Oyster farm business, which struggled at start of stay-at-home order, now booming after WAVY story

10 On Your Side

VIRGINIA (WAVY) — After our story aired two weeks ago about oyster farmers struggling during this time of quarantine, we’re happy to report that one local oyster farm we featured has seen a big boom in business.

Bruce Vogt and his son Daniel, of Big Island Aquaculture, tell WAVY.com that since our story aired, their phones have been ringing off the hook with orders.

One of those orders came from the McDonough family in Virginia Beach. Katie McDonough says after her family saw the story, her father got to work.

“He re-watched the story (on WAVY.com) and he called up to Big Island Aquaculture. He called Bruce, let Bruce know that he had seen the story and what we were planning to do, and he said, ‘I’d love to come up and help you out and get some oysters, and I know my family is getting oysters and securing them where they are throughout the country.’ And so that was the first step. A few days later they drove up to Hayes. They practiced social distancing, but they did get to meet Bruce and his wife,” she said.

While her dad secured the oysters, Katie got on the phone to her family.

“I immediately texted all of my cousins who are kind of blown to the four winds, and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we all tried to get together virtually and maybe enjoy some time together because we haven’t seen each other in a while, and so that’s kind of how it got started,” Katie said.

Katie says the virtual oyster roast was a huge success, with family members ages 4 to mid-70s joining in. She also says the oysters couldn’t have been better.

“They were delicious. They were really, really, really great, and you know, it’s kind of getting later in the oyster season, too, so it was kind of our last chance for a while to get a taste of oysters, so it was great to be able to do that before summer comes,” she said.

That virtual oyster roast, and the number of orders that have since flooded Big Island Aquaculture, are the pearl in the oyster after they were so concerned for their business.

“When they shut down the country and the restaurants closed, our sales went to zero and that was very depressing,” Bruce said. “We made a commitment: We were going to keep all of our employees on no matter what. We’d have to go through every bit of reserve we had, but we were going to keep them on, and then I had a restaurant owner call me that had seen the report [WAVY] did and he said it was really great. And then all of a sudden, within half an hour, our Facebook page started exploding. Daniel’s phone started ringing off the hook, mine was ringing off the hook, and it’s just been a phenomenal experience since then. So, we are just so appreciative.”

Bruce went on to say: “Because of that video and us getting calls from wonderful customers, I mean the people of Virginia Beach and the Williamsburg area and throughout this region … they’ve been calling and texting and it’s been wonderful. So, as a result of that, we’ve been able to deliver oysters to the people of Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, and Virginia Beach, and the monies that we’re getting from that are covering the expenses that we have for our payroll, which now allows us to take the money that we had in reserve for oyster seed and now we can use that money to invest in new oyster seed. So, next week, Daniel and his team are going to be planting 100,000 oysters as a result — a true blessing, a true blessing as a result of that.”

Daniel says the trickle-down effect from their boost in sales has been a game-changer for other businesses Big Island Aquaculture works with.

“The hatcheries that we buy the seed from, since we’re able now to use our seed money that we were using to keep the employees on, now we’re able to take that seed money and put it back to buying more seed from the hatcheries, so it’s trickling down and keeping the hatcheries open as well,” said Daniel.

Bruce says he is in awe of his customers and their generosity.

“I can’t say enough about how wonderful the customers have been. You know, this was a new learning curve for us, so we weren’t used to it. So, when we go to a site and the customers show up, they’ve all been practicing social distancing. They’ve been patient with us, because we show up and we have all of these individual orders.”

The Vogt family says they also started thinking outside the box when it comes to selling oysters. They even got a call from a local company that wanted to help spread the word.

“There’s a local marketing company here called Consociate Media, and they saw [WAVY’s] story and they said, ‘What can we do to help oyster farmers?’ So they put together a T-shirt that says ‘Shuck You COVID’ and they sold that online, and all of the proceeds from that are going to buy some oysters from some local oyster farmers. So, the people who bought the shirt, made the donation, are going to get oysters as part of that,” Bruce said.

Bruce and Daniel also say they are happy that they can continue to plant new oysters that will help clean the Chesapeake Bay. They say the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has also been key to their success and the success of the waterways.

To contact Big Island Aquaculture, click here.

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