In 2002, Richmond resident Travis Croxton had a great job at the Federal Reserve Bank. His cousin, Ryan Croxton, was working as a freelance writer. Neither had a notion of becoming an oyster farmer until their fathers approached them with a proposal: The 110-year-old lease on their grandfather's vast Middle Peninsula oyster grounds was about to expire. Would the boys be interested in doing something with it?
"It was the last thing on our mind until they brought it to our attention that we might lose a bit of history," Travis Croxton recalled. "It was just going to be a hobby."
It didn't take the Croxtons long to figure out they could do more. An epiphany came while eating at New York's famous Grand Central Oyster Bar. The menu featured about 20 varieties of oysters from within three miles of each other in Massachusetts. There was one oyster from the Bay. It was called the Chesapeake Bay oyster.
The Croxtons wondered why Bay oysters couldn't offer products as different as Wellfleets and Blue Points. To get in the game, they knew they had to get the attention of the most high-profile chefs.
So Ryan Croxton called Eric Ripert, host of the PBS show, "Avec Eric," and chef at the top restaurant in New York, Le Bernardin. To their surprise, Chef Eric had a secretary, who returned the call. A meeting was set up. Oysters were consumed. And before long, Rappahannock River Oysters landed on the fanciest menu in Manhattan.
The Croxton cousins moved on to Craft, whose owner, Tom Colicchio, is one of the most famous chefs in the United States, thanks to his hosting duties on Bravo's "Top Chef." Soon, Colicchio was tooling around Topping, VA, in a Porsche, and including the Croxtons' company in both a new cookbook and on an online travelogue of the best artisan farmers between Atlanta and New York. They sent him home with a Rappahannock River onesie for his soon-to-be born son. He sent them back of a picture of the baby wearing it.
But if the cousins "Forrest Gumped" their way into initial success, as Travis Croxton likes to say, the growing of the business has been anything but haphazard. The cousins earned Food and Wine's prestigious Tastemaker Award honoring those who have changed "the world of food" by age 35. They have also been featured on the acclaimed PBS series, "Chefs Afield."
In 2008, the Croxtons hired Anthony Marchetti, a University of Virginia graduate with strong Rappahannock River ties, to manage their main farm in Topping. They have two other farms as well as several co-ops that raise oysters. They sell between 30,000 and 40,000 oysters a week to places as far away as Las Vegas and Honolulu. And demand is only picking up since the Gulf oil spill, especially as many suppliers in the market raised their price.
"A lot of people are price gouging now. We're not," Marchetti said. "And our customers definitely appreciate that."
In addition to branding and selling their own oysters under the Rappahannock River label, the Croxtons sell Doug McMinn's oysters, which they also call Rappahannocks. Other brands in their stable include Snow Hills, WitchDucks from the Lynnhaven, and York River Oysters, which oyster farmer Tommy Leggett grows.
"They are providing a shopping list all over the United States as to what a Chesapeake Bay oyster tastes like," Leggett said.
The Croxtons have found more than just a steady supply of oysters. They've found their growers are more collaborators than competitors, believing that a rising Chesapeake Bay oyster tide will lift all of their boats.
To that end, the company is offering what it calls the Barcat oyster - a cheaper product raised by aquafarmers who are just getting into the business. The company donates $1 from each bag of Barcats sold to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for reef restoration.
"We're not taking anything away from the watermen," Marchetti said. "Everything we do is an oyster put in the water. We want to show these guys that they can make a living on the water. That's all they want to do."
Asked what his grandfather, the late William Arthur Croxton Sr., would say about his grandsons' enterprise, Travis Croxton hesitates for a minute.
"He'd hate being on our T-shirts, that's for sure," he laughs. "But he'd love to see the regional pride back in the Bay, that we're getting our product back on the plates of the best restaurants in the country."
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.