In December 2012, diners at the Lakewood Country Club in Point Clear, Alabama, enjoyed a complimentary feast of oysters provided by researchers Dan Petrolia of Mississippi State University (MSU) and Bill Walton of Auburn University. The oysters came from all over the country—some wild, some farmed, some generic, some branded—with a wide range of price points. Diners were asked to indicate which oysters they would be most and least likely to purchase if they were in a restaurant considering these oysters at these prices. The goal of this ongoing Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant-funded study is to determine whether diners in the southeastern United States and around the country will pay a premium for branded high-quality Gulf oysters.
“Imagine you’re going to go buy a car,” Petrolia says. “You have your own personal top five things you’re going to look for—the color, the gas mileage, the whatever. We are trying to identify the top four or five things people look for in an oyster —hence, price, the name or brand, taste, what they look like.”
The Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, native to the Gulf and East coasts, tends to come from one of three sources. Natural oysters grow and reproduce in the wild with little to no human intervention and are harvested by commercial fishermen and lease holders that manage private grounds. The vast majority of natural oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. Lumped together as “Gulf oysters,” they bring the lowest price wholesale. In contrast, farmed oysters are cultivated in baskets in private waters and typically branded with a name that generates a premium price in restaurants around the country. Similarly, managed wild oysters can be harvested from a specific geographical area (and are often hand-selected), such as Galveston Bay in Texas or Apalachicola Bay in Florida, where the oysters are also branded for name recognition. They too fetch a higher price than generic Gulf oysters.
The question, however, is whether consumers, both regionally and in other parts of the country, are willing to pay for farmed and/or branded oysters from the Gulf. “One hypothesis is that people like a nice, pretty, uniform set of oysters in front of them,” Petrolia says. “The cultivated oysters tend to all be roughly the same size and shape, while the wild-caught can vary widely in appearance.”
Walton notes that there has been an “oyster renaissance” in the United States, and that oysters marketed along the Atlantic Coast sell under regional names such as Wellfleets (from Cape Cod), Blue Points (Long Island), Chincoteagues (Virginia), and Beausoleils (New Brunswick). Southern oysters, however, have generally been sold as generic oysters. Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, says this is “indicative of a region that pays less attention to the nuances of different raw oysters than to their culinary possibilities.”
The only larger scale exception on the Gulf coast is Apalachicola oysters, which comprise the bulk of Florida’s oyster harvest. Although there is no clear evidence that they sell at a premium, it is evident that a market has developed for these branded oysters. Petrolia and Walton wanted to find out if there is a market for similarly branded oysters from other parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
At the Point Clear taste test, and a similar event in Houston in February 2013, participants were served different combinations of oysters in four rounds. The first two rounds were blind. They were given a price point, but nothing else. The generic Gulf oysters at a significantly lower cost fared very well in the blind test, getting 41 percent of the vote based on taste and price. In the final two rounds, tasters were told the brand or point of origin of the oysters. Here, voters showed a clear geographical preference: The four branded oysters from Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida together received 45 percent of the vote, while voters shied away from the East Coast brands when they were aware of the oysters’ origin.
After the taste test portion of the event, diners were given a questionnaire regarding their feelings on issues such as price point, brand, and geographical origin. The ultimate goal is to develop an online questionnaire to survey a wide cross-section of national consumers regarding their preferences when selecting oysters at restaurants. Petrolia and Walton have contracted with a marketing company to recruit a representative sample of consumers of raw oysters from the five Gulf states, as well as from major metropolitan cities such as Chicago and New York, to determine the factors, including perceptions of risk, that go into oyster choice nationally. The two have created an advisory board of industry professionals to help design the survey with the intent of being able to hand the professionals helpful, real-world data when the project is complete.
“The results of the survey will help us tailor our production characteristics and marketing techniques to enable us the best chance of penetrating and competing in many high-value markets currently unavailable to Gulf oyster products,” notes Chris Nelson, vice president of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries. “An attribute as simple as ‘saltiness’ may be of much greater importance than we realize at this point, and ‘Gulf’ vs. ‘Pepper Grove’ may market completely differently.”
Walton, a fisheries specialist, has spent years studying the science of oyster aquaculture. He thinks that the Gulf Coast fisheries industry is missing out on a potential economic driver by not cultivating and branding oysters in addition to harvesting what’s already there. He believes a market exists for higher-price-point “boutique” Gulf oysters not only in the region but in larger cities around the nation. He speculates the oysters will do well in cities like Boston and Chicago, and plans to hold a similar restaurant event in Chicago to test his theory.
“We already know that there are consumers who are willing to pay a higher price for a premium oyster,” Walton says, adding that Gulf oysters have an advantage in the winter months because the oysters harvested out of the Northeast can be relatively “skinny” due to a lack of food in the water regionally. “The oysters out of the Gulf are fat, plump—you get a lot of oyster in the shell. That looks really good in comparison to some of the oysters coming out of the more northern climates. On a raw bar in the colder months, our product really stands out.”
Walton’s expertise, combined with that of Petrolia, an agricultural economist at MSU, will go toward defining the attributes that oyster consumers look for when purchasing in general, along with identifying specific regional and national interest in branded Gulf oysters. This information will be useful to everyone, from those who harvest wild oysters or cultivate their own to distributors to the restaurant industry itself, but particularly to industry professionals in the Gulf states who might be missing out on an economic opportunity.
By Bill Walton and Dan Petrolia
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