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How one US firm is cultivating an 'oyster renaissance'

The company has consumer-facing operations that rival destination wineries and microbreweries.

It's not often you find a seafood company profiled in Vogue, but such is the charmed life of Duxbury, Massachusetts-based oyster farm Island Creek Oysters (ICO).

"It's an oyster renaissance," Island Creek's founder and owner Skip Bennett, told IntraFish.

Since Bennett founded the company in 1995, ICO has transformed into an aquaculture empire in New England, with operations that rival destination wineries and microbreweries.

The company grows oysters year-round and sells over 12 million annually -- double what it sold in 2016.

A return to a simpler format

The oyster's move away from only being available through high-end, three-course meals to more accessible restaurant formats is actually more of a return to form, Bennett noted.

He pointed to the rich 19th-century history of New York City, which made oysters accessible to the rich and poor through bars, street markets, hotels and in everyday recipes.

To date ICO has a Duxbury retail shop, an impressive online store, runs successful restaurants in Boston and Burlington and has a distribution facility and raw bar in Portland, Maine. The business also funds a foundation whose mission is to promote aquaculture.

The company also has been successful in attracting Millenials to seafood, said Chris Sherman, ICO's president. The company's unique consumer-facing operations, which allow customers to tour and taste Island Creek's oyster products, have been both a way to educate people about aquaculture and also bring in new customers, he said.

From oyster farm to table

The company's latest eatery, called The Raw bar, opened this July and is part of ICO's new 11-acre property in Duxbury it purchased for $8 million (€7 million) last November.

The site allows ICO to operate its existing hatchery, farm, distribution company and non-profit foundation from one location as opposed to being split across multiple sites.

The Raw Bar's scenic patio location features tinned fish, local craft beer, rosé, red and white wine and lawn games all in a casual environment steps from the water.

"We're one of the few places where you can go out on the farm and see oysters, see the hatchery where they begin their life, and after the tour, sit on the patio and have a glass of wine," said Bennett.

The Raw Bar just closed for the season but preliminary numbers show visitors shy of 2,000 per week visiting simply to eat there.

E-commerce is also growing

The company's distribution center is also much larger at 6,000 square feet from the 1,800-square-foot space Island Creek previously occupied.

"We had outgrown all of our space," Bennett said, adding the company resorted to using temporary coolers and storage pods to keep up with orders prior to moving.

E-commerce is the fastest growing area for Island Creek, and has ramped up in recent years, according to Bennett and Sherman.

Island Creek's online store features anywhere from 50 and up to 200-count oysters from its Duxbury farm, as well as sampler packages where customers can try Island Creek oysters along with other farm's offerings throughout New England.

The company buys from close to 100 oyster farms located up and down the East Coast and represents those brands to 700 chefs, Bennett said.

Perceptions of oyster cultivation changing

Being a poster child for sustainable aquaculture wasn't the case even a decade ago, according to Bennett and Sherman.

The two described the stark difference between Duxbury residents enthusiastically endorsing the company purchasing its 11-acre property against the pushback Bennett received when he embarked on farming oysters in Duxbury decades ago.

"Over time the brand has grown, it has become a point of pride for the community," Sherman said. "We've had a tremendous groundswell of support."

Sherman said Island Creek was one of the first oyster farm operations in Massachusetts. Today, there are 370 oyster farms in the state -- a testimony to the momentum the movement has.

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