By Steve Guntli
When Steve Seymour first started oyster farming in Drayton Harbor in the 1980s, he dreamed of one day turning his passion into a family business. On February 23, his dream became a reality, as he and his son, Mark, cut the ribbon on their new store in Blaine.
The Drayton Harbor Oyster Company has been alive in some form or another since the early 1900s. Seymour and some partners purchased the company in the ’80s, and farmed a 150-acre plot for years. By the mid-1990s, the water quality in the harbor had became so poor that Seymour had to halt production. His partner, Geoff Menzies, took over operations and converted the company into the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm, a non-profit community supported aquaculture (CSA) organization. Seymour went to work for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where he stayed until he retired in 2013.
Thanks to the work of local citizens, the Whatcom County health department, the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District and the Washington State Department of Ecology, the water quality in Drayton Harbor gradually improved. Shortly after Seymour retired, Menzies gave him the opportunity to take over Drayton Harbor Oyster Company again.
“Geoff has done so much to improve the water quality here,” Seymour said. “He had his hands full with all his different projects, so he asked if I could take over the oyster business. My son had just moved back, so the timing was perfect.”
His son, Mark, had just returned to Washington after working in southern California as a fish biologist. Mark and his three siblings had grown up working on the oyster farm and he leapt at the chance to go into business with his dad.
Today, the Seymours have a 30-acre lease and a reefnet barge in Drayton Harbor. The company sells oysters to restaurants and markets from Blaine to Seattle, and provides Semiahmoo Resort 40 dozen oysters every week. The company grew 400,000 oysters last year, and currently has about 750,000 oysters growing.
Steve’s grandson, Eric Johnson, has also been an integral part of the operation. Johnson sells oysters at the Bellingham Farmers Market and does promotional work.
“I like to say three generations are working here, even though that makes us sound like an older company than we are,” Steve said.
The Drayton Harbor Oyster Company store sells shucked oysters by the dozen, and has raw oysters for sale in the store. The shop doesn’t have a kitchen, but Steve said the company is getting permits in place to grill oysters on the sidewalk on warm days.
Mark Seymour said he and his dad picked the perfect time to get back into oysters.
“There’s a bit of a raw oyster craze among foodies at the moment,” he said. “Down in Seattle, you’ll see people paying up to $45 for a dozen at some of the more high-end restaurants. Based on that, we think we offer a heck of a good deal.”
Drayton Harbor Oyster Company charges $12 a dozen. They also offer what Mark calls a “watershed discount,” giving residents within the local watershed a $2 discount.
“We feel it’s the least we can do. We recognize that everyone around here contributes to our company because we all pay to keep the bay clean. We couldn’t do it without the community.”
The store has already gained positive reviews. At the Bite of Blaine on February 15, voters awarded the 2015 Best Bite award to the fledgling company, largely on the strength of its oyster stew. Steve said they are planning to sell the stew in the store.
“The Bite was awesome,” Steve said. “People came up to us and said how much they supported us and wanted this to happen. That was when I first thought, ‘Man, we could pull this off.’”
While the company halts harvesting from November to January, the Seymours are hoping to keep the store open year-round.
“We think we might try to bring in some outside product during those months so we can keep selling stew and keep ourselves busy,” Mark said.
By that time, the Seymours hope to have turned the small storefront into a community hub.
“We want to be the kind of place where people can come in to shoot the breeze and talk about what’s going on around town,” Steve said. “We love this community and want to stay involved.”
Drayton Harbor Oyster Company will be open Wednesdays through Saturdays, from noon to 6 p.m.