Appreciation for local oysters swells among Savannah’s dining scene — and inspires new farmers to get into Georgia waters
Photography by PETER COLIN MURRAY & MICHAEL SCHALK
SCAN THE OYSTER MENU at a raw bar, and you’ll likely see the source listed next to the price.
Just as wine drinkers can taste a region’s terroir, oyster eaters taste the merroir — meaning how the water where an oyster grows directly impacts its flavor.
This phenomenon is inspiring a rising wave of restaurants to seek out and shuck locally grown options.
“It’s a rare exception when we don’t have a local oyster,” says Brandon Carter, restaurant owner and executive chef at Common Thread. “We, as a company, hang our hat on how we procure our ingredients. We start locally, and we go out from there concentrically.”
Common Thread was built by the same team and local-first philosophy as FARM Bluffton in South Carolina, hence the name. While the concept is nothing new, the contemporary approach at Common Thread earned the Savannah restaurant a spot on Bon Appétit’s 2022 list of 50 Best New Restaurants across the country.
“When it comes to oysters, [local] is even more of a priority,” adds Carter. “Seafood, in general, is such a perishable thing. Even though we have the modern conveniences of FedEx, UPS and overnight deliveries, fresh is still a flavor.”
Carter says his “workhorse” is Lady’s Island Oyster Inc. of Seabrook, South Carolina. Located in the Coosaw River, Lady’s Island Oysters began in 2009 — becoming the first and the oldest farm in South Carolina and the state’s only hatchery.
“Frank [Roberts] and Julie [Davis] over at Lady’s Island have been huge proponents of oyster farming,” says Carter. “They have really been at the forefront of pushing [the industry] forward in South Carolina.”
A native of Nova Scotia, Davis landed in the Lowcountry after earning her master’s degree in aquaculture from Auburn University and helping launch Alabama’s oyster farms. Following a stint as an extension agent for the
South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, she has managed the operations on Roberts’ farm full time since 2018.
Together, Davis and Roberts have fine-tuned their growing process in floating cages continuously submerged so that oysters are clean and safe for consumption year-round. Today, Lady Island’s Oysters can be found served on the half-shell in some of the region’s leading restaurants.
“I hope Georgia can do the same [legislation for year-round harvest],” says Davis, who is also the president of the South Carolina Shellfish Growers Association and previously served on the board of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
“With all those firsts come all the arrows in your back,” she adds. “A lot of the advocacy we had to do was really just trying to stay in business and help the industry as a whole establish itself. With that came having to educate our legislators about oyster farming.”
THE STATE OF OYSTER FARMING
Meanwhile, across the border in Georgia, there is currently only one farmed oyster available on the commercial market: the family-owned E.L. McIntosh & Son Seafood in Harris Neck, located about an hour south of Savannah.
Harvesting wild oysters led to farming, and Earnest McIntosh Sr. and his son Earnest Jr. shot to fame in 2019 when they appeared on an episode of Netflix’s “Chef ’s Table” alongside the acclaimed chef and Savannah native Mashama Bailey of The Grey.
The same year, the Georgia Legislature legalized oyster farming — becoming the last coastal state in the country to do so — and created a structure to lease out approved spaces along the coast to private oyster farms. McIntosh & Son holds one of three leases in McIntosh County and one of only six in the state.
The season for harvesting oysters on Georgia farms is from October to March. During these months, HUSK Savannah receives 400 to 500 McIntosh rocks hand delivered weekly. While proximity and exclusivity make McIntosh & Son an “easy” favorite for HUSK Chef Chris Hathcock, he says the people behind the farms are an important consideration, too.
“The father/son duo are some of the most amazing people you will meet,” says Hathcock, who loves oysters so much he had one tattooed on his arm.
At the recently opened Brochu’s Family Tradition, Executive Chef Dave Baker also enjoys weekly visits from Earnest Sr.
“There is a certain satisfaction when you know the person [who] pulls them out of the water is the same person delivering them,” says Baker. “They have pride in their product, and so do we.”
As demand for local oysters rises, Savannah chefs may soon have a few more farmers even closer.
Georgia’s remaining three leases for subtidal oyster farms are in Chatham County. Among the leaseholders are Perry and Laura Solomon, founders of Tybee Oyster Company. After 20 years of military service, the couple returned to where Perry grew up to raise their own kids.
“We started dating when we were 17, so I’ve come down here since we were in college,” says Laura. She recalls memories of enjoying wild-harvested oysters. “As we became foodies, we started eating out at restaurants when we would come to visit. We were like, ‘Why is all the seafood from all these random places?’”
