China’s growing appetite for raw oysters
“I want to bring oyster culture to China,” said Chris Herbert, a Canadian seafood importer and co-owner of the Starfish seafood restaurant and oyster bar in Beijing.
Starfish seems well located, opposite the embassy of Canada, a favorite emigration destination among China’s wealthy. Business is brisk for the co-owners, Herbert and his Taiwanese-American partner Alisha Bailey. The duo has oysters flown in from Seattle once a week. Most of the oysters come from the Oregon oyster farm of Liu Xin, who’s originally from Qingdao, the Chinese seafood processing hub. Liu’s other customers in China include local restaurants offering oysters as a premium ingredient in hot pot, a popular style of communal dining, especially in northern China.
On its busiest day since opening in October, Starfish served up 15 oyster varieties from five countries, and the restaurant has lately started offering South African oysters. French balans-type oysters sell at RMB 100 per piece, compared to RMB 30 for each Oregon house oyster and RMB 45 per piece for kumamoto oysters.
Eating raw oysters is a relatively new concept to China, explained Herbert, “though sushi has caught on in first tier and southern coast cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou.” He and Bailey target younger Chinese consumers open to Western culture and raw seafood. Affluence helps, too. Air freight as well as a 13 percent import duty and 17 percent VAT means Starfish has to charge twice what Seattle restaurants charge. Herbert said Starfish is forced to charge at least double New York prices for Oregon’s Yaquina Bay, Starfish’s “house” oyster.
China is the world’s top producer of oysters, but local supply tends to be bland partly because of water challenges — 80 percent of local waterways are, after all, polluted to some degree by government estimations. The bulk of Chinese output is used in oyster sauce, a condiment for Chinese cooking, as well as smoked oysters and sub-premium tinned product sold on supermarket shelves.
Just as oysters have become part of bar culture among a trendy young U.S. and Canadian set, oyster shots at midnight have become de rigeur for revelers on the Hong Kong Lung Kwai Fok bar strip, said Herbert. “Things catch on in Hong Kong and then spread to Beijing and Shanghai,” he explained.
Aside from oysters, Starfish’s most popular dishes include scallops and flounder as well as Maryland blue crab. Starfish’s only local inputs are crabs for crab cakes. The seafood import firm Herbert runs, Jetfresh, had considered importing salmon or lobster but felt the market was already crowded with the likes of Canada’s Clearwater Seafoods and Norway’s salmon producers. Also there are lower mortality rates in shipments of oysters compared to lobsters. Herbert has also been attracted by the relative affordability of entry to oyster culture compared to lobsters, “for which you need RMB 500 to experience whereas you can try a selection of oysters for about RMB 180.”
Aside from building Starfish’s business, Herbert and Bailey want to hire local sales staff to drive its distribution business. The duo believes there’s a niche for a supplier like Starfish/Jetfresh, which can offer good service and traceability. Local chefs, said Herbert and Bailey, are frustrated that local distributors offer little choice compared to their Western counterparts, who seek to anticipate chefs needs while also offering new products. “They’re not customer driven,” they said.
Also, explained Herbert, local suppliers tend to mix oysters in large pools and are unable to specify where the oysters originated. There’s also little appreciation of the regional distinctions in U.S. oysters. Traceability is the reason why Starfish doesn’t engage local suppliers. Bailey said it’s tempting to go to local markets to restock, but the difficulty in tracing product there makes it too risky. “We vetoed that idea pretty quick,” she said.
Bailey said Chinese consumers are brand conscious, and Gillardeaux oysters have become synonymous with premium in the same way that Bordeaux-based Lafitte has become a local byword for high-end wine in China. Three oyster condos on the window, running water, draw the attention of passersby and thus generates business. Herbert said large storage areas are unnecessary given that demand means oysters can be sold as fast as they arrive. Herbert is satisfied that most Starfish customers have revisited at least once. A particularly good customer is a Taiwanese businessman who entertains local business partners at Starfish. Another local businessman and his wife have become regulars.
“They order two dozen oysters each visit,” said Hebert.