Three business lessons I learned from Rappahannock River Oysters

I went out to Topping, Virginia to check out the Rappahannock River Oysters farm, learn about their new RVA restaurant, and STEAL ALL OF THEIR SECRETS.

A little over an hour away from Richmond, along the muddy banks of the Rappahannock, sit thousands of delicious oysters happily filtering the river’s water before it pours into the Chesapeake Bay. And, if I had my way, you’d find me sitting there as well, happily pouring beer into my mouth, eating those oysters, and looking out over the water. Luckily, cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton have made it possible to do just that at Merroir,1 their restaurant that sits overlooking their family oyster farm, Rappahannock River Oysters.

A couple months ago I bumped into Ryan at Pasture and bogarted an unreasonable amount of his time asking questions about Rappahannock River Oyster’s origination. He’s just so likeable and obviously stoked on his business that it’s almost impossible not to ask him a hundred questions–the best part is he’ll answer them all. Ryan and Trav (Travis is super friendly and everyone seems to call him “Trav,” which totally works) are in the process of opening a new restaurant in Richmond, named Rappahannock. I thought this would be the perfect excuse to head east, check out their setup, and learn what I could about their oyster farm and their new restaurant.

But secretly, my real goal was to figure out some of the things that make the business of Rappahannock River Oysters so darn successful. Their story is fascinating and filled with lessons for startups, established businesses, entrepreneurs, or even just regular humans who have goals.

Then, after I had learned all of their secrets, I was going to steal them.

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Oysters run (swim? glub while remaining stationary?) in the Croxton family’s blood. Ryan and Trav’s grandfather, William Arthur Croxton Sr., was an oysterman and as such leased several acres of river bottom from the Commonweath. Back then oystering wasn’t all glitz and glamour like it is now, in fact William Croxton convinced his children to forsake the family business. In 1991 William, who owned a ten-year lease on the river bottom, died. Flash forward to 2001, Ryan now worked in publishing and Trav worked at the Federal Reserve, and the pair got a letter warning them that their family was about to lose the lease on the Rappahannock. Rather than let an important piece of Croxton family history disappear forever, the two decided to renew the lease.

I mean, hey, how hard can oyster farming possibly be? And here lies the first lesson:

Don’t sleep on opportunity

For really awesome things to happen in your life you’re going to need a little bit of luck–but only a little bit; after that it’s up to you to do something with it. The Croxtons lucked into a piece of prime oyster-growing river bottom, and, without any oystering experience, decided to make a go of it. Cy Bearer, owner of Richmond’s Bearer Farms, had a Japanese Maple farm and an uncle who was really into beekeeping. Now you’ll find his local, raw honey in stores and restaurants all over the place. Mobelux, a Richmond-based development company with national clients, started by creating a Tumblr iPhone app–which was then bought by Tumblr.

None of these companies applied for round after round of venture capital funding. None of them hope to be acquired by Facebook for a billion dollars. None of them are BFF with Warren Buffett. They each took the bit of luck handed to them and parlayed it into success through a lot of hard work.

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I’d never had raw oysters before Ryan and Trav popped my oyster cherry at a picnic table in Topping, Virginia. Honestly, I was a little stressed going into my first oyster experience. Who wants to shotgun a loogie out of a mollusks, especially in front of the dudes who grew the loogie and make their living selling the loogies? But if there was ever a place to eat a creature recently plucked from the river, it’d be Merroir.

The Crotxtons also lucked into the piece of land on which Merroir sits (they seem to do that a lot). The land’s previous owner, who ran the adjacent marina and salmon-colored bait shack, had come on hard times during one of the recent hurricanes. When the property, which is just an oyster’s throw away from the RRO farm, came on the market, RRO quickly snatched it up. A covered porch, some picnic tables, an outdoor grill, and a coat of white paint turned the bait shack into just about the most perfect place to eat what the bay has to offer.

RRO offers three types of oysters: Rappahannock, Sting Ray, and Olde Salt. All are the same indigenous species, Crassostrea virginica, but are grown in different salinity water which results in oysters that have distinct flavors. I’m pleased to report that they are all delicious! Not only are they all delicious but they don’t taste like, look like, or have the texture of a loogie!

I should have known that RRO has a seriously delicious product on their hands: their oysters are served in some of the world’s best restaurants by the world’s greatest chefs. And so, the next lesson:

Just ask a guy

After deciding to get into the oyster biz, the Croxtons were faced with a problem: neither of them knew how to, you know, grow oysters. So like any denizen of the modern age, they Googled “how to grow oysters.” No, seriously, the current owners of a wildly successful oyster farm, the guys that now own one restaurant and are planning on opening two more, started their empire by looking up how to grow oysters on the Internet. This is almost my favorite part of their story.

