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Shaken up by COVID-19, shellfish industry moves to reinvent itself

In any given week, Stonington Farms Shellfish co-owner Tim Giulini typically sells 5,000 oysters to a Boston-based distributor, as well as some hundreds more to Mystic's S&P Oyster Restaurant and Bar. But after the coronavirus pandemic forced his distributor and S&P to stop purchasing oysters from him in March, Giulini said he needed to come up with a new idea to sell his product.

He first started pushing sales through his website, he said, “which moved a little bit of product,” but after talking with the owners of the Mystic Pet Shop on East Main Street, Giulini decided to start selling two-dozen oyster bags for $20 out of their storefront.

“That’s worked out pretty well,” Giulini said, stating he’s averaged around 500 oysters a week, "which is a far cry from the 5,000 we should have been sending to Boston every week. But it's definitely helping us get by."

Giulini’s borrowed-storefront approach is just one of many new and innovative ways shellfish farmers along southeastern Connecticut’s shoreline are shaking up their business models to stay afloat after the pandemic dried up nearly all of their normal sales.

From pop-up events to weekly pickup sales at landing docks, Connecticut's shellfish farmers are now selling direct to customers more than at any other time in decades, said Kristin DeRosia-Banick, an environmental analyst with the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture. The bureau and Connecticut Sea Grant have been collaborating in recent months to support Connecticut shellfish farmers in expanding their direct-to-consumer sales models in an effort to keep the industry alive and perhaps find new ways to thrive, she said.

She said the wholesale business that makes up nearly 100% of the state’s $30 million commercial shellfish industry — which consists mostly of bulk sales to distributors and restaurants in New York City, Boston and across the country — was effectively "ripped out" from underneath the state's 45 shellfish farms after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered restaurants nationwide.

And despite partial reopenings of restaurants over the last month, most shellfish farmers told The Day this past week that sales have not returned to normal and they do not expect them to even as the state moves through its phased reopening over the summer.

In best-case scenarios, some local shellfish farmers said they have begun seeing as much as a 40% return in what would be their normal sales this time of year, which is on the higher end, DeRosia-Banick said, while others have seen just a 20% return in recent weeks.

Shellfish farmers added it may even be years before the industry fully recovers from the recent fallout, which has sparked not only present financial troubles but created challenges moving and selling product off shellfish beds to make room for new product to grow this summer when waters are warmer, which some said could create shellfish stock deficits well into 2021 and 2022.

Local shellfish farmers told The Day they hope their efforts to adopt creative direct-to-consumer sales tactics, such pop-up events, collaborations with local businesses and restaurants, and progressive social media efforts — ideas they said they’ve never considered until now — will help get their brand in front of the public and embolden consumers to buy shellfish directly from them, acting as a launch pad to finally expand this side of the business models

According to Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm owner Tim Londregan, selling direct to consumers — though it requires more effort on the part of the farmer — is better for business, as it creates more revenue per piece of shellfish sold than those sold through wholesalers. He and other farmers said oysters sold in bulk will typically sell for about 65 cents to 85 cents a piece. But when sold direct, a piece can go for $1 or less, depending on the amount purchased. Dine out on that same oyster, Londregan said, and a restaurant will charge double, even triple, the price.

“It’s a better deal for (the consumer) to buy direct,” he said.

And as people are held back from dining out as usual due to social-distancing protocols to stem the spread of COVID-19, Londregan argued that now, more than ever, is the best opportunity for those with seafood appetites to consider buying direct, as it not only helps the local shellfish industry but also offers an opportunity to learn how to enjoy shellfish at home, whether shucked raw or cooked.

Londregan, who also has been planning drive-up tent events at his Main Street facility at the Marker 7 Marina in Niantic and who recently hired a director of sales position to manage the company's website, social media and other events to help bolster this new side business, said farms like his will now also have an opportunity to create deeper connections with the customers through direct sales, dispelling certain myths about what shellfish farming is.

“I wish I started doing this sooner,” Londregan said by phone, explaining he only recently reorganized his website to accommodate direct sales. “When you sell direct, you make more money (per oyster), but it is also a way to connect with the community, to help them learn what your business is really about and who you are."

He added he hopes the direct-to-consumer model will change the public perception of oysters from fancy hors d'oeuvres mostly sold at expensive restaurants to a meal anyone can whip up on the backyard grill.

“For 100 years it was commonplace to enjoy them at home, and then it fell off the bandwagon,” he said. “Now 95% to 98% of shellfish grown in Connecticut are sold in restaurants. This is a great opportunity for the industry as a whole to rekindle the region’s love of shellfish at home. That’s what the industry’s focus should be on. Oysters can be way more casual and should be way more casual.”

Co-owner of Noank's Sixpenny Oysters William Ceddia said he, too, has made efforts to adjust his business model to supplement lost sales to local seafood restaurants and now is hosting Friday and Saturday pop-up events on the deck of Mystic’s Engine Room after it recently reopened.

