Bivalve Revival

A decade ago, on a whim, cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton decided to revive their family’s old oyster business.

 

There are many fine things to do in autumn, and eating seafood on the water is definitely one of them. Rappahannock River Oyster Co., based in Middlesex County, grows some distinctively tasty oysters that have become a favorite with restaurant chefs in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond—and so we thought it might be fun to get together with Travis and Ryan Croxton, who have been running RRO for the last decade, and throw a little seafood party featuring their bivalves and other great food prepared by talented cooks.

A good idea, if we say so ourselves. Chefs from D.C., McLean, Richmond, Virginia Beach and Roanoke—all friends of the Croxton men— made their way to Locklies Marina in Topping, where RRO is based, and there they prepared, for family, friends and fellow cooks, a small feast that included pork belly, roasted oysters with butter compote, oyster pan roast, raw oysters with mignonette sauce and clam ceviche. Yes, it was that good.

Doris The Crab Lady, a commercial crabber whom Ryan Croxton calls “a local legend,” prepared piles of steamed crabs, and even revealed a secret or two. She seasons only with Old Bay—“straight”—and Budweiser. “Not junk, but Budweiser,” she says. The crabs went quickly, as did all of the scrumptious seafood, not to mention more than a few bottles of Montrachet and, for dessert, a Virginia Peanut Pie that sent everyone into a state of mute satisfaction. And then we all watched the last rays of the day’s sun glance off the river that had sourced this feast—and asked each other when we could do it again.

Bivalve Revival

A decade ago, on a whim, cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton decided to revive their family’s old oyster business. They knew nothing except how to grow oysters. That’s proved enough: Scores of restaurants now sell Rappahannock River Oysters, and as Travis Croxton quips: “We’ve succeeded in spite of ourselves.”

Almost any time of day, any time of year, the little point of land at the end of Locklies Creek Road in Topping, Middlesex County, is dead quiet, save for the hum of an ice freezer on the porch of Locklies Marina. Inside the two-room establishment, a lone employee mans the counter, ready to peddle bloodworms or Vienna sausages, whichever the occasion calls for. Outside, on an unseasonably blustery June morning, another man sits at a picnic table overlooking a vast expanse of water, laptop and cell phone in hand.

Today is order day, and Anthony Marchetti, director of operations for Rappahannock River Oysters (RRO), is going over his list of 60-odd restaurants with which the company deals directly. He’s ringing each client to make sure they get the product they need, when they need it. By week’s end, RRO will have shipped as many as 50,000 oysters to dozens of restaurants from here to Honolulu. “Our clients know when I call them that our oysters are still in the water,” says Marchetti. “We don’t pull them up and hope to sell them.”

After slogging along in relative anonymity for 100 years, even going dormant, Rappahannock River Oysters is now back in business and making a name for itself. The company’s bivalves have impressed some renowned chefs and gourmets around the country—among them “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio, owner of the restaurant Craftsteak, and Daniel Boulud of Daniel in New York City, both of whom have featured RRO’s oysters on their menus. Ryan Croxton says that his firm’s signature Rappahannocks are distinctive because “they are sweet oysters, not briny.” So distinctive that in his 2007 book, A Geography of Oysters, author Rowan Jacobsen named Rappahannock River oysters as one of the 12 North American oysters readers “should know.”

The little company’s success is almost accidental. “It started out as a nostalgic hobby,” says Ryan Croxton, 40, who, together with his cousin Travis, decided in 2001, over a couple of beers, to revive a family business that dates back to 1899. That’s when the Croxton’s great grandfather, a dirt farmer named James Arthur Croxton Jr., started raising oysters to earn some money in the colder months. Their grandfather, William Arthur Croxton Sr., then turned the company into a viable business, acquiring half-a-dozen boats and wholesaling the oysters to companies like Campbell’s Soup. Neither man had envisioned building a large oyster company—the business was too hard and too fickle. “Our grandfather told our dads to go to college and do something else,” says Ryan. So they did. The cousins followed suit—Travis earning a postgraduate degree in finance, Ryan a postgraduate degree in literature.

