From Bay to Table, the Onliest Way
Richmond seems like another home to me. Its suburbs and likeness to where I grew up feel all too familiar. The DC, Maryland and Virginia area have a culture where everyone seems to know each other by one degree of separation, and we have a lot in common. Almost all mid-Atlantic dwellers have a relationship to the Chesapeake Bay, which leads to a cross-generational obsession with Old Bay on crabs and buttery hush puppies. Local mannerisms and hackneyed phrases have similar strains, like the inherent use of the word “ya’ll” and “a whole nother story.” We also love high school football and barbecues with very competitive corn hole competitions. I know I’m generalizing, but when I met Turner, it’s as if he was the neighbor I never knew I had.
Turner, Warwick and I finally connected at East Coast Provisions in Richmond in May. We spent the evening pouring over the fascinating stories of oyster farmers, and how they inspired people like Turner, a full time Physician, and myself, a Travel Sales Director, to start a side project. Turner, Founder of Onliest Oyster Company, represents a collective of small batch oyster farmers in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay. By sharing the farmers’ stories, craftsmanship, and special attention to their product, Onliest delivers a great product around the country, backed by exceptional bay-to-table value.
I am delighted to share the “story of the stories,” in the making of Onliest Oyster Company.
Turner, may you share more about your childhood, and how that evolved to the son of a Doctor who eventually went oyster rogue in retirement? What was life like growing up along the Virginia coast?
Turner: I grew up the younger of two boys, in a small fishing town of Reedville, VA. My grandfather, Wallace Lewis Sr., came to the area (the Northern Neck, so called because it is a tip of land that it between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, the nothern most “neck” of land on the western shore of VA) in 1921, from a small Maryland town. He was a long time fisherman, hunter, crabber, and raised my father Emory who also spent his younger years working on the water. After time in the Navy and working on the water, my Dad went back to medical school in his 30’s and returned to spend over 30 years as the town family physician. I grew up helping him with house calls and gained an affinity for medicine at a young age. My brother and I grew up on the water, spending summers as “mate” on our grandfather’s boat Hiawatha. We loved fishing and hearing the stories of the Chesapeake (particularly of our Grandfather telling us about hunting geese and ducks with an eleven barrel gun and the misadventures that followed). He taught us about hard work and respecting the elements of nature, as did our father. It was an amazing place to spend childhood.
How did your father, Emory, get into oyster farming in retirement, and what was your reaction?
Turner: Anyone that knows my father knows he doesn’t sit still for long. Always dabbling in activities unrelated to medicine (fish farming, earthworm harvesting, flying ultralight aircraft, to name a few), our family knew that retiring from medicine would only create time to investigate other interests. Living on the water, owning a small boat and having access to nutrient rich waters for cages, the oyster farming concept was a natural fit. His love of the water and work ethic combined to create an amazing oyster!
Why did you start Onliest Oyster Co? I know it is not 100% your day job! What was important to you about this project ?
Turner: My wife and I were on the dock at my father’s house in 2015, shucking some oysters and enjoying conversation about the Bay. It just sparked an inner passion to be involved with his farm, and the idea to create a brand with a few other local famers just seemed like a great idea. While I enjoy the medical profession as my father before me, doing something related to the history and heritage of our family and ties to the Chesapeake fulfills me. It has taken over two years to create the brand, website, and learn enough about logistics to start selling and shipping the oysters from the farms. But I have received very positive feedback from those that hear the concept, see the videos and photos on the website, and ultimately those that taste their oysters, as people really do enjoy food more when they know the location and farmer involved.
How did you meet Peter and Billy? How did they become a part of Onliest?
Turner: Billy and I grew up within two miles of each other and went to preschool through 12th grade together. Even as a young boy it was obvious he had an unparalleled work ethic, and to this day is probably the hardest working man I know. He may only be bested by his wife Erin, who helps manage their seafood business while raising three children.
Turner: Peter is the older brother of my best friend from graduate school, Potter, both of whom live on their once family run farm. The Henderson boys are two of the most genuine and interesting (not to mention fun) people I have met. Spending time on the Eastern Shore with them is an unforgettable experience, and it was only fitting that Peter raises oysters on the creek near their home.
It was obvious that both Billy and Peter would make amazing farmers in the Onliest Oyster Company, not only for their unique oysters from two opposite sides of the Bay, but more for their personalities and family histories. I am very honored that they allow me to represent their oysters under the Onliest brand.
What do you find so interesting in oyster farming? How do you feel the industry is changing?
Turner: Watching the resurgence of oysters in the Chesapeake has been fascinating, growing into a sustainable livelihood for many small farmers up and down the coast of Virginia and Maryland. I wish I could do the farming myself, honestly. To grow an animal from the size of a small seed into a 3” delicacy in two years, while allowing it to take on the flavors of the local waterways, is captivating. Knowing that while doing so, the water quality is improving drastically and allowing other marine life to flourish, is a rewarding process. And while oyster farming is relatively new, harvesting oysters from these waters is a centuries old tradition that is quite special. Moving into the next few decades, I think a focus on sustainable practices will dominate the landscape of oyster farming. We are finding ways to incorporate these practices, like working with the local shell recycling programs. We have also shifted to a recyclable/biodegradable natural fiber liner for shipping boxes instead of typical foam boxes, and are reducing any plastic use in shipping and harvesting practices)
I love the word “Onliest” – can you share why you chose it?
Turner: I have to give my wife credit for helping me come up with a unique name for the company, after weeks of deliberating (and even initially founding the LLC based on the name of the peninsula I grew up on, the “Northern Neck”). Onliest is a term that has been used often by watermen on the Chesapeake to describe being the best at something, being the best example of something, or doing one thing and doing it better than most others. I thought it would sound great as a company name and give a nod to the history of the three farmers that in my opinion grow some of the best oysters, period.
What does the future look like? Where would you like to take the business?
Turner: Having just launched the company, I am beginning to market locally in central and coastal Virginia catering to high end restaurants and bars. But my larger goal is to connect with chefs in states across the country from Tennessee to California, hoping to bridge a gap that distributors may not currently fulfill. Creating a more personal connection to these chefs and consumers, I think a direct shipping program will allow a broader exposure of these small batch oysters and the stories of their farmers. Having just attended a Connect Dinner (created by the Eat Y’all Group of Mississippi) at Blue Smoke in New York, with Chef Jean Paul Bourgeois and guest chef Bryan Lee Weaver (of Butcher and Bee, Nashville), I see how much interest there is in knowing the farmers responsible for fine food. While I am merely a representative for Emory, Peter, and Billy, I truly hope to strengthen that connection to the Chesapeake Bay and its history through oysters.
Virginia: Thank you so much, Turner, for everything you have done for Chesapeake Bay oyster farmers through the Onliest brand! I am in awe of your storytelling and look forward to seeing it continue.