He described the pop-up events as a win-win for both his business and the restaurant, attracting repeat customers week after week as “it’s become something they look forward to,” while new customers coming to the restaurant feel compelled to try his oysters after watching him shuck at his stand. He added that shellfish farmers across the state have been organizing similar events with breweries and wineries over the summer and that Stonington's Stone Acres Farms soon will start hosting various pop-up oyster events with various shellfish farmers.

“You are out there in person and (the restaurant's customers) are on their social media posting it,” Ceddia said. “I know hundreds and hundreds of people are then seeing (your product) and that gets my page publicity. A lot of people have been direct messaging us, asking questions. I can see peoples’ gears are turning where they are realizing they can also pick up oysters direct from us.”

The average person, he said, doesn't know they can call and order oysters over the phone to pickup direct from Ceddia's docks, but when they find out and do come down, "they really enjoy the experience," he said.

Both Ceddia and Giulini said that because their businesses are on the smaller side — Ceddia classified his as more of a hobby — both have been more easily able to supplement their typical incomes with direct-to-consumer sales compared to larger businesses, such as Mystic Oysters, which sells hundreds of thousands annually, 98% of which are sold wholesale, according to owner Jim Markow.

“I feel bad for bigger farms doing more than 10,000 pieces a week and now have to sell personally and hire employees to deal with (those sales),” Ceddia said. “But that’s the whole change in the industry right now. We will be seeing a lot more of these (direct sales),” even as restaurants continue to open further, he said.

Ceddia said now that shellfish farms have begun selling direct to consumers through a variety of methods, they likely will continue to grow that part of their business. “It has potential,” he said. “It will just take (local businesses and individual consumers) to know it’s an option.”

Despite owning a larger shellfish business — which mostly sells to distributors and restaurants out of New York — Mystic Oysters owner Markow said he, too, has benefitted from launching his own direct-to-consumer sales model.

Though direct sales will never fully replace sales the company typically makes through wholesale, Markow said they could one day account for a significant chunk of the company’s business, as the company already has raked in about 20% of what it typically sells this time of year, he said, helping to pay for expenses, such as repairs and insurance, and make payroll.

“We were used to doing our business only as wholesalers, and when that was shut off, we had no experience selling our product in other ways,” he said. “It forced us to change. We could only sit around moping for so long before we had to do something.”

Besides organizing his own pop-up events, such as a Sunday event at Niantic’s Mermaid Liquors, in recent weeks, Markow said most of his sales are now being made through pickup events at his company's riverside facility at The Noank Aquaculture Cooperative every Friday and Saturday, where he and operations manager Marc Harrell sell 50-count bags of oysters and clams for $30 and $20, respectively.

Fresh lobster also are sold alongside shucking knives, cooler bags and barrels of ice to keep customers’ shellfish cool on the ride home.

Markow said since he and Harrell started selling from their docks, people from all over the state, and even as far away as New York and Massachusetts, have been making the trip to pick up seafood from the docks. Locals, as well, have been flocking to get bags of clams and oysters every week.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Kathy and Bill Young said they have been making trips from their Fairfield home to the Noank docks every week to pick up their share of oysters.

“We made oysters Rockefeller last week or we just eat them raw,” Kathy said, as her husband loaded bags of oysters and clams into their car. “This is our third time in the last four weeks driving here and we love the ride.”

“It’s an adventure for people and they get to see where their oysters actually come from,” Markow said by phone recently. “People are making this a destination.”

Shellfish farmers said part of making direct sales work has been encouraging people that they can, in fact, learn how to shuck an oyster and various methods of preparing oysters at home, even eliminating the need to shuck — “If you throw them on the grill, they will pop open themselves,” Londregan said.

Several farms have posted shucking tutorials on their Facebook pages and websites to embolden customers to give it a try. Other shellfish farmers said they have been teaching customers how to shuck on the spot.

For DeRosia-Banick, all these changes have positioned Connecticut's shellfish industry for new opportunity. “People appreciate having that fresh out-of-the-water experience,” she said. “I’m really hoping that the people who are going to the docks and picking up are making that connection to the water” and to the region’s shellfishing history and identity.

She said now, more than ever, the Connecticut oyster can have a revival.

DeRosia-Banick said that as shellfish farms use a direct-to-consumer sales model to bridge current sales gaps, she hopes they may also realize a myriad of opportunities to further expand those parts of their business, even as wholesale is expected to return in coming months. Local shellfish farms can keep partnering with local farmers, breweries and wineries to host events — bolstering local economies — and expand opportunities to host farm tours and boating rides to view shellfish beds, she said, and possibly partner with other shellfish farms to begin a Connecticut Oyster Trail.

“There is so much potential for a shift in our Connecticut industry now,” she said. “There’s no reason why we can’t. Things are so shaken up that now is the time we can find ways to make a new industry model here work.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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