Northrops of Westport turning the tide on oyster farming
Westport Aquaculture, which farms oysters on the Connecticut shore, has been a family business since 1857. But with the addition of a Northrup from a new generation, it is being taken to new heights.
The company's oysters are infiltrating areas of Manhattan they never had seen the inside of before, including upscale restaurants such as Lavo, Daniel and Balthazar. In addition, Nexus, a fashion showroom, is in talks with Jeffrey Northrop, 25, about setting up an oyster bar on the penthouse floor of its building.
Jeffrey, who was a trader at two different hedge funds, left the financial world after he saw "better opportunities for profitability" with his father's business. "I realized with the right business plan and marketing/PR, it would be a tremendously successful and scaleable oyster business."
Jeffrey's father, Capt. Jeff Northrop, had previously dealt with some restaurants in the tri-state area before his son joined the fold, but they were more traditional restaurants, such as PJ Clark's, the Monkey Bar and Blue Hill. Also, Westport Aquaculture made the bulk of its money selling its oysters to supermarket chains, such as Whole Foods.
Why are the Northrops' oysters in high demand? They're as fresh as you can get, they say.
"They arrive at the restaurant within 12 hours of harvest," said Jeffrey, who added that most oyster companies aren't even real oyster companies, but rather a wholesaler that bought them from someone else.
His father added, "An oyster is the best the minute it comes out of the water and it degenerates over days and weeks."
When there is a middle man more time goes by between being pulled from the water and ending up on someone's plate. "We're eliminating the middle man and thus creating a win-win situation for both of us, the growers, and the restaurants," Jeffrey said.
Jeff added that most companies aren't doing what he and his son do because it would be too costly. However, if you give someone, or a restaurant, great oysters, they will want to come back for more, according to Jeff. He said his son's economics background has helped take the company, in a few short months, from a "ma and pa operation," which began a century-and-a-half ago in the 83-acre Sherwood Mill Pond, to something more cutting edge.
"He's brought it into the 21st Century," Jeff said.
However, if it weren't for screen legend Paul Newman, the Northrops, whose family also owned Allen's Clam House, might not be where they are today. Newman was a friend of the elder Northrop and the two often fished together. One day, Newman told Northrop he was going to open a restaurant. That restaurant turned out to be the Dressing Room, located within the Westport Country Playhouse property. Northrop would supply the oysters.
"I never would have sold to restaurants if it wasn't for him," Jeff said. One restaurant led to another, and another, and now the Northrops' oysters are in the most upscale clubs and lounges in the Big Apple.
Jeff never imagined his son would join the family business but he can tell he is truly enjoying his new line of work." At the end of the day you have something to show for what you've done. It's tangible," he said. "That's gratifying. What are you producing at a hedge fund?"
For the Northrops, the company goal is bigger than just having their oysters in the finest of establishments. In fact, the son plans on re-entering the financial world via the oyster business.
"There is an opportunity for me to use the oyster business as a vehicle for people to learn more about the worldwide aquaculture industry in order to hopefully start the first aquaculture hedge fund," he said.
Jeffrey added that if people don't invest in the aquaculture industry, the food, like the oil crisis, eventually could run out.
He said the hedge fund would provide people with a sustainable way to invest their money. "The goal is really to reverse the depletion that's happening," Jeff said, "to turn the tide."