Steve Pollock, who owns Triple N Oyster Farm with his wife, Ginger Brininstool, hand delivers their oysters to Jolie Pearl and Mansurs on the Boulevard once a week, and the restaurants happily share the story of how the husband and wife team of LSU biology professors farm the bivalves with customers. Photography by Brian Baiamonte
About a year ago, Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar began selling a new, expensive oyster that they refuse to chargrill because of its premium taste.
“They are by far the best I’ve ever had,” says Eric Carnegie, an oyster aficionado and co-owner of the downtown Baton Rouge restaurant that specializes in high-quality oysters from all U.S. coasts and Canada. “They’ve exceeded expectations. I’ve had people say, ‘You’ve ruined other oysters for me ever since I tried these.’”
Since the oysters first appeared on the menu, they’ve become a signature item and are such a hit that the restaurant has actually made them its namesake offering, coining them “The Jolie Pearl” oysters.
Perhaps most interesting about the oysters isn’t their unique taste—described as “mildly briny, with a sweet finish” on the Jolie Pearl menu—or their quick success, but their source: A husband and wife team of LSU biology professors who have adopted a new method for raising oysters that delivers a higher-quality product that can be brought to market about three times faster than traditional farming.
When Steve Pollock and his wife Ginger Brininstool aren’t teaching biology courses in Baton Rouge, they’re in Grand Isle tending to 300 floating cages in Caminada Bay where they raise and harvest thousands of oysters.
The couple, with the help of their two children, are the sole operators of Triple N Oyster Farm. They’re new to the business, and Pollock doesn’t really consider himself an oyster connoisseur. But he says their alternative, off-bottom method of growing oysters in floating containers produces a superior product. Sales figures certainly support his claim. He sold about 300 oysters per month after the first batch was harvested in February 2016. A year later, he’s selling more than 5,500 during an average month.
Sales have been boosted by Mansurs on the Boulevard, which became the second restaurant to feature his oysters on the menu in February. Triple N also sells directly to customers in Grand Isle, and in February it sold a monthly record of 5,700 oysters.
What makes the oysters special is the breed and alternative growing method. Triple N’s oysters are triploids, or “all-season” oysters, which are bred to be sterile. Pollock explains that because they don’t waste time making seeds or mating, they tend to stay fat and full year-round, especially in the summer.
They also take only six to seven months to go from seed to market. This is unheard of compared to traditional oysters, which take two to three years to grow to harvest size. Also, traditional oysters spawn in the summer and, as the saying goes, should only be eaten in months that include an “R”—September through April.
The cultivation process is responsible for the superiority of Triple N’s oysters. Pollock buys triploid seeds, either from the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory or the Michael C. Voisin Oyster Hatchery in Grand Isle, and then raises them in the floating cages designed to suspend the oysters in a nutrient-rich environment where they’re safe from predators and have ample algae to eat.
The water current pushes the oysters against each other in the cage, so they don’t grow wider, but thicker, and they keep a more constant, round shape. Pollock pressure washes his oysters after harvesting them for an even cleaner product. Pollock has 300 cages in his plot of water and can harvest about 150 oysters in each. His main expense is the seeds, which cost 2.5 cents each. He starts out with about 10,000 seeds in a cage, but that number quickly dwindles down to 150 as they grow.
The off-bottom method has been used elsewhere and is beginning to gain traction in Louisiana. Besides Triple N, there’s another family operation in Grand Isle called Grand Isle Sea Farms that raises oysters the same way. The approach is more labor intensive than traditional oyster farming, which is why they’re more expensive. At Jolie Pearl, a half dozen sells for $13 and a dozen for $26. In Grand Isle, Pollock sells them at his personal camp for $1 each.
“The price difference is twice as much as traditional oysters, but for the flavor, you get what you pay for,” Pollock says. “This is truly a premium oyster. A lot of chefs prefer these.”
Pollock doesn’t give specific revenue numbers but says Triple N “more than broke even” last year. He expects to do even better in 2017, after Jolie Pearl opens its second location at White Star Market later this year, and he hopes to get into a few more restaurants by the summer.
In Grand Isle, he puts out a sign near his camp that reads “summertime oysters,” which intrigues locals and visitors. Sometimes the $1-per-oyster price turns customers off, Pollock says, but those who are convinced to try them become quick converts.
“The biggest brick wall we encounter is the cost,” he says. “We need them to realize it’s worth it for the taste.”
Mansurs on the Boulevard sous chef Travis Stringer says the restaurant decided to give Triple N’s oysters a try after Pollock stopped in one day to make a personal pitch.
“They sell great,” Stringer says. “Last week, we had several people come in looking for them. I think they are a superior tasting product than others we’ve tried from other areas.”
Stringer describes Pollock’s oysters as having more of a briny, buttery and rich taste compared to traditional Gulf Coast oysters. Like Jolie Pearl, Mansurs only sells them raw because they don’t want to compromise the taste by cooking them.
“It’s such a beautifully tasting product,” Stringer says, “we don’t want to do anything to them.”
The backstory behind the oysters is as intriguing as the taste, he adds, and Mansurs uses it to sell them in a farm-to-table fashion. Servers tell customers about Pollock’s family farm, how they raise the oysters and how Pollock delivers them himself, straight from Grand Isle, once a week.
The idea for Triple N was conceived by Pollock’s wife in 2014 after she read an article about the Port Commission of Grand Isle leasing plots of water in Caminada Bay for alternative oyster farming use. Brininstool suggested they take up the offer, so they signed a two-year lease for a two-acre plot for just $200.
The small family operation stays busy. Pollock spends weekends—and some weekdays when he isn’t teaching—in Grand Isle, taking his boat out and getting in the water to check on the oysters. His wife and son Justin, 11, help out, while his 4-year-old daughter Megan is the taste tester. For Pollock, it isn’t necessarily the oysters that attract him, it’s the lifestyle.
“I love being on the coast,” he says.
For now, Pollock says he doesn’t have plans to expand his oyster farm operations. And he’s careful not to take on too many restaurants so as to not run short on supply. He’s content with his two-acre plot of water and will continue selling in Grand Isle.
“This summer my goal is to sell 20,000 from the camp in Grand Isle,” Pollock says. “With my two-acre plot, we stay busy enough. Plus, we have a lot on the line if a storm comes.”