Bluffton Oyster Co. wins state, regional small business award

April 26, 2011 

  • Opened in 1899 at the end of Wharf Street on the banks of the May River.

  • Its current building was constructed in 1954.

  • Larry Toomer bought the business in 1995.

  • In 2002, Beaufort County purchased the Bluffton Oyster Company site to preserve it. The Toomers lease the building from the county.

  • The Bluffton Family Seafood House opened in October 2010.

  • The Bluffton Oyster Co., South Carolina's last full-time oyster shucking business, is a family affair from harvest to table.

    Now, it's an award-winning enterprise, too.

    The U.S. Small Business Administration named the company run by Larry and Tina Toomer the Family-Owned Business of the Year for South Carolina and the southeast region, which comprises North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.

    The Toomers oversee an operation that includes the hand-shucking factory on Wharf Street, a catering business featuring oyster roasts and Lowcountry boils, and the Bluffton Family Seafood House on Dr. Mellichamp Drive.

    All those offshoots have kept the Bluffton Oyster Co. afloat while other local oyster companies have faded away, Larry Toomer said.

    Instead of selling hand-harvested oysters exclusively, the company also offers shrimp and crab. The catering arm and the restaurant allow the company to control where it sells its catch, he said.

    "It's not easy, but we don't have all of our eggs in one basket," Toomer said. "Basically, it takes faith, determination, hard work and never giving up."

    Anna Huntley, spokeswoman for the Small Business Administration's South Carolina office, said the company won the award based on sales and profits, potential for long-term success, community engagement, and employment opportunities for relatives and others. The Toomers will be honored May 4 at an awards luncheon at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, as part of the Small Business Administration's "Salute to Small Business."

    The family's involvement in the oyster industry dates back generations.

    Larry Toomer's father, Frank, and grandfather, Simpson, operated local canneries and seafood factories. Larry Toomer, who still catches shrimp and other seafood for the company, once sold his catch to the Bluffton Oyster Co. before he joined the management in 1992. He bought the business in 1995.

    Some of the company's six oyster shuckers, all of whom are more than 60 years old, worked for Larry Toomer's father. Between the factory and the restaurant, Larry Toomer estimates the company has about 40 employees.

    Other members of the family have become involved in the The Bliffton Oyster Co., too. Tina Toomer's sister, Rebecca Downey, moved from Alabama to help manage the restaurant, which opened in October. Her husband and son, both named Mark, also work there.

    The passion for fresh, local seafood also carries forward to future generations. The Toomers' three daughters -- Jessica, Jackie and Jamie -- split their time between the restaurant and the shucking business, and one of their two sons, George, catches shrimp and helps part-time with the catering.

    Tina Toomer said that while working with relatives can be challenging, it has helped make the company successful.

    "You get to see each other every day, and you have trust there," she said.

    The family is "excited and proud" of the award, she added.

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