BELLEVUE, WASH. - Taylor Shellfish Farms has made a number of big changes to keep up with surging demand for its oysters, clams and other mollusks.

The biggest change in the past year has been completion of a state-of-the-art refrigerated, recirculating sea water live holding system for oysters, said Bill Dewey, the company’s director of public affairs.

The system has 90,000 gallons of sea water and is capable of holding 30,000 dozen oysters.  What separates it from other systems is its ability to hold oysters live at temperatures critical to maintaining product health and safety, and to have them readily available for packing orders at our processing facilities in Shelton, Wash. 

Before the installation of the system, product had to be scheduled in from farms to pack to predicted orders, Dewey said.

Also new at Taylor, in addition to using a 10 chute weigh bagger to pack smaller units of clams and mussels, which get sold by the point, this fall the company will market branded 30-count oyster bags for live oysters.  The bags will be oriented to retail consumer sales, Dewey said, but will also provide a convenience option to foodservice accounts.  

Another big change at Taylor is a huge uptick in the company’s direct-to-consumer sales, which are up 600% compared to last year at the same time.

In the COVID age, that has been welcome news, with other channels suffering, Dewey said.

“This may not be welcome news to the supermarket industry, but it certainly is for our company, since restaurant sales have yet to recover significantly after virtually disappearing in March with closures of restaurants across the country,” he said.

Adjusting to the new normal

Taylor initially had hoped to have its oyster holding system completed in the spring, but Dewey said COVID pushed back that goal.

And that wasn’t the only way in which the company was affected by the pandemic. In March and April, gross sales were just 25% of normal. Fortunately, by late summer, a comeback was well under way.

“Currently our gross sales are approximately 75-80% of what they would normally be this time of year,” he said.

A breakdown of individual mollusk varieties shows that COVID has affected seafood demand in different ways, Dewey said.

For live oysters in the shell, for instance, sales for extra smalls and specialty oysters that are targeted for foodservice and oyster bars are slow with restaurants either still closed or operating at reduced capacity. 

Jeff Pearson, Taylor’s chief financial officer, says that’s true worldwide. But demand for larger oysters — in industry speak, smalls and mediums — in the shell has exceeded Taylor’s ability to supply it, Dewey said.  

“The high demand for the larger oysters is because they’re popular for baking and barbequing  — easy and popular home preparation.”

Pearson thinks Taylor could sell twice as many smalls if the company had the supply. 

Demand for shucked oysters meats, meanwhile, has been “pretty steady” throughout the pandemic, Dewey said.

Taylor is currently selling as much or more shucked oysters as is typical for this time of year.  While popular in foodservice, shucked has always been a popular category for consumers to purchase for things like pan fried oysters, oyster stew and other “comfort” foods, Dewey said.

Taylor’s manila clam sales were running 80-90% of what they typically would be for this time of year. 

“Where these have been largely sold in foodservice in the past, the bulk are now going to retail,” Dewey said.

Sales of Taylor’s Manila clams have been particularly strong in  Asian supermarkets and at Costco.  A ten-chute weigh-bagger Taylor purchased in Italy a couple of years ago allows the company to conveniently package small units, typically 5 pound bags, to service these accounts, Dewey said.

Taylor’s mussel sales, meanwhile, are only about half of their typical pre-COVID levels, also largely due to huge plunges in foodservice sales.

Taylor has approximately 750,000 pounds of mussels that need to be harvested, Dewey said.  Unlike other crops that can be left on the beds and they just get larger, mussels grow hanging from ropes suspended from rafts.  As they get larger, the byssal threads they use to attach to the ropes are not strong enough to hold them, so they fall to the bottom where they are consumed by crabs and other predators. 

“We’re moving some of them into our smoked Ekone brand to get them into a shelf-stable form, however the smoked demand is limited,” Dewey said.

Taylor typically sells half of its geoduck clams domestically and ships the other half overseas, mainly to China. Both domestic and export sales, Dewey said, are off by 50%.

“Geoduck tend to be a high-end foodservice product, which explains the drop in demand,” he said. “Sales have also been limited by the reduction in flights.  Much of our product including geoduck goes by air due to limited shelf life and loss of flights has had an impact on our ability to service certain destinations.”

One silver lining was China’s Moon Cake Festival, which fell on Oct. 1 this year. Next to Chinese New Year, it’s the most important festival in China, and geoduck sales always get a boost from it, Dewey said.

Readjusting the retail/foodservice balance

Prior to COVID Taylor’s gross revenue was approximately 75% from foodservice and 25% from retail.  In the second half of 2020, that balance was more or less reversed due to the pandemic.

Taylor developed a COVID response plan early on in the pandemic, which has served the company well so far, Dewey said. 

“Our staff are adhering to the plan and we like to think as a result, we have been spared by any major disruption to our workforce from illnesses.”

That said, Taylor had a major disruption associated with the collapse of its markets this spring.  The company went from over 700 workers down to a low of 175. Over 500 were laid off or put on Washington’s shared work program. 

“This was a huge hardship on our staff, both for those laid off as well as those remaining who had to pick up the slack,” Dewey said. “Today we are back up to just over 500 employees.”

Taylor is optimistic about getting back to normal in 2021.

“By and large we don't see a problem moving our products next year,” Dewey said. “That assumes more restaurants will continue to re-open.  We anticipate more of a balance between retail and foodservice.”

Pearson predicts that Taylor’s “new normal” will be 60% retail and 40% foodservice.  Geoduck sales will continue to lag until restaurants are back at full capacify since geoduck does not lend itself well to retail. 

It’s hard, Dewey said, to educate consumers on how to prepare geoduck and to justify the high price which suppliers have to get for it due to the cost of production and a six-year crop rotation. In addition, most retail outlets are not set up to hold it in a live tank. 

“Specialty oysters will remain a challenge in the new normal but we are optimistic that it will adequately recover with restaurant sales continuing to pick up,” Dewey said.

This story was featured in the October edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue.