Capital City Oyster Co. seeks to become pearl of the Pacific Northwest
Seattle Shellfish and Alaska Ice Seafoods, the kings of the geoduck business in the Pacific Northwest, are seeking to add pearls to their crowns by expanding into the farming and sale of premium oysters.
Partnering with master farmer Tom Bloomfield, they have formed Capital City Oyster Co., with the goal of producing 5.5 million dozen oysters on more than 60 farms in the waters of Puget Sound in Washington state
“Tom is a fifth-generation oyster farmer, and with his expertise and our experience having built the largest farmed geoduck producer in the world, we think we can be very successful,” said Cody Mills, the president of Alaska Ice Seafoods and Capital City Oyster.
Capital City Oysters is based in University Place, Washington and is named after the nearby state capital, Olympia, Mills said.
“Oysters were a major part of Olympia’s history and were famous throughout the West, all the way down to California,” he said. “We wanted to connect our company to that history and hopefully garner the support of the community for what we’re doing.”
Mills said the leaders of Alaska Ice Seafoods and Seattle Shellfish had the idea to expand into oysters years ago, but waited until they had secured the right resources, personnel and information to ensure the venture’s success. Securing the permits for 60-plus farms used for the company’s oyster farming was difficult but not impossible, Mills said. Integral to the launch of the venture was getting Bloomfield on board as a partner.
“We think he’s the best in the world at what he does,” Mills said. “After we got him on board, we asked him, ‘If you could build the best oyster company in the world, how would you do it?’”
Bloomfield offered input on every aspect of the farming process, including designing unique methods for the hatching process and vibrio control. He designed a “tide-tumbling” process that results in a smooth and deep shell, and a suspension system that keeps the oysters in the middle of the water column, where the most nutrients can be found.
“That way, they’re better fed and they’re not sitting in the silt or mud, so they’re very clean when shucked, with no sand or muddy taste,” Mills said.
On the marketing side, Mills is confident his company’s experience growing Alaska Ice’s geoduck sales to USD 200 million (EUR 177 million) over the past 20 years will translate well to oysters. Founded by David Hearn, who got his start fishing with Crusader Fisheries in Alaska before moving into geoduck farming in Washington two decades ago, the company pioneered the marketing of farmed geoduck in Asia, building markets in China and Japan.
“There was a time that nobody wanted farmed geoduck, but David helped educate buyers all over the world, and especially in Asia,” Mills said. “Now geoduck is one of the most expensive seafoods on earth, and it’s one of the only fisheries in the world where the farmed price goes at a premium over wild-caught.”
Hearn succeeded by putting special focus on the look of the product, working with restaurants to improve their displays and making geoduck look “beautiful,” Mills said. Hearn will have an easier job with the oysters being produced by Bloomfield, which are “smooth, light and gorgeous,” Mills said. Taste is just as important, he added, and Bloomfield has worked hard to optimize his oysters’ ‘merroir’ – the environmental factors of a specific habitat, akin to what terrior is to wine.
“The number one thing we hear is how incredibly clean they taste. We define the flavor as a pure, crisp sea-salt flavor with a clean finish,” Mills said. “They’re one of the saltiest oysters coming from Washington state, and that’s all as a result of the type of water and diet they’re raised with – it’s all geographic. All of those factors have been thought about and controlled to some extent by Tom [Bloomfield].”
The Pacific oysters (Crassotrea gigas) raised by Capital City Oysters have a deep cup, a more delicate shell and a longer horn, making them harder to shuck for those unfamiliar with the process, which is different than that used for other oysters. To address the potential issues shuckers may encounter with the oysters, the company created a professional-quality video (https://capitaloyster.com/shuck/) describing the best way to shuck a Capital City oyster.
Capital City Oysters are already being sold in high-end restaurants around the country, including several well-known seafood restaurants in New York City. The company sells its oysters to restaurants for around USD 15 (EUR 13.25) per dozen, and it expects restaurants to sell them for between USD 3.25 and 3.85 (EUR 2.87 and 3.40) apiece.
The company already has more than 800,000 dozen oysters deployed on its farms, and its short-term goal is to have one million dozen oysters farmed by the end of 2016. In terms of output, it will be a tough task to catch Taylor Shellfish, which annually produces 20 million dozen oysters. But Capital City still has high expectations and ambitious long-term goals, according to Mills.
“We want to have the single-largest supply of premium oysters coming from one company in the country,” he said. “We’ve spent years researching the oyster market in the U.S., Canada and Asia and we think we can do it.”