How not to sell oysters

Many years ago, on a soy bean press junket to Peoria (yes, my life is non-stop glamour), I met a man named Brian Wansink. Then at the University of Illinois and now at Cornell, he’s made a career out of studying how environment affects what we eat. Thanks to Wansink, we know that people drink more out of short, fat glasses than tall, skinny ones, and that they eat more off a twelve-inch dinner plate than a ten-inch one. He confirmed that, when a food is labeled “low-fat,” people eat many more calories’ worth of it.

I’ve always paid attention to what Wansink does because it sheds some light on just how malleable our habits are, and how little things around us conspire to seduce us into eating much more than is good for us. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times over the years. I’m a fan.

But there was one experiment that I thought was downright silly. He and his team rigged up soup bowls so they were filled surreptitiously from the bottom as subjects ate from (naturally) the top. He found out – surprise! – that people ate more when their bowl didn’t get emptier than when it did.

I could never convince myself this is useful information.  In real life, we’re likely to encounter short glasses and big plates. Super-stealth refilling soup bowls, not so much.

Well, after this weekend, I stand corrected.

Kevin and I went to New York, for the first time in almost three years, to visit W&T Seafood, our wholesaler, and to go with them to call on some of the chefs who serve our oysters. We started on Friday morning at W&T’s Brooklyn warehouse.

The first thing we noticed when we walked in through the loading dock was that the entire place was spotless, no small accomplishment for tens of thousands of square feet of busy warehouse. It took us a while, but the next thing we noticed was that there was no smell of fish. The only way to know you were in a seafood warehouse was to read the labels on the boxes.

We went upstairs and met the staff. Louis Wu is the president, and his daughter Nellie runs the oyster part of the business. Anneliese works with us every week to figure out the order, and Adam is the salesman. We all sat in their conference room and talked oysters for a while. Then we talked clams. Then conchs. Then fish. And it became clear that Louis Wu knows more about seafood than anyone I’ve ever met. We learned about the different kinds of whelks, the different kinds of sea clams, the different kinds of fish that leap out of the water to snatch bats out of trees (there are at least two).

Besides, anyone who hangs fish to dry on a rack on the roof of his warehouse is okay by me.

From the warehouse, we went out to see chefs W&T had won over to our oysters. We visited chef Craig Hopson and sous chef Andy (whose last name I didn’t get but whose tattoos and enthusiasm made an impression) at Le Cirque, and we actually got to stand in that storied kitchen and show them pictures of how we harvest and clean our oysters. In Brooklyn, we saw Evan Hanczor at Egg, and Polo Dobkin at The Dressler, where we shucked oysters for the staff before their Saturday night dinner service. Down in SoHo, we saw a few of the people at The Dutch and Ryan Schmidtberger at Lure, who thanked us for our products with a glass of wine and some wonderful little crab cakes.

We’d been trying to catch up with Kurt Gutenbrunner, chef at Wallsé, Blaue Gans, and Café Sabarsky, the restaurant in the Austrian art museum, the Neue Galerie. We’ve known Kurt for years, and he and Kevin had been backing and forthing to find a time and a place for him to try our oysters. We finally caught up with him at a little wine bar he opened around the corner from Wallsé.

That’s when the trouble started.

It was probably almost midnight by the time we all sat down together at the bar. Kevin and I had tried to keep our wine consumption to one glass each, given that we’d already had wine at two other spots before we got there. We had our backs to the bar to face Kurt, who had pulled up a stool.

First, Kurt and Kevin caught up on all the people they knew in common. Then we got caught up on Kurt. And then we moved on to oysters. I was happy to see that all the talk was keeping us from drinking too much – our glasses were both still fairly full when we opened our little cooler and took out samples of our product.

We started shucking. Kevin shucked one for Kurt. I shucked one for our bartender, and then one for the very nice woman sitting next to me. Then a couple more for Kurt, who, we were delighted to see, seemed to like them.

By this time it was probably 1:00 AM, and I can’t tell you how professional I felt, shucking my oysters for a famous New York chef in the middle of the night. I was all largesse, passing oysters out to patrons of the bar. I even had a little more wine. I was every inch the sophisticate.

Until I ran my hand through with the oyster knife.

Okay, the knife didn’t actually come out the other side, but it sank deep into the fleshy part at the base of my thumb (that’s where you always cut yourself, shucking oysters). It was by far the worst shucking wound I’ve had (I’ve had a lot), and blood poured out all over the bar. All over the towel that the bartender gave me. All over my jeans.

Kevin took the oyster away and cut me off.

