Beauty is most intense when it's fleeting. On an unseasonably warm October morning, at the end of a twisting, narrow road that carries visitors through the heart of the Middle Peninsula, past the smokestacks and the interstates, Locklies Marina greets the day in all of its rustic, shipwrecked glory. Old wooden boats line the docks as the sun breaks through the gray rain clouds, the shimmering glow on the Rappahannock River broken only by a dozen or so blackened log pilings from piers lost and the metal masthead from a sunken sailboat.
Swamped by a previous storm and too costly to remove — it was there when the Croxtons bought the marina and is the responsibility of the state — the submerged vessel becomes part of the storyline, the dAccor that's helping to turn Ryan and Travis Croxton's bivalve farms along the Rappahannock, in places such as Topping, Chincoteague and Milford Haven, into the Napa Valley of oystering.
The locals haven't caught on yet. They probably didn't see the New York and Washington chefs who came to town in early October for cocktails and oysters aboard the Arnetta K. Probably didn't recognize celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, star of the Bravo network's “Top Chef,” who blew through Locklies in a shiny new Porsche.
The fancy chefs at the high-end restaurants are buying oysters from the Croxtons for the taste — those grown in the Chesapeake have a distinctly salty, smooth finish — but perhaps more importantly, they're buying the story: The Croxtons' great-grandfather farmed oysters from the Bay in the late 1800s, when they were so plentiful ships had trouble navigating up the channel. After 80 years or so of overfishing and disease, the oysters disappeared and the Bay got a reputation for being a polluted waterway.
“Our thing right now is to really try to get the Cheseapeake Bay back on the map,” says Ryan Croxton, and more specifically, Topping, a tiny community in Middlesex County. “We really want to try to make it Oyster City, USA.”
The Croxtons are helping to bring back the native oyster, slowly, by creating their own tiny ecosystems in hundreds of small cages. They buy seedlings from oyster hatcheries — a genetically superior breed, known as champions — that are more disease-resistant than wild oysters. Then they grow them to a sustainable size in an oversized bathtub called an upweller, which uses river water, for about a month before dropping the baby oysters into the river. (Their grandfather purchased wild oyster seeds and then harvested them naturally).
After 10 to 18 months, the Croxtons pull the cages out of the water and the oysters are the perfect size, with deep cups for easy sipping. The oysters are then shipped to some of the finest restaurants in the country, such as Daniel Boulud's restaurants in New York, Alan Wong's in Honolulu and Equinox in Washington. Not to mention Richmond's finest, including Lemaire at the Jefferson, Mezzanine, 1 North Belmont and new French bistro Bouchon.
Their numbers are small compared with some of the larger oyster operations in the Bay. Rappahannock River Oysters ships between 25,000 and 35,000 oysters a week, a little more than a million a year. In Virginia alone, between 30 million and 40 million Bay oysters made it to market in 2008. The Croxtons, however, are doing something the others aren't: rebranding Chesapeake Bay oysters as a delicacy, like fine wine, aged from the late 1800s. Wholesale, the Croxtons premium oysters sell for between 75 cents and 80 cents apiece; the average wild oyster sells for 20 cents to 40 cents.
“For the longest time, we had a real hard time getting good local oysters,” says Todd Gray, head chef at Equinox in Washington. Gray grew up in Fredericksburg and knew the Bay oysters from experience — the family Thanksgiving tradition of grilling them until they pop open — and didn't need much convincing when the Croxtons stopped by his restaurant in October of 2004, to drop off a few samples. He began buying from the Croxtons a few days later. The Chincoteague oysters, big and salty sweet, are hard to resist, he says. And the Croxtons routinely deliver a taste that's consistent, long a problem in the wild oyster business. “It's nice to see them come back,” Gray says, recalling how the cousins weren't exactly high-end restaurant guys. On one trip to Equinox, Gray served the Croxtons their own oysters from the bar, and Travis and Ryan both started eating the decorative rock salt. (“We were sitting there thinking, ‘Man, does Todd know this tastes like shit?'” Ryan recalls.) It's all part of the Croxton narrative; just two average guys doing their best to preserve a family tradition and help bring back the Bay.
