This year marks the third year of Perfect Pitch MV, where Island entrepreneurs pitch their ideas “Shark Tank“-style to local businesses in hopes of getting seed money for their ventures. The 2017 First Place Winner was Cottage City Oysters and we thought it would be interesting to follow up and see how they’re doing. Perfect Pitch MV is sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, Seidman Investment Portfolios, Martha’s Vineyard Bank, Cape & Islands SCORE, Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and many individual donors.
Dan and Greg Martino are brothers and the owners/operators of the very first oyster farm in Oak Bluffs history, and the first open ocean oyster farm in New England. According to their website, the business was created with the hope of “growing the best damn oysters that we can in the most environmentally positive way possible.”
Another first for the brothers is the fact that they received their “seed” money for their business from the Perfect Pitch MV competition. Greg says “That was a cool experience! You get up in front of industry professionals and verbalize a business plan; it makes you realize what hurdles there are and how to navigate them.”
With their $3,000 first prize, Greg and Dan created an upweller, a nursery for oyster seeds. They learned the concept of growing oyster seeds in an upweller from Jack Blake of Katama, who became the brothers’ mentor. Their own version of the upweller looks like a raft floating on the surface of the water, but the oysters live and grow well below, taking advantage of the food and nutrients provided by the ocean. The raft is attached to a mooring and provides a home for the oyster seeds as they grow to about one inch over a period of three to four months.
The brothers purchase the seed from Maine at the smallest size (about 1.5 mm) and lowest cost available. It arrives sometime in the first two weeks of June, in a package about the size of a football that contains 550,000 seeds. The seeds are put into the upweller nursery system, which protects and nurtures them and allows them to grow. It also allows the brothers to minimize their costs by about 86 percent by purchasing seed as opposed to more developed oysters. After two and a half to three years, the oysters are fully grown and ready for harvest. Greg maintains that oyster farms and their seed-to-crop strategy provide an economic multiplier that boosts the economy.
When they won the Perfect Pitch MV contest, the brothers were approached by several would-be investors, but they wanted to maintain control of their business. However, they did accept and greatly appreciate the help of their mentors, including the local Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group and the aforementioned Jack Blake. The brothers also credit the larger community of oyster farmers for sharing plans and support, and Greg says everyone has been very collaborative.
Another lesson the brothers needed to learn was how to handle the increase in scale that came with the use of an upweller system. With that knowledge, they have become more visible as a supplier across the East Coast as well as taken on the role of an educator. They often go to schools to talk with students about their oyster farming process. They also take people of all ages (kids, foodies, scientists) out on the water for tours of their oyster farm and show them how it all works.
Cottage City Oysters continues to expand and has a staff made up of people who want to work on the ocean. The brothers have also expanded their own roles in the company. Though Greg focuses more on finance and Dan on engineering, they try to be good at everything, and each knows a lot about the oyster business. “We balance each other out and help each other out,” says Greg. “When we started, we had an idea of what was involved in running a business, but underestimated how much work would go into an oyster farm.”
The Cottage City Oyster website is well designed and contains much information about the oyster life cycle for the uninitiated. On the site, tours can be booked and oyster orders can be placed in addition to purchasing the always popular T-shirts and shucking knives. The brothers and their staff can also be hired online for events to shuck the oysters they harvested earlier that day. They enjoy talking to people at the events about oyster farm-to-table, and those attendees spread the word to others, so that the brothers often have orders beyond New England, including Virginia, Maryland, and New York.
Greg and Dan are always increasing their knowledge, and Greg says they both love “the science behind it and learning all about the ocean.” He says that by tracking what is growing on the oysters, as well as on their equipment, they can see what’s happening in Vineyard waters. They share their experiences with Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marine Invader Monitoring and Information Collaborative, East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, and others.
The brothers feel the need to emphasize the fact that what they do requires community effort to make it successful. They often talk about supportive sharing, and want to continue to be a role model and an asset for the community.
Greg’s advice to upcoming Perfect Pitch MV contestants is to “know what you’re talking about and show passion for what you do or envision doing.” Seems that is not only the key to Perfect Pitch MV success, but also the key to building a successful business.
For more information, visit cottagecityoysters.com.