Written by Janet Davies
“Shucking oysters at the farm market! Are you kidding me?” Seafood lovers were surprised and delighted to meet Sam Ravenda with her mobile oyster bar at the Wellington Farm Market last year. Sam had moved to Prince Edward County in 2015 hoping to pick up work shucking oysters at private functions and maybe a winery or two. She had fallen in love with oysters and the culture around them at a young age, and she worked for six years at Toronto’s famed Oyster Boy honing her skills before packing up her life, and her knife, to move to The County. She hoped her oyster shucking prowess might be of interest here. It was. Sam has been busy, and she’s about to get a whole lot busier this year when she opens her own Seafood restaurant and fish shop. We talked to her about her journey from there to here.
Photo Credits Johnny CY Lam
“I love oysters and, yes, there is a definite culture around them. Here in Canada there’s a small community of oyster aficionados and shuckers, and we all get to know each other. It’s not like a formal organization, but there are competitions all over the country and we meet up. Rodneys Oyster House in Toronto has a big shucking event every year, The Whalesbone in Ottawa has one and there’s a regular event in Whistler, B.C. And then there’s the Montreal Oyster Fest, which is great fun every year.” We asked her what’s so great about oysters, and she thought for a bit. “Well, they’re just amazing! Is that an answer?” She laughs and tries again. “Oysters are incredible, really good for you and such a treat. I think people treat oysters as a way to treat themselves. Eating oysters can be part of a celebration, it’s got that ceremonial thing about it, and they’re getting more popular outside of specialty places. There is a huge rise in oyster-loving diners out there. Restaurants will hold “Buck a Shuck” nights to bring people in, which I don’t love but at least it allows them to introduce new people to oysters, and they’re incorporating them in their menus.
Oysters are terrific for pairing with craft beer and wine, too, and people are into that. Sparkling wine especially is great, and the “cleaner” alcohols, like gin and vodka, the white clear alcohols make nice pairings. Classics like Martinis or Caesars go hand in hand with oysters.”
Does she know that Barley Days Brewery here in The County makes an oyster stout? “Yes!” she says. “And you know what? I learned from Brett the brewer they use actual oysters to make it. I never knew that. I thought maybe they called it that because it goes well with them, but I shucked oysters there this year during Maple in the County and I learned the truth.”
Sam grew up in Montreal, and as a child she did a lot of cooking with her dad and grandmother who are the Italian side of her heritage, and with her Scots/Irish grandma, too, who was a great baker. “I went to cooking school where I first learned to shuck oysters, and I just fell for seafood. I always thought I’d return to Montreal, but instead I worked 16 years in the hospitality world in Toronto.
“The first time I came to The County I remember thinking, oh my goodness, there’s something special here. I went to Norman Hardie’s and had a wonderful experience and I camped around a bit, and the memory just stayed with me. Couple of years later I came out to work at Norman’s on the weekends, working the pizza oven and helping at the tasting bar. The next year I thought, what the hell, I’m moving.” She pauses. “Okay, to be honest my partner and I broke up and I was looking for somewhere to live in Toronto and I didn’t want to spend a fortune on a place and I needed a change. I had friends here from working at the winery, so I just packed my trunk and hit the road. That was June 2015. I worked at Norm’s and by the end of the year I was thinking about starting an oyster company. Then I got my first private booking, so I said, okay, I’m booked to shuck oysters at a wedding. Better get serious! By May 2016 I was doing it.
“It went well, but I hadn’t realized how busy I would get. I thought I’d set myself up to do private events, but then I got regular shucking gigs with Norman Hardie, then Rosehall Run, and then I did the Wellington Farmers Market. The combination of those things made people aware of me and kind of built my brand. The wineries recognized I could be an attraction to bring people in. One couple followed me around all weekend and it made me feel great when they said “We’re here because you’re here.” Oysters can be a fantastic draw because it’s still a unique thing to offer. I did the Trenton Air Show at the military base, thanks to Bay of Quinte Tourism Board who asked me to shuck at their VIP booth. The base has asked me back since then, and it’s kind of nice to be known as The Oyster Girl!”