When William Croxton died in 1991, RRO pretty much died with him—at least until the Croxton cousins, a decade later, opted to give it a go. “We had no idea what we were doing,” says Ryan. “We didn’t inherit any old boats. We didn’t know anything about pricing. We didn’t know how to get our oysters up [to the northeast]. All we inherited was the company name and our history in oysters—we knew how to grow oysters.”

The two schooled themselves in the finer points of aquaculture, and started from scratch. They bought an upweller, which Ryan describes as a nursery for baby oysters, and filled it with seed bought from a hatchery. Once the babies were big enough to be caged (after three to four weeks), they dropped the cages around the bay and waited for them to mature. When the oysters reached ideal size—three inches in diameter—the cages were brought up. Ryan Croxton still remembers tasting the first batch: “I thought they were amazing,” he says. “How much of that was pride and nostalgia, I couldn’t tell you.”

The Croxtons then began soliciting restaurant business—and figured they might as well start at the top, in New York City. Le Bernardin, an iconic French/seafood house, was their first call. “We called the reservation line and asked to speak to the chef,” recalls Ryan. “They said no, so I gave them the spiel about how we started up our great grandfather’s oyster company.” Ten minutes later, the Croxtons had a call back and a meeting was scheduled with the chef de cuisine. After that breakthrough, the cousins set their sights on two other targets—Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, a hot restaurant at the time, and Shaffer City Oyster Bar, whose owner had recently said in a magazine story that he’d never buy an oyster from south of Long Island.

“We decided to cut our teeth on the hottest and the hardest sells,” says Ryan. The next weekend, they packed up a few hundred oysters and headed to Manhattan—and by Sunday, those two restaurants and Bernardin had placed orders. “We were in the finest restaurants during the day, and at night we were eating at White Castle in Brooklyn,” says 35-year-old Travis. “We succeeded in spite of ourselves.”

Indeed. The cousins now lease 150 acres of oyster grounds from the state, and Ryan says that last year the firm moved 1.2 million oyster pieces—selling to wholesalers and directly to restaurants.

Because RRO grows oysters in different spots around the bay, Marchetti, who runs the firm’s day-to-day operations, asserts that the bivalves present a variety of flavors. And RRO has started branding and marketing them accordingly. In addition to its trademarked Rappahannocks. the firm sells Stingrays, which have a medium level of salinity, and Olde Salts, which Ryan says are “so salty they hurt.”

Getting the oysters to distant markets, quickly, is not a problem. Marchetti says mature oysters are bagged on the boat, packed and hauled to the airport by RRO employees. From there they are typically air-shipped to customers. The oysters are almost always on a restaurant table within a day.

Chefs value RRO because there are never any unwanted surprises. “I like their size and their consistency,” says Julian Serrano, executive chef at Picasso at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. “The flavors don’t change.” Buyers also appreciate the company’s accountability. “I have a direct line to the guys who know more about their product than anyone else,” says Matt Seeber, executive chef at Craftsteak in Las Vegas. “I’m educated on the product more so than if there was a sales rep or midddleman involved.” Even more importantly, he says, “If something goes wrong with the supply chain, they’re calling me on the phone and letting me know.”

With the firm’s 10-year anniversary looming, the Croxtons seem in a mood to take another chance or two. They’re mulling ways to turn their serene little spot at Locklies Marina into a tourist destination. “We want to open an oyster and wine tasting bar,” says Ryan, “so you can taste the flavors and pair them with wines.” They cousins have an off-premise ABC license, and next plan to seek licensing for a restaurant. They say their oyster and wine tasting bar could be a reality within a year. When that happens, Topping might not be so quiet any more. “It won’t be rowdy,” says Ryan. “But we hope it will be busy.” 

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