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Taylor Shellfish Farms

Ebb and flow

Like many family businesses, Taylor Shellfish Farms has seen growth and recession. The fourth generation is running things now, and G5 is taking their turn learning parts of the business. It's a good time for Taylor.

Joseph (JY) Waldrip (with walking stick) had an entrepreneurial spirit. He'd spent time in the Puget Sound area as a child in the 1850s, then lived in Northern Mexico/Southern California. When Seattle burned, he returned to help rebuild and reconnect with his family in South Puget Sound. He saw an opportunity in the oyster farming business and started growing Olympia oysters. A man with many plans, he joined the Gold Rush in Alaska in 1898. He came back and eventually had one of the two largest oyster companies in the area. Business ebbed and flowed; JY died in 1929. When the depression hit, a pulp mill was built in Shelton wiping out most of the native oysters.

JY's son, James Waldrip, Jr., ran what was left of the business, but didn't adapt and business declined. His wife Florence Taylor owned some individual tidelands. During WWII, she ran the oyster side of things. Eventually they purchased more tidelands. After WWII and the Korean War, their son, Justin Taylor, worked in the timber industry until he found he liked oyster farming better. In the 1950s when his son Bill was born, he purchased more tidelands and began farming shellfish full time. Eugene passed away in the mid-1960s leaving a lot of timberland and a few tidelands. However, he owed money and taxes; instead of leaving 7000 acres to the family, he left 1500.

Eugene and his brother Edwin looked for a way to help support their mother. They created Taylor United to pull together all family tidelands and add more. Ironically, they purchased tidelands in the late '60s in Hoquiam Bay where the pulp mill had been (the mill closed in the '50s). The family business had found sound footing.

Taylor Shellfish is now run by brothers Bill (at left) and Paul Taylor (far right) (Edwin had no children), and their sister Janet's husband, Jeff Pearson (center). Bill and Paul graduated from college in 1980 and '81 respectively and began working full-time for the company. They had dug clams when they were 5 and 6 years old, and had their own clam business while in college. "After being around it all our lives, we knew what we were getting into," says Bill. Jeff came on board in 1990. They run daily operations with the help of about 90 managers and 500 employees.

Taylor started with Olympia oysters (which they still farm and sell a small amount of) in the 1920s, then brought in Japanese oysters, now known as Pacific oysters. Eastern oysters were brought here earlier than Pacifics, but there were mass mortalities in 1919. "We grow a small amount of Eastern oysters from that early population. One good species brought in was Manila clams. "These became naturalized and are a big part of our business now," explains Bill. "In the late '60s and into the '70s, Japanese seed got very expensive. We depended on the naturalized Pacific oysters. Dabob Bay oyster seed was unreliable-we only got seed 6 out of 10 years. To get around that, an Oregon shellfish hatchery commercially offered clam and oyster seed in the late 70s. We built our own hatchery in the late 80s, doing clams, oysters, blue Mediterranean mussels, and geoduck. Kumamoto oysters from southern Japan were introduced in the 40s."

Growing and selling wholesale was the Taylor business plan until the early 2000s when Bill Whitbeck (Oyster Bill) approached them about selling shellfish at farmers' markets. "People would buy once a week, so he needed to go to a lot of markets. When his health kept him from doing so much, he suggested we check out a space at Melrose Market. We opened a shellfish market in 2011-2012. It went well, but people wanted us to shuck their oysters, and we became a market and oyster bar. That's the direction it's heading. We got a liquor license for beer and wine. About 2013, space became available in Pioneer Square and, simultaneously, in Queen Anne (photo). Instead of choosing one location, we chose both." The decision has worked well as sales are growing. In Canada, they operate as Fanny Bay Oyster Company on Vancouver Island and in the Desolation Sound area. They opened an oyster bar in Vancouver, B.C., in June 2016. Construction is just beginning on a new space near Lincoln Square in Bellevue. "We're farmers, but oyster bars have been interesting and a good business for us."

One reason oyster bars have been good is that most of Taylor's shellfish is sold outside of the U.S., and many people didn't know they existed. "These give us a presence here," explains Bill. "Less than 20% of sales are in the Northwest and at least a third of our product goes to Asia. Our first retail market was in Shelton. In the early 90s, we purchased Rock Point Oyster farm and processing and had some retail sales there. We've stopped processing there and have converted it to a place where product comes in and out. We're now getting permits for early spring to sell shucked oysters, beer, wine, chowder, etc."

Samish market

They also created mobile oyster bars as another way to get in front of people. These are used at private events as catering. "We can educate people by shucking in front of them and answering questions. It's the highlight of the event." They donate a lot of product at fundraisers as well. "We want to support nonprofits that are meaningful to us and it also helps us with recognition."

Taylor produces seed primarily for their use, but sell excess to other shellfish farmers. A small amount is sold to the public at sales in Shelton, Samish, and Quilcene.

Bill's two daughters, Paul's two daughters and son, and Janet's three daughters are all dipping their toes in the business and finding their places. With G4 and G5 in place, Taylor will continue to supply high quality shellfish to the Northwest and beyond.

Connie Adams/February 2017

Taylor Shellfish Farms
Oyster Bars
Capitol Hill
1521 Melrose Ave
Seattle, WA 98151
(206) 501-4321

Pioneer Square
410 Occidental Ave
Seattle, WA 98104
(206) 501-4060

Queen Anne
124 Republican Street
Seattle, WA 98109
(206) 501-4442

Bellevue coming soon

Shellfish Markets
2182 Chuckanut Drive
Bow, WA 98232
(360) 766-6002

130 SE Lynch Rd
Shelton, WA 98584
(360) 432-3300

Photos  courtesy of Taylor Shellfish Farms

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