The whole time we’d been sitting there – some two hours – the bartender had been keeping our glasses full. He’d just kept pouring, and I hadn’t realized it because I’d been facing the other way. Because he’s done the experiments, Brian Wansink can probably tell you exactly how much more I drank than I thought I drank.

Learn from me, people. Don’t drink and shuck.

It’s really embarrassing to bleed all over someone’s restaurant, but that was the only bad part of the trip. Everywhere we went, people told us how much they liked Barnstable Oysters. And not just any people – chefs, sous chefs, line cooks, wait staff. These are the people who bring our oysters to the diners who actually eat them, and they are the people we want to know.

And we want them to know us. We want them to see pictures of our farm (or visit it, if they can). We want them to know how we raise oysters. We want them to serve our product with confidence and enthusiasm.

We also want them to know that our oysters are guaranteed blood-free.

13 people are having a conversation about “How not to sell oysters

  1. That is an impressive list, especially noting that your oysters appear at The Dutch which is celebrated for their oyster sliders which I have not tried yet. But I will. Kudos. Really.

    • Thanks, gmb. But I should clarify that our oysters are served on the half-shell at The Dutch — the sliders (which I, too, want to try) are made with another kind. Usually, when a restaurant buys oysters for cooking, they don’t buy the same variety they serve raw. Half-shell oysters are expensive, and the nuances get lost when they’re deep-fried, so it makes sense to go with a less expensive kind.

      • Still, The Dutch is a new and very celebrated restaurant. If your oysters are good enough for them, that’s saying something. Again, kudos.

  2. I confess I’ve been waiting for the post about either you or Kevin knifing yourselves while shucking oysters. We were told at culinary school that anyone who shucks oysters will inevitably end up with fine scars on the *back* of their non-dominant hand. This did absolutely nothing for my very tepid affinity for shellfish. Nonetheless, I’m sorry to hear about the cut. Take good care of that as it heals. Hands are complicated pieces of equipment.

    It’s great that so many people love your shellfish. It sounds like a fun trip, and I’m sure you’ll be remembered far more for the quality of the oysters than that one unfortunate slip. You guys done good!

  3. Ouch! Besides the mishap, the trip sounds like it was awesome. What a great opportunity to follow your oysters from your farm to the plate!

  4. Two people of whom I am a fan, both of whom I am honored to call friend: of course you know Brian!
    Loved this well-spun tale. We have all been there. Er, no: *many* of us have felt the pain of inadvertently drinking more than we intended. It’s just that most of us are not using sharp knives while doing so.
    I am thrilled to see that you have established your business with so many highly regarded restaurants– and in such a short time! But then again, Tamar, I would have predicted nothing less from you.

  5. Do you remember the night the oyster lady shucked her own hand? Now you’re part of the bars legend!
    There’s still time to smash yourself in the eye with a rifle scope and you’ll be catching me up! Every blog needs an element of scar tissue.

    Great storytelling as ever
    Hope it heals up soon

  6. Kate — So *that’s* why you’ve been reading! It’s like Nascar — people go in the hopes of seeing a crash. You were just waiting for the injury.

    Rick — It was great. The whole enterprise comes into focus when we talk to actual, genuine customers.

    Marge — Being overserved is an occupational hazard for those of us in the food world, I think. But I’ll have to ‘fess up here and admit it: I don’t know who Brian is. But I’m sure I should, and I want to, so please elaborate!

    SBW — Scope in the eye? Ouch! While I’d prefer to not breach the skin, since I did, I am hoping for a formidable scar I can point to. See that? That’s the time in NY …

  7. Bloody spectacle is an excellent marketing tool, it wont be forgotten.

    You better learn how to shuck with the other hand – in case you need to do another promotional visit at short notice.

  8. My darling wife…
    Perhaps you should stick to our original marital plan,

    I’ll do the shucking, you do the jiving.

  9. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry for you! I am at the end of finals, and have read the last few posts (as I always do). They have either made me chuckle, or given me thought other than my books, I thank you for that. This one got me. My husband and I had a dinner at our house before the semester began, and my best friend played bartender. We live in an area that has a community barn, and people have asked me to ride their horses (I used to train them). Needless to say we went for a walk after dinner and I thought I was Buck Brannaman when I saw one of the neighbors out at the arena with her giant draft horse. I didn’t get hurt, but I sure looked like an asshole. I don’t let my friend fill my champagne glass and go for walks anymore.

  10. Being in sales for what feels like a long time now (must be getting old) I know that there are as many first lessons in sales as there are teachers, but one that is always up there and that I mostly agree with is “make sure they remember you”. Not sure that turning a restaurant into the set of a gore film is related to oysters but they will remember 🙂

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