While in the military, the Solomons traveled the world and became fascinated with different mariculture practices in places like California, France and Vietnam. They also lived in Virginia, where the seafood industry has boomed into a billion-dollar business.
“We kept asking, ‘Why not here?’” says Laura.
After several years of dreaming about a family-run farm, the Solomons officially incorporated Tybee Oyster Company in January 2022, won the lease lottery in March 2022 and submitted their plans to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for review. Nearly a year later, they are still awaiting approval and hoping to clear the hurdle this spring so that they can get their own cages in the water.
The Solomons are not getting into this business to get rich, however.
“It’s important to us that people know we are a small family doing this for the sustainability purpose and the passion for the seafood,” says Laura.
“Oyster farmers aren’t competing for anything,” Perry says. “There is an infinite amount of food in the water for oysters.”
A SWELL OF SUPPORT
The Solomons have been inspired — and supported — by fellow shellfish enthusiasts, especially members of Oyster South. Led by Executive Director Beth Walton, the nonprofit organization is on a mission to connect communities and provide resources to foster the success of oyster farming in the southern United States.
“As we started our journey about five years ago, we joined the organization,” says Perry. “There were a couple of times when we probably would have quit, but Beth has been a positive influence by checking in with us and asking what she can do to help.”
This March, Savannah plays host city to Oyster South’s sixth symposium. Held at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, the two-day event brings together 350 industry influencers — including producers, gear suppliers, distributors, chefs, writers, filmmakers, vendors, researchers, students and managers — from the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions to discuss the latest research and challenges in aquaculture.
“Oysters are sexy again,” says Walton. With nearly 30 years of experience working in aquaculture along the Gulf and East Coasts, Walton now lives in Virginia. She runs the nonprofit alongside her husband, Bill, a former professor at the Auburn University Shellfish Lab, where Davis studied.
As it turns out, oyster aficionados are a close-knit bunch. Among Savannah’s restaurants, Common Thread, The Grey, HUSK, The Wyld and Sorry Charlie’s Oyster Bar are some of Oyster South’s top supporters.
“Oyster South has been a wealth of knowledge, and we are extremely excited to have them come to Savannah,” says Chris Godfrey of Sorry Charlie’s Oyster Bar. He and his business partner Harley Krinsky have attended the last two symposiums in Biloxi, Mississippi and Wilmington, North Carolina, to gain industry knowledge. When Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources opened the lease lottery for Chatham County waters, they jumped in.
“We saw an opportunity to be the farm and be the table,” says Krinsky. “The opportunity to be part of a revived industry and bring a local product back to the masses would be amazing.”
Godfrey and Krinsky are in the same boat as the Solomons: they won one of the three Chatham County leases and await permits to begin farming. Alongside them holding the third lease is Ambos Oyster Company. Brothers Drew and Hal Ambos are fifth-generation purveyors of and experts in all things seafood. To them, the ability to farm oysters in Georgia will be “full circle” for their family, says Hal. “We know the hurdles and how [the industry has] evolved — things have come a long way,” he says.
Once cages can go in the water, the process takes approximately 9 to 12 months, depending on the seed and water conditions.
“This is a first for Georgia and the waters,” Krinsky says of the lengthy approval process. “We’re talking about floating cages in the middle of waterways, so everybody is looking to get it right the first time.”
For the state, being last could prove advantageous, as there’s an opportunity to review where other states have succeeded or faced challenges. For example, in other states, public land use for oyster farming has raised concerns of restricted areas for swimming, fishing and boating.
“It’s important to us that people know we are a small family doing this for the sustainability purpose and the passion for the seafood.” — Laura Solomon, co-owner of Tybee Oyster Company
According to Krinsky, another advantage is the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s Shellfish Research Laboratory on Skidaway Island, which provides the oyster seeds for Georgia farmers. Tom Bliss, the lab’s director and Georgia Sea Grant extension agent, also sits on Oyster South’s advisory board.
“[The lab is] the building blocks of what is going to be the oyster industry moving forward,” says Krinsky. “The reason we will be successful is because of the UGA shellfish program. They have been studying it, figuring it out and laying all the groundwork so the industry can succeed.”
From her sage perspective across the state border, Davis hints at what else may be ahead for burgeoning Georgia farmers.
“They are going to have to band together, organize themselves, do some lobbying and all of that fun stuff,” she says. “Folks need to realize that the more oysters we have in the water, the better.”