Diners at the Lakewood Country Club in Point Clear, Ala., last winter 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 large range of prices. Diners were asked which oyster they would be most and least likely to purchase if they were in a restaurant considering the oysters at the prices provided. The goal of this Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant-funded study is to determine whether diners in around the country will pay a premium for branded Gulf oysters.
“Imagine you’re going to go buy a car,” Petrolia said. “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, so price, the name or brand, taste, what they look like.”
Oysters in the United States tend to come from three types of sources. Natural oysters grow and reproduce in the wild without human intervention and are harvested by commercial fishermen. The vast majority of natural oysters comes from the Gulf of Mexico and brings the lowest price wholesale. 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 oysters are wild oysters from a specific geographical area, such as Galveston Bay in Texas or Apalachicola Bay in Florida, where the reefs are maintained and harvested by a specific company and also branded for name recognition. They too fetch a higher price than generic Gulf oysters.
It’s the privately farmed oysters that tend to get the highest prices, Petrolia said.
“One hypothesis is that people like a nice, pretty, uniform set of oysters in front of them,” he said. “The cultivated oysters tend to all be roughly the same size and shape, while the wild-caught can vary widely in appearance.”
At the Point Clear taste test, and a similar event in Houston, 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. Voters shied away from the East Coast brands when they were aware of their origin.
After the taste test portion of the event was completed, participants were given a questionnaire regarding their feelings on issues, such as price point, brand and geographical origin. The ultimate purpose of these events 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 created an advisory board of industry professionals to help design the survey with the intent of being able to hand them 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,” Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries, said. “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 feels 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.
“We already know that there are consumers who are willing to pay a premium price for a premium oyster,” Walton said, 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 regional lack of food in the water. “The Gulf oysters are fat, plump — you get a lot of oyster in the shell. On a raw bar, in the colder months, our product stands out.”
*Tara Skelton is a freelance writer in Ocean Springs, Miss.*