Like many small businesses, family oyster company forced to reinvent itself amid pandemic

Posted at 9:55 AM, Jun 12, 2020

NOANK, Ct. -- As a humid summer breeze blew across the bow of the oyster boat Marc Harrell was standing on, he looked out toward Long Island Sound and could see some signs that the nation’s economy is recovering.

Harrell has spent most of his life fishing those waters for oysters under the guidance of Captain Jim Markow, both men are the backbone of Mystic Oysters, a family owned business that’s been around for decades.

“Our business hasn’t completely rebounded yet, it’s still going to be some time before it does,” Harrell said as he dropped an oyster dredge off the side of the boat.

In Noank, Connecticut, the headwaters of the Atlantic Ocean come crashing into the Mystic River. The combination of saltwater and fresh water creates what most in the coastal community say are some of the best oysters in the world.

But the coronavirus outbreak has been threatening a way of life that’s been a part of this community for generations. It’s a pandemic impacting both land and sea.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen and we’re still not 100% optimistic that everything is going to be the same once this is all done,” Markow said.

For the better part of 40 years, Markow has operated Mystic Oysters. The small family-owned company prides itself on harvesting oysters directly from their own oyster beds and shipping them directly to restaurants and suppliers up and down the East Coast. But as countless restaurants closed because of the coronavirus, Mystic Oysters no longer had a customer base.

Like so many other small businesses across the country, COVID-19 has forced Mystic Oysters to reinvent themselves. The company has started selling directly to consumers, harnessing social media and word-of-mouth to bring customers directly to the docks to buy oysters as fresh as they come. They’ve even started coordinating with other small businesses and fisherman to hold farmers’ markets and pop-up sales tents around the area.

Revenue is still down considerably but Markow sees a future in their new business model.

“It’s exciting to see the opportunities that are out there that we weren’t aware of,” he said. “We were forced into a situation to reinvent our business and I think in the long run it’ll be a positive, in the short run though, definitely scary.”

Experts say that kind of ingenuity and creativity is something other small businesses can emulate as they try to navigate the uncertainty surrounding the virus.

“That’s always been the staple of small business, finding those market opportunities and working with the resources they have to survive,” said Holly Wade, who serves as a researcher with the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

As for Mystic Oysters, they see diversification as a way forward. For the first time in the company’s history they’ve even started selling fresh lobsters directly to consumers. Markow hopes other small business owners who might be struggling see what they’re doing here and find hope for a future rebound.

“Don’t give up, keep thinking. There’s a lot of opportunities out there if you want to be creative.”