20 Years of Oysters

A lucky break helped put the Croxtons’ Rappahannock Oyster Co. on the map.

Rappahannock River Oysters, Ryan Croxton

(Photo by Tyler Daren)

Consider the oysterman: Ryan Croxton, who co-owns Rappahannock Oyster Co. with his cousin Travis, is a man quick to smile, with tousled hair, and a squint that recalls generations of Croxtons looking out over sun-dappled water. His ancestors left England to settle the shores of the Rappahannock River in the 1670s. “I still find it peculiar that they were adventurous enough to set sail for an uncharted continent—and then not move an inch for 300 years,” Ryan says. “Or maybe that just speaks to where they landed.” 

In Topping, where the oysters are farmed and brought right up to the tables at Merrior, their cornerstone restaurant, it is hard to imagine wanting to leave.

“My great-grandfather, 27 at the time and a full-time farmer, took out a lease for two acres on the Rappahannock and thus put us on the map as ‘watermen,’” Ryan says. “The date was Nov. 24, 1899. We still have the lease. But he was just a seasonal oysterman. It would be my grandfather who turned it into a full-fledged business—what Rappahannock Oyster Co. is today.”

Not for the Faint of Heart

His grandfather, however, told his son—no doubt within earshot of the grandchildren—to stay out of the oyster business. For it was, and is, tumultuous, precarious, and difficult.

So Ryan didn’t think about oysters. He went to college, got a job, and in 2002, he wrote an article about people who had begun tending small-scale oyster gardens for the inaugural issue of this very magazine. Of course he and Travis were among them.

“At that time, it was a hobby,” says Ryan. “I was working at Capital One. Our grandfather had passed away in ’91, and his 10-year oyster license had come up for renewal in 2001. I had never thought of oysters prior to then. That’s when I started digging into it, and that was the genesis of the article. Then I did a bunch of features for Garland Pollard (Virginia Living’s first editor), including one on Tangier, which I think was a cover story. That was a fun one.”

Oystering stayed a hobby for a few years. He wrote of his grandfather’s warning: “Oystering wasn’t for the faint of heart. Exhilaration, exasperation, wealth, and bankruptcy—these were its fruits. An industry plagued with Old Testament furies and Vegas odds.” The warning went unheeded. 

Cold Call: Le Bernardin

Rappahannock River Oysters, Ryan Croxton

“By 2004, we had enough product to sell,” says Ryan. “We got a Zagat’s guide to see what was the number one restaurant in New York. It was Le Bernardin. So we called up the reservation line and asked to speak to the chef—as if that was something you could even do.” 

The best food—the ramps, the chèvre, the foraged mushrooms—has always arrived via cold calls and furtive knocks on the back door. Ryan and Travis might have been throwing darts, but they hit the bullseye: Le Bernardin is on the very short list of the foremost seafood restaurants in the world.

Chef Eric Ripert “did them a solid,” Ryan says, and not only became their first account, but, “told us what to charge, how to ship the product. We didn’t even know how to shuck an oyster.” 

He must be kidding. 

“When we stood in front of the chef at Le Bernardin, hoping to score our first account,” recalls Ryan, “we struggled enough that the chef took pity and asked if he could just shuck them himself. We’ve since upped our shucking game.” 

A Thriving Environment

The Virginia oyster business is booming. Rappahannock Oyster Co. now comprises six restaurants, including one in Los Angeles, another in Charleston, plus two apiece in Virginia and D.C., and a thriving mail order business. Their annual oyster harvest exceeds that of the entire state’s in 2002, the year they started. Back then, people didn’t really harvest or eat Virginia oysters, because there weren’t any left.

“Our pathetic oyster population was due to one thing: gluttony,” Ryan says. “We simply took too much. Tragedy of the commons.”

Rappahannock River Oysters, Ryan Croxton

Oysters are filter feeders, drawing water through their gills and filtering out nutrients and solids. Each oyster can filter many gallons of water each day, and depleting the population decimated the habitat. The solution? Ryan suggests we simply: “Eat more Bay oysters and we’ll plant more oysters, and the Chesapeake will be better for it.” 

Properly done, oystering is beyond sustainable. Oysters are restorative. The oyster gardeners Ryan wrote about knew this. “Over the last 150 years, oystermen have gone from hunter-gatherers to farmers to aquaculturalists.”

The modern oyster business is marked by an intense respect for interconnectedness, for Robert Muir’s idea that, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

“The environment is literally our workshop,” says Ryan. “You can’t have a thriving industry absent a thriving environment.” RROysters.com 

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue.

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