“That was an easy sell,” Gray says.
It wasn't so easy in the beginning. The Croxtons stumbled into the oyster business almost by accident. Their grandfather, William Arthur Croxton, had long told Ryan and Travis Croxton's fathers that oyster farming was too difficult, that it wasn't worth the time and effort. When business was good, it was great — and vice versa. In 1954, for example, Hurricane Hazel wiped out the elder Croxton's entire oyster crop, and his entire fleet of boats, in one fell swoop.
It's a tough business — literally. Back in the 1800s it wasn't uncommon for oystermen to get into shooting matches over territory, in what some still refer to as the oyster wars. For farmers looking to supplement their incomes, dredging oysters during the fall and winter months became a huge business in the Bay. Glouchester native Roger Green, a wild oysterman and grizzled seaman for the last 45 years, showed up at Locklies on Halloween to get his due, hoping to pull an average 24 bushels a day, at 300-350 oysters per bushel. Green, 54, has been oystering on the side since he was nine or 10 years old.
“Watermen you know, the oystermen are good people, and there are not many left,” he says.
There's good reason. Years of overfishing and widespread disease had killed off most of the wild oyster population by the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1800s, Virginia was producing between 7 million and 8 million bushels a year from the Bay — roughly 1.5 billion oysters — but by the 1930s production had dropped to fewer than 3 million bushels a year, says Tommy Leggett, Virginia oyster restoration and fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Oystermen over-dredged the oyster reefs and the population couldn't keep up.
Diseases wiped out even more, and by the late 1980s Virginia oystermen were pulling a meager 19,000 bushels a year from the Bay, as few as 4 million oysters. Slowly, though, through new farming methods and the rise of aquaculture — in which genetically superior oyster seedlings are purchased from hatcheries and grown in cages in the water — the Bay started making a comeback in the new century.
Ryan Croxton had heard about a new trend in which small weekend oyster gardeners grew them in small cages or floats. When their family's old oyster grounds came up for renewal in 2002, the Croxton cousins decided to renew for fear of losing a piece of family history (the state regulates who can grow oysters and where). They quickly realized they didn't need all 150 acres — the regulations were put in place to control wild oyster farming, not aquaculture, which only requires a few acres. But they were already committed.
After a year or so of experimenting, the Croxtons realized they were sitting on a gold mine. The Bay could still produce great oysters — the brackish waters and the abundance of seafood and plant life still give half shells that distinct Rappahannock River flavor. By 2004, they were ready to start selling, and they set the bar high. The first big pitch went to renowned French chef Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin in New York.
“I called up the restaurant. … and they said, ‘No, you can't speak to Eric,'” Ryan Croxton remembers, explaining that he got through to Ripert's assistant, who thought their story was cute and relayed the message. “She thought it was cute. He thought it was cute,” Croxton says. “We went up. He bought them. It worked out beautifully.”
On the way back to Le Bernardin the cousins stopped by Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar and Shafer City Oyster Bar, also in New York, to hone their sales pitch. They sold to all three. The first year, they sold about 300 oysters a week and struggled to keep up with the demand. It was a tough, difficult grind, but selling the oysters was the easy part — at first. They were continuing the family business, little oyster farmers in Virginia, helping to clean up the Bay and make the water cleaner, less polluted. Literally. Oysters are nature's natural filters. A single bivalve can filter 50 gallons of water a day. So selling more oysters means a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, and cleaner waters means more sunlight gets through, spurring the growth of grasses and plant life, and hopefully one day, the reemergence of wild oyster reefs.
The Croxtons got in on the ground floor of the aquaculture movement in the Bay, which produced just 840,000 oysters in 2005. From 2005 to 2006, the number of aquaculture oysters farmed out of the Bay jumped 73 percent, to 3.15 million. The number grew to 4.8 million in 2007 and increased another 51 percent in 2008 when Virginia produced 9.8 million aquaculture oysters. (The larger oyster operators in the Bay have begun to take notice and have started their own aquaculture operations.)
