CREATIVITY IN HOSPITALITY: INTERVIEW WITH ROGER HALL, FOUNDING DIRECTOR AT PORLOCK BAY OYSTERS

A tremendous community and startup story. Roger Hall tells us how six retirees went about setting up an oyster farm from scratch in Porlock Weir, Somerset, and if it’s really true what they say about oysters.

How long has Porlock Bay Oysters been running?
We’ve been going for six years now. The idea evolved from the fact that Porlock has the oldest age profile in England. Eight years ago the Parish Council sent questionnaires around the village to find out local thoughts and concerns. It came back that the main worry was that there was so little in the way of employment opportunities for school leavers. The Parish Council set up a group called Porlock Futures which was largely made up of retired people with business backgrounds. It was down to us to come up with ideas for small businesses that could create a bit of employment.

Where did the idea come from?
We came up with a lot of different ideas. They had to fit in with the character and heritage of Porlock and be good for tourism. Mussel farming came up and we tried it but they fell off and the seagulls ate them. Then someone had the idea of oysters. They had occurred naturally in the Bristol Channel in the 18th century but then all the beds had been stripped and stolen by boats from Colchester and Whitstable. We held a very successful trial growing seed Pacific oysters (which take three years to grow to restaurant size) and worked out that they grew, it was commercially viable and that they were fit for consumption (at the time of testing we were the only site in England or Wales to get a Category A for our oysters).   

What’s your background that led you to this?
It couldn’t have been more different. I was a National IT Project Manager for BT. I retired 15 years ago and moved down this way and got involved by chance. Well actually the reason I got involved was because I’d had one too many. At Porlock’s late night Christmas shopping I made my way down the high street, sipping mulled wine from all the shops. I was gently swaying in the museum, full of Christmas cheer, when I was approached by a member, saying that they were desperate for an extra person, so I couldn’t refuse.

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Practically, where did you begin with setting the business up?
The group set up a private limited community interest company. The sheer logistics of setting up a business from scratch were colossal - the operations, marketing, finance - I was working seven days a week for the first nine months. The company needs ten licences including one for buoys to mark the site, a production licence, one from the food standards agency, a purification licence, and one from the private estate we are on (who have been extremely supportive). We have six volunteer directors and ten part-time volunteers.

What have been your biggest achievements so far?
Setting up the company and getting the finance with the community involvement. We went through extremely complex processes and submitted a 60 page socio-economic study and grant applications which won us £75,000 from the Power to Change fund. That was going to be nowhere near enough for the three years it would take the oysters to grow, so we wrote a crowdfunding letter to everyone in Porlock Vale asking them if they’d loan us a maximum of £1,000. We got £157,000 from 170 people. In terms of raising the tourist profile and the marketing advantages, we couldn’t have done better. It’s a tremendous community and startup story, and oysters are environmentally friendly, so we’re on TV and in the press a lot - Countryfile, Escape to the Country, BBC Points West, The Guardian, to name a few.

What has been the most challenging thing?
It’s farming so very unpredictable. Snow stopped the growth this year with the cold water and messed up our growth production timelines.

What drives you?
The nature of my job in the past involved doing a lot of different things. I managed 60 people, multi-million pound budgets and enormous systems, so I like to be busy.

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How are oysters best eaten?
I don’t actually like them but I’m delighted so many people do! I’ve eaten three on TV. Connoisseurs will have them raw. I’ve been told you should actually chew them to taste the flavour. The classic way is with shallot vinaigrette, lemon and tabasco (in the measures of your choosing). We have recipes on the site including a Somerset version of oysters Rockefeller where we recommend using local Wicked Wolf gin instead of Pernod.

Is it true what they say about oysters?
We were selling our oysters in Porlock once. A man bought some and came back the next day complaining loudly. He had been in town for a romantic weekend with his wife and bought six of our oysters - only four had worked.

What’s your best bit of advice for being successful in the hospitality industry?
You have to be entirely customer focused - always give the customer what they want.

What do you cook for yourself at home?
Mainly meaty meals. Sunday roasts and traditional English food, but I also like to cook Indian and Chinese dishes and I hold Greek dinner parties.

What’s next for you and Porlock Bay Oysters?
We’re just at the beginning of our proper commercial phase. Next we’ll need to build up, get bigger premises and more sophisticated processes. We’ll move from selling 20,000 to 400,000 oysters a year for a profitable business. Two things that will help get me through that are gin and wine!

Find out more at www.porlockbayoysters.co.uk.

Images credit: Maureen Harvey