When their grandfather’s oyster-bed leases came up for renewal 13 years ago, cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton saw it as an opportunity to keep a family business going — a business that had started in 1899.
Because oysters act as filters, cleaning the water as they mature, their efforts also became a way to help mitigate the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. It also helped watermen whose livelihood had been devastated by the deterioration and overfishing of the Bay. As they grew their business, Rappahannock Oyster Co., the Croxtons taught former waterman how to farm oysters and formed partnerships in order to guarantee sales.
In 2011, what was supposed to be an oyster tasting room on the Rappahannock River, a place simply to have a pair of oysters with a glass of wine, became the wildly popular restaurant Merroir, with the chef pumping out all of the dishes on a simple menu from a grill on the porch outside. “We didn’t mean to become restaurant owners,” Croxton says. “It all happened just so organically.”
That tiny restaurant led to Washington’s Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market and Rappahannock on East Grace Street. At the same time, Croxton worked with other Washington restaurant owners, opened two more restaurants there, Eat the Rich and Southern Efficiency, and brought an outpost of celebrity chef Mike Isabella’s Graffiato to Richmond. He’s also a key player in the soon-to-open GwarBar, a collaboration with the Richmond metal band.
These days, Croxton has struck out on his own, and plans to open three restaurants named Rocksalt — plus another with the same concept named Brine — in North Carolina and Northern Virginia, along with a fried-chicken and champagne joint, Birds & Pearls, by next spring. In each locale, he plans to form a network of local purveyors to supply the restaurants.
He says it’s been rewarding to watch Rappahannock chef Dylan Fultineer cut checks to farmers, making a difference in their lives. “I want to do it in a big way,” Croxton says. “Instead of calling it farm-to-table, I want people to just see it.”