How Real Oyster Cult Is Bringing Bivalves to the People

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The oyster industry is having a moment. With consistent year-over-year growth, and blossoming consumer demand, more and more new farms are coming on line.

Rob Knecht, who has run his family’s oyster farm in Duxbury, Mass., for the past 12 years, compares oysters to where the wine industry was around 1988 — just on the cusp of a major pivot point. While certainly it’s possible to find good oysters at restaurants all along the coasts, he sees growing demand in the middle of the country and around the world for these salty bivalves.

In order to help farmers meet that demand and find new markets, Knecht and his wife Sims McCormick founded Real Oyster Cult, a tech platform that connects oyster farmers with consumers around the country. SeaAhead caught up with Knecht recently to talk about how the company is using tech to bring oysters further into the mainstream.

Tell me a little bit about what Real Oyster Cult does and where you see the technology expanding.

We currently partner with over 70 different oyster farms from all over North America, and also select farms outside of that scope. We tell their farmer story on our ecommerce and mobile app platform and we allow consumers to be able to get oysters delivered to their door. We’re offering access to varied different products on a weekly basis. We have a rotating selection, so a lot of oysters you’d never be able to get outside of New York City or Boston or San Francisco or maybe at a higher-end fish market or a higher-end restaurant — now you can get them delivered to your door.

Then it’s also access for the farmers to tell their story on our platform. The way they farm, where they farm, and a little bit of their story.

As of now, all our farmed oyster products come to a facility in Boston, and then from there we ship them out direct to consumers’ doors. We had looked at a model where you get an order and the farmer fills it directly — the problem with that is a lot of farmers don’t have a certified facility.  We also have a lot of customers.

Part of our unique ecommerce platform is that you can order 20 Malpeques or Saint Simons from New Brunswick and then 20 Standish Shore from Duxbury and maybe some from Rhode Island, and you can get that different blend or mix of different oysters — almost like a tasting flight.

Do you do restaurant orders?

We are only direct-to-consumer at the moment. We have some direct-to-chef customers queued up and we’re going to launch that platform shortly, but we’re in a fundraise right now so all of our time is in getting that ready to go and servicing our existing customers.

We also have an oyster of the month club and a membership model where you can get 20, 40, or 60 oysters delivered to your door every month and we hand select those oysters and they are ones that aren’t normally on our platform or are in the height of season.

Did you start out looking for an oyster problem that you could solve with technology?

As a farmer for about eight or nine years I realized how antiquated the industry was, and in parallel I was also working for this technology company. I realized that that there were existing technologies that, coupled with oyster industry knowledge, could really help the industry. Specifically for the farmer but also to address the lack of options as a retail customer as well.

Do you find that oyster farmers are generally resistant to technology?

It depends who it is. I think it has a lot to do with age. The older farmers in the industry are just used to doing it the way they do it, and they’re going to keep doing it that way, and change may come about where it’s forced upon them — which it has been in certain parts of our industry, with online reporting and things like that.

But I think some of the young new farmers or second-, third-, fourth-generation farmers that are taking over for their fathers or grandfathers definitely are seeking to use technology. The younger farmers, they all have smartphones, they’re using technology and they want to make their lives easier and more seamless, and more effective in their businesses as well.

Raw oysters are a very specific thing and shucking can be pretty hard. I hear you go on tour to show people how to shuck. What’s that all about?

We do pop-ups where we’ll go to a bar or sometimes a restaurant or a meeting space where they don’t normally have oysters and we’ll pair up with things like Blue Point Brewery out of Long Island — and they’ll come in and supply the beer and then we’ll supply the oysters and we have like a “Shuck Yourself” event where people learn how to shuck. And we have steel gloves for them so they don’t hurt themselves, they can get really comfortable with it, and then “Hey, you can have this experience delivered to your door.”

Is the shucking a limiting factor for people who would order oysters online? I love oysters but I once almost cut my hand off trying to shuck one and so I’d probably think twice before doing it myself in my house.

