The Maine Oyster Company
Warwick and I pulled up to The Maine Oyster Company restaurant in Portland on a Friday evening, just as the sun was about to set. This studio-sized space situated downtown juxtaposed the feeling of a Maine-cottage-caught-in-a-cityscape. The warmth of the wooden bar, the details in the rustic decor (“Ice Cream & Oysters” says the old sign above the bar), and the perfectly lined rows of oysters gave us a feeling that this place made friends quickly.
John Herrigel, owner of the Maine Oyster Company (MOC), might be one of the most fascinating Mainers I’ve ever met. As John exited the kitchen, we exchanged big hugs – as any long-time friends welcoming buddies from out of town might do. That week, he had been running wild organizing Harvest on the Harbor’s Oysterfest, and had confirmed 33 different oyster farms to be present, which was a serious mission. Taking precious time off the water for growers requires a lot of persuasion. Harvest on the Harbor had originally reached out to Ben at Love Point Oysters for guidance, who insisted that John was the man for the job. So it was settled.
A weekend with the MOC crew consisted of restaurant-hosted pre- and post- parties, a discussion about saving the planet over shucks in a gutted warehouse, a random pit stop to hang with Thievery Corporation, the phenomenal Oysterfest itself, dancing our hearts out at Bubba’s Sulky Lounge, and lastly but definitely my favorite, a tour of John’s own oyster farm with a couple of pups, a drone, and bud heavies.
After three days of time together, I knew that if I had to go away with one thing, it would be that people in this town care a lot about other people. For example, the MOC staff knew almost every restaurant patron on a first-name basis. The growers at Oysterfest took their time to introduce themselves and share their stories to every curious attendee. All the shops had treats ready in hand for my dog when she entered. There were so many kind things happening in this town.
Then there’s John himself. He is the definition of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Connector” archetype. He makes change happen through people, and believes in the power of creating relationships. After all, it’s the theme of the Maine Oyster Company – “to build an oyster community through experience and story.” Every time I met someone that weekend who knew John, they told me a different story on how he helped them by connecting them with others, which I found very selfless and touching.
Farm, Friends and Future
After Oysterfest (covered here), we took our hangovers with us about an hour north of Portland to John’s “Base Camp” in West Point Maine, a waterside residence and launch pad to his own small scale oyster farm, where it all began. His house on the water used to have a long legacy as a corner store for the neighborhood, and to this day, John and his girlfriend Emily still have the odd neighbor opening their front door and asking if they’re open.
John grew up in that very town and recently purchased two more homes across the street from “The Store”. They nestle on the hill and overlook the pristine waterfront of Carrying Place Cove. With several bedrooms and a huge space to entertain, the plan is to develop an oyster retreat concept, or offer it as the perfect place for intimate events.
Some of my favorite moments enjoying oysters are with a small group of newly acquainted friends. It’s a bonding experience that’s unique, relaxing, and encourages you to share. Our morning was just that. John, Emily, my husband Warwick, Rifko Meier, owner of Oysters XO, and Ben Wolven, world renowned shucker at Morin in Denver, hopped on a boat with shucking knives, some video tech and two dogs. As we were about to take off, I shouted, “but what about the beers!” Rifko jumped off the boat and ran upstairs to return with as many Budweisers as he could carry. Done.
The autumn air was fresh, the day sunny and the wind still. As we motored through the Cove, John shared some history and a few pastimes in the surrounding areas. He pointed out a flat rock where socialites back in the day used to gather for parties on the water, and the shed where his close friends used to play games and drink gin. We learned about his childhood summer camp, the local sailboat regattas, the seafood restaurant that recently shut down, and the few salty dogs running lobster operations. It’s the kind of short stories that give any first timer a sense of the place.
We arrived to John’s farm and docked next to his float. A massive storm had just hit the area and we were curious as to what we’d find. As we slowly approached, John realized that his culling table normally perched on the float was missing. He had made the table himself and all of us looked around to see if we could spot it. Nothing. I would have been devastated to lose my custom culling table, but John shrugged it off and stayed positive.
As we hopped off the boat and onto the floating dock, John pulled up a bag of oysters and poured them out on the floor like a low country boil. There we stood, oysters scattered and beers still full, washing the oysters with the passing seaweed and handing them to Ben and Rifko for a shuck. We slurped, laughed and embraced the moment. If I could’ve imagined an escape from the churn of city life, this is where I’d want to be.
We passed the time swapping stories and ideas. Oh, and feeding Smoodge (John and Emily’s little bull dog puppy) his very first oyster. It went down a treat, but we made bets on how that would play out later!
After a filling moment, we hopped back in the boat to return to The Store. Before leaving, one of John’s friends waived him over to shore and, lo and behold, there was the table on the shoreline, propped on its side and covered in seagrass! We collectively sighed, laughed and took plenty of photos of the whole debacle.
Upon returning, we sat on The Store’s sizable deck and bounced ideas on making the place a paradise for special dining experiences, or weekend getaways. There was something truly magical about the place – we all felt it. And since sharing an experience is something we all love, we began to make plans. For some of us, it was “what can we create”? For others it was “how can we do it” and “when can it happen”?
For John, it was “who can we bring together”?
Thank you to John, Emily, the Maine Oyster Co team, Ben, Rifko, Harvest on the Harbor, and my husband, Warwick for an incredible weekend.
Lastly, let’s thank the oysters… for telling a story, preserving our shorelines, cleaning our waters, filling our bellies, and bringing us together.