After a sharp right turn just outside of Cambridge, MD, a narrow road winds down a dirt path into what appears to be an estate worthy of the DuPonts. It continues on to a one-time chicken farm hard by the banks of the Choptank River.
This is Castle Haven, home of Marinetics, and birthplace of the Choptank Sweet oyster. Kevin McClarren, the company's manager, appreciates the natural beauty. His previous job was growing finfish in a Massachusetts industrial park. And before that, he was a laborer for a brick-laying company, working his way through college and out of a sometimes-rough Northeast Philly neighborhood where, by his own admission, he got into a lot of fistfights.
Growing oysters may be hard work, but McClarren said he knows he's lucky to be doing it. And he's dedicated: On a recent morning, he apologized for his grogginess. He had just undergone an endoscopy, and the anesthesia hadn't completely worn off. His doctor told him not to drive to work, so he took his boat instead.
Marinetics is Maryland's largest and most successful oyster company, with about 10 million oysters in the water, and sales of about 1 million oysters each year. The company, which began growing its first oysters in 2002, is now turning a profit. Several restaurants in Cambridge, Baltimore, Annapolis and Norfolk carry Choptank Sweets. Even sweeter for McClarren is that he now distributes oysters throughout Philadelphia, including the famous Sansom Street Oyster House, one of his favorite watering holes.
Marinetics was the brainchild of Robert Maze and Laurie Landau, both graduates of the University of Pennsylvania. Maze had a doctorate in parasitology, and was interested in studying the two diseases, MSX and Dermo, that were destroying the Bay's native oysters. To fund their research, the couple grew some oysters for sale in floats, rather than on the bottom.
To their surprise, the oysters thrived. The side business turned into the main event, after taking care of a few details.
Marinetics needed permits from four state agencies as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. Then it had to tangle with its neighbors: One, a wealthy Baltimore lawyer, riled up the community about the oyster floats. Marinetics now has good relations with most neighbors in the cove - and the wealthy lawyer's home is languishing on the market
Then there was the matter of selling the oysters. McClarren has a degree in marine science, so growing oysters wasn't a problem. Marketing them was another story. Fortunately, seafood distributor Billy Martin paid a visit after reading about the company in the local paper.
"It didn't take too long into the conversation with Mr. Martin to realize that pounding on the doors of restaurants was a job better left to salesmen," McClarren recalled.
The first step in marketing was a distinctive brand name. The company decided on Choptank Sweets to differentiate them from the saltier oyster that comes from Chincoteague.
McClarren may not be knocking on doors, but he's still the company pitchman. He shucks oysters at restaurants in Baltimore and Philadelphia in the hope that the customers will demand the product, and has been featured in a Food Network Canada show.
"It was a gamble, to call it a sweet," McClarren said, "but I think it really worked."
Editor's note: This is the second set of articles in a three-part series about Maryland and Virginia wading into oyster aquaculture. Read Part One.