TODAY

TODAY   |  July 04, 2013

Turning family oyster business into high-end supplier

Travis and Ryan Croxton’s great-grandfather sold the family’s first oysters in 1899. After their grandfather cautioned younger generations against joining the business, little was done with the oyster beds for 20 years – until Travis and Ryan turned them into a profitable business supplying some of the country’s top restaurants.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> food. for one american family , it's in their blood. nbc's erica hill has the story.

>> this is a great story. full disclosure , i love this people. travis and ryan and their cousins are the fourth generation in their family to run the family's oyster business, an industry they got into for purely sentimental reasons, but it's now one they're transforming one harvest at a time. sunrise on the rappahannock river . there's history in these waters and tradition.

>> that's our father and grandfather.

>> reporter: their great grandfather james kroxton sold the first oysters in 1899 to supplement his farming income, his son, their grandfather, eventually took over rappahannock oysters, but cautioned against it as disease and decline took hold.

>> my grandfather rode the decline. it pretty much collapsed in 1980 . he passed away in '91.

>> reporter: for 20 years the croxton held onto the oyster beds but did little with them until 2001 , when travis and ryan decided to take over.

>> we're both super nostalgic about our grandfather and family. it was just romanticized for us. we had no intention or realization we'd ever come to where we are right now.

>> reporter: travis and ryan created their own crash course in oystering and aqua culture. raising and farming oysterses rather than just gathering what they found in the bay, a fundamental change in the business. less than two years later, they sold their first oysters to one of the country's top restaurants, new york's famed la bernardin.

>> we had nothing to lose. we had day jobs. it wasn't like it was live or die. we felt like the best critic would be the best chefs.

>> reporter: the chefs were smitten. well, it didn't seem like things could get much better after that first order. just over a decade later, top chefs now call them for oysters, and what started out as a sentimental hobby is now a full-time job.

>> you began with one box and 300 oysters. now 100,000 a week?

>> 100,000 a week.

>> reporter: and how many boxes? a lot.

>> that's a lot of boxes.

>> reporter: in addition to four oyster varieties, the croxton cousins also have three restaurants, including merrois, where you can watch them bring in the harvest right to your table.

>> i never could have imagined this. if my father could have seen what's happening, he would be so proud.

>> reporter: and they've become passionate advocates for the waters that have given their family so much.

>> the water is one aberration much the more you eat, the more we have to plant. for every oyster you eat, that oyster consumes 50 to 60 gallons of water a day.

>> reporter: fertilizing the bay and conserving this for the next generation. actually, travis and ryan have also been recycling oyster shells. they collect the used shells and put the larva or fat on those shells. for every shell they collect, they can grow a dozen oysters on one shell, and they're working on building more natural aids to bring them back to the bay. some oysters they harvest and some do their job of filtering the water.

>> i can see why you fell in love with that