With new revenue streams in place and restaurants fully open, the oyster industry is in recovery mode, said Mike Oesterling, executive director of Shellfish Growers of Virginia.
The pandemic took a pretty dramatic toll on the oyster industry because restaurants account for a major share of sales and when businesses closed and reduced operations it put brakes on a huge portion of the sales. Aggravating matters, demand from events, such as seafood festivals and major oyster roasts also evaporated.
But despite the struggle, the good news is we didn’t really see oyster growers go out of business, Oesterling said.
With their traditional revenue streams limited, if not completely dry, oystermen got very creative and nimble in how they marketed their product during the pandemic. “People were trying to get the cash flowing any way they could,” Oesterling explained.
Oystermen started making local connections through channels, ranging from roadside stands to dockside pick up, and there was also a large swing to online sales.
Although social media was a significant source of survival for many oyster growers, and it likely allowed oystermen to get more money for their product than they get from distributors, it’s hard to move a million oysters on social media, Oesterling said explaining that even with the new revenue streams, the oyster industry is still heavily reliant on the restaurant industry.
Most of the new, smaller sales channels oystermen found to stay afloat during the earlier days of the pandemic didn’t provide revenue that’s as consistent as having contracts with distributors, and those newer channel didn’t move nearly enough volume to replace foodservice demand.
So, you’re going to see oyster growers plowing back into the restaurant trade. But consumers shouldn’t worry that the smaller pipelines are in danger.
“The people who have started the online marketing -the social media marketing- have started to develop repeat clientele. They’re not going to stop what they’re doing. They’re going to consider it an additional revenue stream. I don’t think you’re going to see any of the different channels disappear. If anything, you’re going to see some of the more local distribution channels continue,” said Oesterling.
A lot of oyster growers are mom-and-pop operations. “So, they’re looking for every outlet they can find. And the closer the better for them because they don’t have the transportation difficulty,” Oesterling said.
Unlike an industry where you can dial down supply when demand drops, oysters are animals that kept growing throughout the pandemic. And other states produce oysters too. So, although restaurants have reopened and the event demand is returning, there’s an ample supply of oysters on the market, which is likely to keep local suppliers from hiking prices.
Thus far, Virginia oyster growers haven’t made any price increases, and Shellfish Growers of Virginia doesn’t foresee any dramatic price changes in the forecast.
Although the oyster industry pulled through the shutdown some choppy waters remain, such as staffing issues.
“Industry players are looking for ways to innovate and they’re always looking for ways to make things easier. But the reality is the oyster industry remains labor-intensive and requires bodies, which can be hard to find,” Oesterling explained.
Unlike some industries, oyster operations don’t generally rely on foreign guest laborers because not only are they also difficult to access but the government requirements make them expensive. So, some oyster operations have started raising wages and businesses are trying to attract workers the best way they can but the oyster industry is struggling to find workers like everyone else, said Oesterling. So, “we have challenges. But we have opportunities as well.”