Small Eastern Shore oyster operation is pumping out some of the best little bivalves around.
by Katherine Hafner
Chris Buck hops off his boat and into the cold water of Cherrystone Creek, clad in camouflage chest waders and a thick jacket. It’s a breezy, beautifully sunny
Sunday morning in December, and Buck has come to check on several sites along the creek that form his Ruby Salts Oyster Company.
He wades over to a wooden dock from which 14 mesh tubes dangle, each home to thousands of tiny oysters, their shells still the size of a fingernail. Buck shakes one of the tubes back and forth, moving the shells around to ensure they’re secure and evenly distributed.
The seed tubes are the first stage of the farm-to-table operation. Twelve to 18 months after they start here on the Eastern Shore’s bay side, the same oysters could end up on your plate at a restaurant in Hampton Roads or Richmond.
Back on the boat, Buck’s wife and children are trying to stay warm, chatting, giggling and playing with their dog Fuzz – short for Sir Gunston Fuzzypants.
The oyster trade is a historic one in southeastern Virginia, calling to mind seasoned watermen who’ve passed down their harvesting secrets for generations. But in recent years a new cohort has cropped up, experimenting with different ways to grow the
bivalves, relying less on the whims of the wild.
Buck is a mostly one-man operation, utilizing part-time helpers and partner sites, but no full-time employees. Through trial and error, he taught himself the trade, falling in love with it along the way.
Oyster farming arrived on the Eastern Shore about a decade ago, Buck says. It takes place year-round, making moot the adage about only eating oysters in months ending in “r.” Buck and his wife, Jennifer, decided to try their hand at it after looking for something new to supplement their income.
Chris was working at a satellite campus of the University of Virginia at the time. The opportunity presented itself in the form of extra space on a buddy’s clamming operation. Part of the site on Cherrystone Creek – which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay – wasn’t suitable for clams, but it was for oysters, and Buck figured he’d give it a go. He saw it more as a hobby at first, but it quickly became more.
The company’s name was inspired by the couple’s daughter Ruby, now 9. (They also have a son, Owen, who’s 7.) Jennifer and Chris are both from Richmond, but he spent a lot of time on the Shore as a kid, visiting family. Neither had any idea how to grow oysters.
“Since the whole concept was new to the area, having no experience was kind of an advantage in hindsight,” he says.
There are all sorts of methods for growing oysters: floating cages, cages with bags inside, cultures suspended on a long line. Buck played around with several, using mostly makeshift equipment. He has a knack for inventing, says Jennifer, who works from home full time as a software company project manager but helps with the “computer side” of Ruby Salts.
Chris Buck launches a boat each morning from the end of the street where the family lives in Cape Charles. He converted it from an old pontoon vessel. (And as it turns out, its flatness is also perfect as a springboard for the kids on recreational days on the water.) He also hand-made different sizes of mesh bags and turned a clam grader into an oyster sorter.
Ruby Salts oysters start as seed from Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, bred in the tubes hanging from the dock. Once they’re big enough, they get transferred to rows of mesh bags floating in the water. Every few months, Buck and his helpers run the creatures through a
rotating sorter with holes – the ones that fall through aren’t big enough yet, and head back to the water.
Ruby Salts has been planting nearly a million seed oysters in recent years, up from a few hundred thousand when they began. Being on the sparsely populated creek works in their favor with less boat traffic and better water quality, Buck says. Plus, everyone knows and watches out for each other.
Still, “we’ve killed a lot of oysters along the way,” he says, laughing.
Once ready, the oysters are cleaned through something akin to what Buck calls a “pressure washer on steroids” before heading to restaurants or customers the next day. And some oysters branded as Ruby Salts actually come from partner sites around the creek.
The partners are responsible for the day-to-day of growing their own oysters, but ship them to Ruby Salts at the end. It’s a good way for people interested in the trade to do it on a small scale as a side project, without dealing with the regulatory hurdles associated with
taking them to market, Buck says.
Thornton Tayloe owns a glass container business, but he and his wife, Kate, decided to run a Ruby Salts partner site a few years ago, using the waterfront in front of their house. He’d known Buck for years and wanted to help out. Tayloe’s now provides about 220,000 oysters per year, working with Buck for the crucial steps from seed to shuck.
The coronavirus pandemic created problems for the oyster business, as it did for everything else. With restaurants closed and an overabundance of oysters, many farmers set up with signs on the side of the road, hawking their product.
But Ruby Salts has come through the crisis even stronger, Buck says. When restaurants were still shut down, the company started selling directly to individuals through word of mouth. When businesses reopened, it now had both revenue streams. In fact, the
company’s biggest harvest ever came over the Thanksgiving holiday.
So, what can people expect from a Ruby Salts oyster? Medium to high brine with a nutty, creamy and buttery finish, Buck says. “Fresh, plump, salty, juicy, good” was on the company’s first T-shirts, he adds with a laugh.
Shielded from the variations in salinity out in the bay, it’s a little easier to get a consistent salty flavor, Buck says. “We want to set the standard for Virginia’s oyster industry.”
That consistency is part of what sets Ruby Salts apart, says Chip Lewis, executive chef of Bella Monte Restaurant & Enoteca in Virginia Beach. The restaurant has been getting its oysters from the company for the four years Lewis has been there. They’re always
deep-cup with finishes of celery and seagrass and a medium to high brine, he says.
“They’re not the saltiest and they’re not the blandest. It’s a great medium,” he says. “They’re great baked, smoked, fried. … I haven’t done anything with them that I didn’t love.”
The personal touch is also important, Lewis says. Buck delivers the oysters himself each week after bringing them out of the water just the day before. He’s one of the smallest operations around to successfully have his own brand.
“He always delivers with, in my opinion, the best around.”