I used to be a chef in a kitchen and I cut myself even as a professional chef so… there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. It’s using the right tools, using the right shucking knife. Having shucking gloves really helps, or if you don’t have one we teach how to use a towel, just a normal kitchen towel, to kind of triple fold it and really protect your hand while you’re shucking so if you do miss, which I do sometimes, too — and I’ve shucked hundreds of pounds of oysters — you can protect yourself.

So part of our platform, too, is education and that’s why we do a lot of these pop-ups. Because it’s hard to get that confidence just by watching a video.

Do you have any plans to expand to other seafood or other kinds of foods, or is it like very specifically oysters?

We already have expanded so right now on our platform you could get what we call our “Party in a Box” — steamers and muscles and oysters. And that’s kind of fun thing for folks to do as a dinner option — we provide recipe links.

So we do plan on doing more of that really specifically in seafood. We don’t really have any plans to start shipping out steaks or other items.  An oyster is a perishable item and you have to make sure it is alive when you get the oyster — and it’s very, very fresh because we reduce that shipping time as part of our tech. We’re reducing the supply chain by sometimes up to a week and a half by the time you get it in the basic market or something like that, so we’re really assuring you a very, very fresh product.

Now that you’ve developed this system for cutting out the middleman and making shipping faster for very perishable items, are there other perishable items that could be similarly put onto the platform?

We’ve talked with people we met at a competition out in Stanford about spirulina, we’ve talked to people about seaweed and doing things like that, but we really want to build this [oyster] community. The oyster industry has been growing 20 to 22 percent on average the last 18 years so it’s had really steady growth, and the way we’re going as a population not only in the US but globally. ...

The only way we’re going to get out of the [global] protein crunch we’re going to have by 2050 is through aquaculture, and lots of our people with an eye on science have sort of studied and realized that an oyster is the greenest protein source on earth. It doesn’t require any feed. Next to that is fin fish, but then inversely you go up to cows which are the worst, so it’s just not sustainable, right?  

When you say it’s “growing 20 percent a year,” is that as a result as just more people wanting to eat oysters or is it that farms are expanding and there’s more product available?

It’s both. It’s the chicken or the egg. Did the farms come first or did the supply come first? To give you an idea, Duxbury, Mass., where I grow oysters — there’s 30 farms there. Twenty-two years ago there was two farms. And then 25 years ago there was no farms. So now there’s 30 farms and it’s capped because of resources of the town. We’ve become the largest producer of landed oysters in the state, and I still can sell every oyster I grow.

So that just shows you the demand curve, and then also I read an article in our town magazine that last year there was 1000 either new restaurants or restaurants that put oysters on their menu in the United States. In one year! I wouldn’t even say that the coasts are saturated, but it’s really pushing out. We’re really seeing that in our data, too, where we have members in Iowa and Kansas City and Cincinnati and Cleveland, and different areas in Kentucky, they’re just craving high-quality seafood and not getting it. And New Mexico, Arizona, and so we’re getting these customer hot spots.

Are there any other big challenges that the farmers have that could be addressed with technology?

There’s some things that we’re looking at to help farmers. We’re looking at incorporating blockchain from farm to table … a reporting system, obviously would require buy-in on both ends, and then the wholesaler in the middle which is us.  

They would help farms with reporting, but the issue with some farmers is the liability where you eat oysters and get sick. It happens. Is the farmer to blame or were there six wholesalers that touched that product and maybe one of them their cooler broke or didn’t have proper refrigeration? There’s really literally no way to track that now. But with blockchain there can be temperature monitors involved in that and obviously a ledger that you can’t falsify.

It would help with reporting so if you did get sick the farmer would know right away and then if it did come from the farm, that farm can be remediated, shut down, whatever it is that needs to happen instead of all the farms. Right now, if someone gets sick from Duxbury oysters and there’s two incidences in one week, the whole bay gets shut down. That’s 30 farmers, hundreds of people. Employees with all those farms and their families get impacted by that.  So things like that would really help, too.

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David Hirschman is SeaAhead’s VP Content. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.