Getting the first orders might have been easier than expected, but maintaining those relationships is another matter. The Croxtons are constantly jetting across the country courting new chefs. The week before Halloween they were in Las Vegas, in early November they were in New York for a photo shoot with Tom Colicchio — the Croxtons are appearing in his latest cookbook, “Harvest to Heat.” In mid-October they held a viewing of their recent appearance on PBS' “Chefs A' Field” at Comfort, a hip soul food restaurant in Richmond, late on a Friday night as the bar overflowed with young professionals and college-aged students.
Their slogan: “Swallow the Leader.”
“We do it the hard way,” Travis Croxton explains of the marketing and sales strategy, which causes its share of family stress. Travis, 34, has two young children, 4, and 1, and a third on the way; and Ryan, 39, has his first child due in January. “We work with each chef, figure out their rhythm,” he says. “It makes for a very complex scenario. It's a stressful, logistical nightmare.”
And it's not even a full-time job. Both still live in Richmond — Ryan lives in the Fan; Travis in Hanover County. And both still work day jobs — Ryan works in marketing and Travis in finance at a local financial institution — though they're edging closer to the dream of oyster farming. The Croxtons hired a full-time director to run the oyster farms, Anthony Marchetti, and have three farms with three separate brands — sweet Rappahannock River oysters; mildly salty Stingray oysters; and heavy salt Olde Salts oysters and clams. Through a cooperative with the Cheseapeake Bay Foundation, they also sell Barcat oysters, grown largely by former wild oystermen and small-time farmers using aquaculture techniques.
Walter Bundy, executive chef at Lemaire, has been selling Rappahannock River oysters since the beginning in 2005. “They just kind of knocked on my door,” Bundy recalls of their early courtship. “They seemed like a bunch of intelligent young guys.” Bundy is also familiar with the Bay — his family has a house in Deltaville where he likes to go rock fishing — and he liked the pitch. He sells all of the Croxton oysters, minus the Barcats, and says their story is something that resonates with his customers.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, the owners of the new Bouchon in Shockoe Slip met with the Croxtons at Locklies and immediately put in their order. Like Bundy at Lemaire, they're selling all but the Barcat and the reception has been strong.
“We've been looking for a while to get a good oyster,” says Wendy Kalif, who co-owns Bouchon with her husband, Francis Devilliers. “We really liked what the owners are doing. We placed an order that day.”
Their impact on the Bay is already being felt, says Tommy Leggett, the oyster and fisheries scientist with the foundation. Leggett also runs his own oyster business, Chessie Seafood, but says the Croxtons are getting the Chesapeake Bay's name out better than anyone. “I'm depending on them,” Leggett says.
After renovating Locklies Marina in April, the Croxtons say they're close to becoming dependent on their business. They hope to open an oyster and wine-tasting room at the marina, and eventually a restaurant, and they give out packets — T-shirts, DVDs and brochures — whenever they can.
The recession has been tough on the business, says Ryan Croxton, but they've managed to maintain consistent sales. They recently began offering their Barcat oysters shucked, Ryan Croxton says, already removed from the shells — the way most oysters are sold. It's early yet, but a foray into shucked oysters opens a much larger potential market.
The Croxtons decline to release revenue figures for the business, but they say the company has been profitable since 2007. Keeping their day jobs has allowed to them to pump more of the profits back into the business — it allowed them to buy Locklies Marina, for example, via an Internal Revenue Service auction in December 2008 for $512,000, property records show. Soon, they hope to be in a position to devote their full-time attention to the business, Ryan Croxton says.
“It's a transition we're hoping to make very soon,” he says.
Time will soon come when they can soak in the beauty of the Bay, Locklies Marina, and begin reaping what they've sown.
Then, perhaps, the beauty won't be so fleeting.