Bluffton Oyster Co. owners open a restaurant

During their 20 years of catering oyster roasts and other events, attendees would often tell Larry and Tina Toomer they should start a restaurant.

The Toomers, proprietors of Bluffton Oyster Co., liked the idea but didn't think they had the time to run a restaurant in addition to raising a family and managing South Carolina's last full-time oyster shucking factory.

With a little help from their large family, they recently obliged, opening the Bluffton Family Seafood House at 27 Dr. Mellichamp Drive.

The Toomers hope the restaurant will help them share the fresh seafood they harvest daily from local waters.

They decided the time was right in part because their five children, the youngest of whom is a senior at Bluffton High School, want to stay in the area and help with the family business, Larry Toomer said.

"It's just another way to get people to taste what's real," said Toomer, who proudly refuses to sell imported or farm-raised seafood. "That way, they will appreciate us in the long run."

The restaurant, which opened Oct. 30, is taking the place of a former cafe in a plaza a few blocks from the oyster company. The company's shucking operation and retail seafood market will remain where they are now -- on the banks of the May River.

The menu includes seafood gumbo, Lowcountry boil and shrimp and oyster baskets as well as chicken, hamburgers and side dishes such as collard greens and cheese grits.

The restaurant's brightly painted walls are filled with newspaper clippings, nautical trappings and tools of the trade, such as shrimp nets, tokens shuckers redeemed for their labor in the early 1900s, local paintings of sea creatures and a replica of the Tooomers' shrimp boat, Daddy's Girl. The bathrooms are labeled for Jimmies, a term for male crabs, and Sookies, their female counterparts.

Tina's sister, Rebecca Downey, moved from Alabama about a month ago to manage the place. Downey has about 17 years of experience in the restaurant business and most recently managed an Alabama oyster house that could seat about 300 people.

The Bluffton restaurant seats less than 100, but Downey and her husband, Mark, didn't hesitate to help the Toomers after years of hearing them toy with the idea.

"I had no doubt in my mind if we got into this with them it was going to be a success," Mark said.