WESTPORT, Conn. — Jeff Northrop was working at a hedge fund in New York City three years ago when a casual conversation with his dad changed his career path for good.
Little did he know, his family owned fertile oyster beds in Westport’s Mill Pond. Though it had been in the family since 1857 and he had grown up in Westport, this was news to Northrop, who was immediately interested in the property’s potential.
“My dad just mentioned it one day that we owned this and that maybe I should look into it as a business opportunity,” Northrop said. “From there, it just fueled the obsession.”
Shortly after, Northrop quit his job in finance to become a full-time oyster farmer. Unlike the major players in the shellfish industry — which are based on tradition and practices passed down through the generations — Northrop was starting from scratch. Through his “oyster startup,” Hummock Island Oysters, Northrop is aiming to see what they can do to bring new technologies to the centuries-old practice of oyster farming.
Northrop is the new kid on the block in one of Connecticut’s largest industries, but that does not seem to faze him. Connecticut’s oyster production peaked at nearly 25 million pounds in 1911, surpassing New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
After months of research and an effort to raise capital, Northrop jumped headfirst into being an oysterman. Now, Hummock Island partners with restaurants around the region to offer quality oysters harvested from the beds that have been in his family for more than a century. In May, the business began offering tours guided by another former financier intrigued by Northrop’s business plan.
Jonathan Goldstein grew up in Los Angeles and was working for an angel investor in Portland, Oregon, when he first encountered Northrop and the idea for Hummock Island Oysters. Inspired by the potential, Goldstein moved to New York City and joined Northrop in his shoreline startup. Goldstein’s business card lists “strategy” as his title, but he prefers “oyster guy,” ”tour guide” and, if he must have something more official, sales. While Northrop is quiet and reserved, guiding the small barges across the 84-acre Mill Pond, Goldstein is his vocal counterpart with an affinity for shucking.
“I’m a foodie, I saw the potential and it seemed like a good fit,” Goldstein said. “I got involved before we were even a company and it was kind of an accident, but it’s been very fruitful.”
At the center of Mill Pond, a small shack sits atop a mound made from the foundation of a mill that once stood along the shoreline closer to Long Island Sound. Dubbed Hummock Island, the shanty is the namesake and hub for the business, as well as the destination for the oyster tours.
The house — which many in Westport are familiar with, though few have actually stepped foot inside — has been fully restored. Serving as a museum of sorts for the new business, the house provides views of the pond and is perhaps the most serene environment in which to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Tour participants take a ride to the island where they learn about the history of oyster farming in the area and of Hummock Island, the process for farming oysters in the Mill Pond and a shucking lesson. Of course, there is also a taste test.
“The idea is to educate people about how oysters are grown and get people out here to the house on the island,” Goldstein said. “Everyone has a different story about the house, it seems, though they’re mostly made up.”
The pair maintain an office at 31 France St. in Westport that serves as a processing and shipping facility. Hummock Island Oysters are distributed to a variety of high end restaurants throughout the region, including Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Of course, Northrop is not the first in his family to realize the value of the fertile beds beneath the surface in the protected tidal inlet that is Millpond. The area was a working oyster farm for decades, serving up shellfish at a family-owned eatery until the early 1970s.
“When the restaurant shut down, so did the farm,” Goldstein said. “It was vacant until 2013, when Jeff found out about it.”
The Mill Pond receives half a billion gallons of water renewal every day as the tide ebbs and flows. The Hummock Island farmers have the ability to control the tides via gates at the entrance to the pond. This means they can grow their farmed oysters much faster than the wild oysters farmed in by larger businesses in Long Island Sound.
“That means our product goes from seed to market size in 18 months,” Goldstein said. “In the wild, it takes three to five years. People try to replicate the growing cycle that we have here naturally. So we’re very fortunate to have that.”
Business has been good for Northrop and his unusual startup business, but he has more in mind for the future of Hummock Island. There are 15 million growing oysters in the water at Mill Pond, a number soon to reach 20 million, Northrop said. With a focus on sustainable aquaculture and a determination to stay away from traditional oystering methods, he plans to expand the business and continue to support innovation in the field.
“We’re going to continue to perfect the quality of the oyster and grow the operation, and hopefully acquire other farms,” Northrop said. “My goal is also to have a $75 million to $100 million fund that invests in sustainable shellfish aquaculture.”
Information from: The Hour, http://www.thehour.com