Eventually they figured out how to grow oysters and started looking for people who would buy them. So of course they called up Chef Eric Ripert, one of the world’s best chefs who owns one of the world’s best restaurants. Well, you can’t just call Chef Ripert, so they called up the reservation line at one of his restaurants (that’s my favorite part of the story). After some haranguing they scored a meeting with Chef Ripert’s chef de cuisine. Who, after giving the Croxtons some pointers on how to properly shuck oysters, passed them off to Chef Ripert who absolutely loved their product. As you can imagine, having one of the world’s greatest serving your oysters in his restaurant opens a lot of doors for you.

If you want to do something great, don’t be afraid to get in front of the right person. When RRO landed Chef Ripert’s endorsement they instantly had the ear of their entire industry. When Richmonder Marc LaFountain noticed that Tumblr desperately needed to improve their customer support, he emailed Tumblr’s founder David Karp and volunteered to do the job. Marc was Tumblr’s third employee and most of the reason the company has an office in Richmond.

If you never ask, you’ll never know.

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After slurping down my share of oysters, sampling the rest of Merroir’s menu,2 and taking a quick tour of the farm operations (which are equal parts science and five-gallon buckets), we settled back down at the picnic tables for some beers and a chat with Chef Dylan Fultineer. While we waited for Chef Fultineer to finish up in the kitchen, Ryan asked if I wanted to try one of Flying Dog’s oyster stouts. You’ve definitely seen Flying Dog’s brews, the ones with the Ralph Steadman designed labels, in a beer store near you. The Frederick, Maryland-based brewery recently added the oyster stout that they brew with Rappahannock River Oysters to their regular lineup.

Chef Fultineer will head up the kitchen at Rappahannock, RRO’s aptly named and soon-to-open Richmond outpost at 320 E. Grace Street. He’s got loads of experience at some pretty incredible eateries, including Blackbird in Chicago and Hungry Cat in LA. Rappahannock will, obviously, feature oysters and other seafood but will also focus on “composed” dishes, moving away from the recent small plates trend. You’ll be able to eat at the oyster bar (which will dominate the room), order a meal, or maybe even order a whole fish to share. Chef Fultineer is a great score for the Richmond restaurant scene, and he’s a great illustration of a final lesson:

It’s a small world, so shake everyone’s hand

The Croxtons met Chef Dylan in Chicago at one of their many late night chef hangouts. Rather than interrupt the precariously balanced kitchen machine during dinner service, they’ve found that the best time to get their oysters in front of a chef is after last call over a round of beers. They hungout, ate some oysters, and moved on hocking their wares across the country. Then months and months later, just as the Croxtons were thinking about opening a restaurant in Richmond, who emails them about a possible collaboration? Chef Dylan Fultineer!

People say that Richmond is a small town, and that’s true. But, really, the world’s a small town. You never know how the next person you meet will factor into your life–they could be your next salesperson, investor, or head chef. Or they might work at Flying Dog brewery and, after having such an incredible time hanging out with you at a party, suggest collaborating on an oyster stout (true story). You just never know.

Here’s a corollary to this lesson: you gain nothing by being a jerk. If the next person you meet has the power to change your life/business for the better, they might have the power to absolutely grind you into the dirt. Why take the risk? Be nice to people! Don’t talk shit, not in emails, not on Twitter, not at happy hour, not ever. You’ve got too much to lose!

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We finished our beers and Chef Fultineer headed back to the kitchen. I thanked Ryan and Trav for being such gracious hosts and spending the entire day–the entire totally awesome day–with us. Listen, people. If you need to escape, to relax and decompress and have basically the best time ever, head out to Merroir. I’d never want to move to Topping, but dang if it isn’t an amazing place to visit.

And like I suspected, there’s a lot to learn out there on the banks of the Rappahannock. For me, as a small business owner, it’s incredibly encouraging and energizing to meet other business owners and hear their stories. The Rappahannock River Oysters story is so compelling and full of such universally useful lessons that I tell it to everyone I meet. Several times even! Annoyingly! But it really is a story worth telling.

Because if Ryan and Travis started an oyster empire by Googling “how to grow oysters”, what will you do?

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  1. Merroir is a play on the word terroir, a word used to describe how the land on which grapes are grown influences the characteristics of the wine made from those grapes. I can pronounce neither Merroir or terroir
  2. If you don’t try the pan-seared sea scallops with cheddar grits I will never speak to you again. 
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Ross Catrow

Founder and publisher of RVANews.

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