1. What is an oyster bar?
An oyster bar is a casual seafood eatery that specializes in oysters, a culinary favorite for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The bivalves are served raw on the half-shell at oyster bars, usually on a bed of ice to keep them cold and fresh. They’re accompanied by various sauces and are often paired with beer and wine.
Live oysters are best as fresh as possible, so most oyster bars are located in coastal communities or within a reasonable distance of their suppliers. Many higher-end establishments or land-locked oyster bars have fresh oysters flown in daily from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and Europe.
2. What is the history of oyster bars?
The bivalves have been a staple of American diets since the founding of this country. Wild oysters were plentiful in Atlantic waters and were ubiquitous on tavern menus. In the 1800s, oyster parlors, saloons, and cellars lined city streets all over the country, even inland places like Kansas City, and were associated with heavy drinking. Oysters were trendy, cheap, and readily available.
But overharvesting eventually depleted the supply of wild natural beds. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that the oyster trend spawned again, thanks to developments in sustainable shellfish aquaculture. Oyster bars are now popping up on both coasts, but it’s still considered a niche dining experience.
3. What is typically on an oyster bar menu?
Oyster bars specialize in the five main types of oysters commercially harvested in the U.S. Sustainable farms are the primary source, as overharvesting and water pollution have decimated most wild oyster beds.
You’ll find Pacific oysters (originally from Japan) and Kumamoto oysters, both farmed on the Pacific Coast. Another West Coast bivalve, Olympia, is the only wild oyster commercially sold today and is extremely rare.
You’ll also find Atlantic oysters, the most well-known of which is Bluepoint. And lastly, European Flats that hail from western European waters.
Oyster menus often include other shellfish, like mussels, shrimp, or scallops, as well as oyster-friendly sides, including fries, salads, fresh bread, clam chowder, and gratins. But oysters – with a glass of white wine or a craft beer — are always the star of the show.
4. How do you start an oyster bar?
In 2019, an estimated 42 million pounds of sustainable oysters were produced by U.S. aquaculturists, worth around $221 million. Oyster bars are a profitable and growing restaurant industry segment but require a deep dive into the oyster market. Supplier research and market analysis should be top priorities.
Gather relevant information about emerging oyster bar trends and competitors in your region. This will provide an idea of your food requirements and what is commercially available. With oysters and shellfish, identifying and establishing strong relationships with sustainable suppliers will be critical to your success.
5. How much does it cost to start an oyster bar?
The average overall cost to open a restaurant falls between $100 and $800 per square foot, according to FreshBooks, and varies depending on location, concept, size, materials, and whether you’re renting or buying your space.
Oyster bars require fresh inventory delivered daily and possibly flown in from across the country. Factor in extra refrigerated storage and equipment needed for handling and preparation, and the cost of goods sold may run higher than average.
Location is another consideration, as most oyster bars have indoor and outdoor seating and are in cities or coastal communities, which can charge more per square foot.
6. Most popular types of oyster bars
The most popular oyster bars take the humble oyster in new, fresh directions. With their newfound popularity, chefs are turning their attention to oysters and adding surprising and creative culinary twists. Interesting toppings go beyond a squeeze of lemon to include barbecue sauce, chili oils, onions, ponzu sauce, and more.
The most popular establishments focus on seasonality and freshness, an oyster menu that changes daily, and an exciting wine and craft beer list. Customers expect a friendly, casual place to pull up a stool at the oyster counter or sit outdoors on the patio and enjoy a few drinks and delicious seafood.
Once as common as Starbucks, oyster bars are slowly making a comeback with breakthroughs in sustainable harvesting. No longer cheap and fast food, today’s oyster bars deliver artfully-prepared meals in a fun, convivial setting.
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