Joth Davis was a young father of three working on his PhD in the 1980s at the University of Washington, with his research focused on how to raise oysters more efficiently, when he thought, “Why not put into motion what I’ve been studying, and start a small business?” So he put his studies temporarily on hold and began Baywater Shellfish Farms with his late wife, Karen.
“We stumbled on to a really great place, a very pristine area in Puget Sound,” Davis recalls. “There were lots of people snatching up water and land at the time and we were lucky we found such a great spot.”
There are a couple hundred shellfish growers in Washington State, with a value of 75 million dollars annually in oyster sales, so competition is strong, but high quality and unique ideas have kept the family business going all these years, Davis says.
The company’s very first sales in 1991 were made to Japan, with the business relationship forged through a family friend’s Japanese mother who had connections to the seafood business in Tokyo.
“From that point on, we were often thinking about Asia as there is a lot of demand and a good market,” Davis says.
Through a broker for the last 15 years the company has sold geoduck, clam, and other products to various cities in Asia, such as Singapore and Shanghai. But, as many know, nothing beats personal connections in business.
Davis’ son, Justin, moved to mainland China a few years ago to pursue work in a field unrelated to the family business, and then relocated to Hong Kong in 2013. Within a month he met Nero Wan, who had also recently moved to Hong Kong, after spending several years away in Canada. In a city of eight million people where it can feel overwhelming to start a new life, the two newcomers found they had an instantaneous connection.
In 2014, Davis came to Hong Kong to visit his son and to meet Wan for the first time. During his visit, the three mused about the possibility of bringing some of the farm’s product into the city. Justin and Wan were both working full-time at that point, but the idea had been hatched. Wan began studying law by correspondence and quit her full-time position, which allowed her time to also begin looking into the feasibility of bringing the product directly to venues in Hong Kong.
“I started going out, calling people, meeting with restaurants, and 90 percent of the people who I spoke to were interested,” Wan says. “Most restaurants buy from big distributors and deal with a middleman. We are mirroring what people are doing in the U.S. and Europe with the ‘farm-to-table,’—they know where it’s coming from, they know Justin is from the farm family, and that he’s here in Hong Kong and they really like that.”
A very important aspect of making this operation work is attention to detail because the products are perishable, Davis explains. He and his staff harvest the oysters early in the morning in Puget Sound, pack them for shipping, and then drive the product to a freight forwarder. The product stays refrigerated on the plane with gel ices in all of the boxes, and when the plane arrives about 14 hours later in Hong Kong, Justin and Wan meet the product and keep it cold and ready to distribute.
“Trade is good between the U.S. and Hong Kong, so once we made sure to go through all the permits for shipping into Asia, we could cost effectively move product into the region,” Davis says. “Demand is high for our product, so we are gearing for increased production at our farm.”
Currently, the company supplies oysters to six restaurants in Hong Kong, and with the success Justin and Wan have met so far, the two plan to approach more venues in the coming months, as production capacity grows.
Justin notes that Hong Kong is a very international city, so the “farm-to-table” concept took off really well.
“It’s a nice story to tell: food is about being able to tell a story to put on the menu,” Justin says. “But of course that’s hardly the only factor that comes into play, it has to taste good, too.”
Davis is ecstatic to have his son involved in the family business, especially as the company approaches its 25th anniversary of operations this year.
“It’s fun for me to have him involved,” Davis says. “When people meet him, they know that he is literally a part of a farm family.”