchen—in the past, this would’ve been an hour’s work on any Thursday—or part of recipe testing in the Food52 office, but at my friend Nick’s apartment. And unlike all the other oysters I’ve shucked, these weren’t purchased from a fish market or restaurant distributor—they were bought online and shipped directly to his Brooklyn apartment. They were also absolutely delicious.
The day prior, the oysters I shucked—plus the other 50 that Nick ordered and opened himself—sat along the bottom of the Long Island Sound, roughly 50 miles away from his apartment. As someone who loves oysters, but is naturally skeptical of ordering shellfish online, I was curious: How the hell did these get here, and how are they so perfect?
The oysters came from Copps Island, a fourth-generation, family-owned oystering company based in Norwalk, Connecticut. On their website, you can buy 100 oysters that are “caught and shipped on the same day” for $70, plus shipping. According to Jimmy Bloom, captain and owner of Copps Island, the order process is designed to ensure customers are receiving the highest quality shellfish. “Oysters come right out of the water and are put directly into ‘ice down’ tanks,” he says. “We get an order that comes in online, they’re immediately packaged into a styrofoam cooler with ice packs, and they ship overnight.”
Despite its thoughtful process, online sales are only a small part of Copps Island’s business. Like most oyster companies, the majority of their revenue comes through wholesale distribution. For Copps, this means sending truckloads of oysters to distributors in Boston and New York—that are then sold to fish markets, restaurants, and bars—every day. Per Jimmy, because of packaging and shipping costs, online sales are “really not a money maker for [them].”
However, this isn’t always the case. Island Creek Oysters—a slightly larger operation based in Duxbury, Massachusetts—doesn’t work with wholesalers. They prefer to handle the process themselves. “Our business model is somewhat unique in that we ship all of our stuff direct to chefs and restaurants,” says Island Creek CEO, Chris Sherman. Although the bulk of the business comes from restaurants, Island Creek also sells oysters for household consumption on their website. According to Chris, the packaging and delivery process is nearly identical, regardless of location. “[If you’re] ordering oysters in Chicago for your apartment because you’re having a dinner party, you’re getting more or less the same exact shipment that a chef in Chicago at a restaurant right down the street is getting,” he explains.
While Chris admits that the packages may differ in size, the materials are always the same. The biggest development they’ve had recently? Saying goodbye to styrofoam. “We’re now working with 100 percent recyclable insulation for the packaging,” he says. “The recyclable liner just kind of folds up and you can put it in your recycling bin as opposed to having to deal with the big [styrofoam] box.” Further, every package includes cold, food-safe gel packs and a time-temperature indicator (TTI) that shows whether the oysters’ temperature has been compromised during overnight shipping.
Beyond what’s grown in Duxbury, Island Creek also sells oysters from the smaller farms they’ve partnered with along the East Coast. According to Chris, in one year they’ll work with roughly 200 small farmers, most of which are located in New England and Maritime Canada. Island Creek has long-standing relationships with most of the farmers they work with, however, when they do bring on a new partner, there are a few things Chris’ team wants to see. “We’re looking for a uniform call, really nice healthy meat, and a shell that is full of meat,” he says. “You don’t want to shuck it open and have that Ziploc-bag-full-of-water look going.” Additionally, they want to know how the growers work interpersonally—the things you wouldn’t see on their website or Instagram profile: how easy they are to work with, how consistent they are, and whether or not they actually show up for the truck.
To ensure that oysters from other farms remain of high quality, Island Creek runs trucks daily throughout the Northeast, linking small farms to its own shipment centers around Boston and New York City. While the sprawling logistical network is complex and surely demanding, for Chris there’s no other option. “We go and find these people. We have to be there for them,” he says.
These efforts benefit all parties involved, especially the consumer. Similar to wine, an oyster’s flavor and shape is dictated by its immediate environment. This means each of Island Creek’s partnering farms produces products truly unique to them. For example, in Duxbury, the water is high in salinity, so those oysters have a “complex, saline flavor.” By partnering with many farms in different areas, Island Creek can easily introduce its customers to flavors they likely would never experience otherwise.
An oyster’s relationship with its surrounding water has positive environmental impacts as well. Oysters—like most shellfish—are filter feeders, meaning they eat the particles and nutrients floating around them, while filtering and cleaning water in the process. In the right conditions, a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Moreover, oysters improve a shoreline’s resilience by stabilizing its surrounding sediments and protecting against potentially harmful erosion. For these reasons, oysters have been implemented as a natural solution for ecosystem protection and restoration in initiatives like New York City’s Billion Oyster Project. It’s worth acknowledging that direct-to-consumer oysters are not free of environmental harm. Overnight shipping can require packages to be hurriedly shipped by plane, which can produce up to eight times more carbon emissions than standard shipping.
The promotion of smaller farms has far-reaching, positive economic implications. According to Chris, the benefit for farmers is immediate: “Getting those people paid helps create stronger, healthier coastal communities.” Meanwhile for Jimmy, the success of newer, smaller farmers is a tide that truly raises all boats. “It’s good for the market and makes oysters more popular,” he says. “Now there’s more people eating [oysters] and more restaurants serving them.”
Above anything else, at the very core of both Chris and Jimmy’s operations lies an unwavering commitment to getting oysters into the hands of the people who want them. For Jimmy and the team at Copps Island, this includes shipping oysters as far as Hawaii—something they’ve done before. At Island Creek, this means overcoming inconvenience for the happiness of the customer, “Early winter is honestly the absolute best time of year to be eating any type of seafood. But people want [oysters] in July and August and that’s what we do. We get them to them.”
Have you ordered oysters online? Let us know in the comments below!