“I had a really busy December with Christmas and New Year and people wanting oyster deliveries,” she says. “I took January off to rest up but also to plan.” She takes a big breath. “Because I’m opening a restaurant! We are moving into a place in West Lake, hopefully by the end of May. It will be called ‘Sand and Pearl” and we’ll be a raw bar and a fish fry, with fresh oysters, seafood & fish, all the great stuff. There will be a retail seafood counter, too, because I think that’s lacking here, although you can get really good fish at Sobey’s, but ours will be more focused on oysters and seasonal shellfish. The place is on the road to Sandbanks and used to be called Beach Baby and sold burgers and ice creams, and before that it was the Brickworks and sold pizza. It’s a busy spot, across the road from Isaiah Tubbs. There’s a big beautiful backyard which we’d love to use for picnic tables. I couldn’t have done this alone. I’ve got two partners Nathan and Nicole, who already own The Auld Spot, a pub on the Danforth in Toronto and Sweetgrass Craft Beer, and they will come out seasonally to help run it. Obviously we’ll serve Sweetgrass beer and local craft beer and wine, too. I’m so excited. I never planned on taking on something like this. But they approached me, and when you’ve got a team working together you can do so much more.
WHERE DO SAM’S OYSTERS COME FROM
She laughs, “Not from around here! When people see PEI they sometimes think it’s Prince Edward oysters, but seriously, if you see ‘Oysters from The County’ don’t eat ‘em! I try to buy only Canadian. There are a few suppliers I really trust, and it’s very well curated. I don’t bring in just any oysters. Oysters are seasonal, and, depending on where they’re from, I might find a batch that’s a little thin, not plump, so I hold off and don’t buy until they’re good again. B.C. oysters thrive in winter months, East Coast are different, but oysters are available year round now, they’re mostly cultured, they are farmed.” We asked Sam if oysters are frozen. “God no! They’re never frozen. Oysters are a live product. They’re usually shipped within a day or two of being taken from the water. When you see them on ice that’s just to keep them cold and for presentation. They’re on their little cup and you nestle them in crushed ice to keep them level.” So they’re alive when you eat them? She laughs, “Ah, there’s that question. Not really. A friend of mine put it well, “they are mortally wounded!” When you open an oyster it’s alive, but you sever the adducter muscle that is attached to the top and bottom shell, you cut it with a knife, and I believe once you have done that, they’re gone.” If that thought freaks you out, Sam suggests smoked oysters. “They’re not alive just before you eat them, and they’re lovely on a cracker.”
She’s quick to credit others for helping her. “I’ve received phenomenal support here from entrepreneurs and small business owners I work with and the public and everybody I meet. They truly want you to succeed. I feel it whenever I put myself out there. You can reach out for advice and help, there is definitely a network. PELA CFDC were very helpful. I could have got a loan with them. I went a different route, but they were there and ready to help. I took a QuickBooks workshop with Trenval in Trenton which was great. You’ve got to know the tedious stuff, too.” She laughs. “And the Creative Minds event Krista Dalby puts on? I loved the postcard idea, swapping services like, “If you take care of my cat I will knit you something!” This working together thing, being eager to help each other, I don’t know if it’s unique to The County, I’ve only ever lived in cities before, but it’s pretty special. At the Wellington Farmers Market, Louise McFaul who runs it, she has done so much to help people get started, and she’d offer to watch my booth if I had to step away. It’s just so nice and genuine.”
WORKING WITH LOCAL PRODUCE
What I saw here, apart from a beautiful place to live, was people are so friendly. There are a lot of inspired people who feel they have found a place to explore their creativity or build a business that’s really County based. I would love to work with local produce. I know every restaurant says that and it’s not always possible, but I want to support local growers and businesses, and there are new networks developing. I just met Liz and Matt who raise sheep. Right now they have to sell to a big supplier, but how cool it would be if they could sell locally. There’s so much potential for collaborating. We want to maximize our space at The Shore Raw Bar, use it as an event venue and work with other vendors.
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
If you’re hoping to come to The County to rent, it’s getting harder, because now anybody with rental space uses it for vacation rental because it makes more money. Be sure to do your homework. But when you do come here, get involved in the community. Go to any events you hear about. Even if you’re not sure what’s going on or whether you’ll like it. Just go. Get out and meet people. Respect where you’re moving to. If you’re going to live here, really get into it, get to know everybody, new people, people who’ve always been here. The history here is fascinating. I went to the Archives and it’s awe inspiring, the stories about all these places that I now know. The best way to feel part of this place is join in. After all, the people who organize events do a lot of work to make them happen. The least you can do is go for 20 minutes! You’ll be surprised how much you get out of it. I am having a great time. I love it here. And I think I’m going to be very, very busy this year.
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.