New Orleans family oyster company sees only dark days ahead
Published: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 6:30 AM Updated: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 12:11 PM
Al Sunseri is livid. It's not his usual disposition.
Last June, when Sunseri announced the BP oil spill was forcing his family's company, P&J Oyster Company, to cease regular business operations, his tone was measured. The move cost 13 of the company's employees their jobs -- everyone not named Sunseri -- leaving Al and his brother, Sal, to try to keep the business afloat.
Sunseri appeared calm even last fall. At the time, P&J's business had slowed to a trickle, a consequence of the state's decision to divert large amounts of freshwater into Louisiana's brackish coastal wetlands in an effort to keep the oil off shore. The diversions reduced the salinity of the waters where some of the state's most prized oysters are harvested, causing widespread oyster mortality that devastated areas where P&J, which has been processing and distributing Louisiana oysters for 135 years, sourced most of its products.
"I'm basically an optimistic guy," Al Sunseri said. "But now I'm mad."
Sunseri sat cross-legged on a couch in his French Quarter office. It was a few days before last month's anniversary of the Macondo oil well explosion. Despite mounting evidence that Louisiana's wetlands were less polluted by oil than feared, Sunseri's portfolio of worry and disgruntlement had gradually swelled since the well was capped last July. It has only gotten worse in the last week, as the Mississippi River has risen to levels that threaten to cause even more destruction to Louisiana's oyster supply.
Deep distrust of BP, claims process
Sunseri, like many in the Louisiana oyster business, doesn't believe Kenneth Feinberg's Gulf Coast Claims Facility has negotiated in good faith with oyster fishers, farmers and distributors. BP argues that it didn't authorize the freshwater diversions that share blame for the precipitous drop in Louisiana's oyster production in 2010 and therefore shouldn't be held responsible for the harm it caused the $360 million industry.
The company's refusal to pay for a $15 million reseeding project to repair damaged oyster beds was fresh on Sunseri's mind as he moved from couch to desk in P&J's eerily quiet headquarters.
"They said they were going to make people whole," Sunseri said of BP. "We just recently received a check from them, and it was a pittance compared to what we've lost. They haven't done what they said. They're going to come up with any excuse, any reason to not come up with what we've lost."
Before the oil spill, P&J was almost exclusively dependent on oysters harvested in Louisiana. But now, the historically high river poses the latest in a dizzying series of obstacles that threatens the Sunseris' ability to remain New Orleans' go-to supplier of quality local oysters. The spike in uncertainty lends even more urgency to the questions they've been asking themselves for a year now:
When will damaged oyster beds return to health? Will there be enough fishers to harvest them when and if they do? Will out-of-state demand ever rebound? How large a portion of P&J's business has been lost forever?
'This is just one bad thing after another'
"I've been doing this for over 30 years," Al Sunseri said. "P&J has been through hurricanes, the Depression, world wars, all that, but this is just one bad thing after another. It's terrible."
And that was before the river started to rise.
P&J's business is based on a reputation for quality built over generations. The Sunseris' involvement dates to the 1920s, when Alfred Sunseri -- grandfather to Al and Sal -- was hired by P&J's founders, John Popich and Joseph Jurisich.
The Sunseri family took sole possession of P&J in the 1970s, but the current owners see their work as a continuation of a project that began in the crucial early stages of New Orleans' culinary history. "The P&J Oyster Cookbook" makes a point, for instance, of mentioning that the company was around when Oysters Rockefeller was invented at Antoine's in the 1880s.
Rodney Fox, owner of R&A Oyster Co., a seafood supplier in Bayou La Batre, Ala., said his father, Kenny, has told him stories about P&J's founders.
"Back in the day, he said, 'If you were lucky enough, Mr. Jurisich and Mr. Popich would sell you oysters,'" Fox recalled. "When you speak of oysters, name recognition is really important, and Al and Sal have done a good job maintaining that. It's nothing for Al and Sal to go down to the docks and shake hands with the fishermen, just to say hello, even if they're not buying from them. That's how they stay abreast of what's going on in the industry."
Tenney Flynn, chef and co-owner of GW Fins, a French Quarter seafood restaurant not far from P&J headquarters, said he buys from P&J "partly out of habit and partly out of loyalty, which is based on the fact that they have the best oysters."
No more shucking
Today, the production facility that fronts the company's offices appears as it has for more than a year now: empty, save for the handful of part-time employees who help package and deliver oysters to the company's dwindling base of clients. The company has not returned to shucking. In the span of a couple of hours in April, Al Sunseri turned away two customers who had wandered in looking to buy oysters and countless others who called his cell and office phones looking for product.
Last fall, the Sunseris said P&J's distribution business had been cut to an eighth of what it was before the oil spill. They've since hired four part-time workers to help package oysters and drive the trucks. Sunseri declined to share specifics on the advice of his lawyer, who has filed a lawsuit against BP on P&J's behalf.
"I can't go into numbers," he said. "All I can say is (business) is substantially off. We're just trying to take care of our customers."
Doing so has been touch and go for more than a year now. The freshwater oyster kill-offs that followed the oil spill wreaked havoc on P&J's practice of sourcing oysters almost exclusively from areas they believe produce the highest quality.
Before the spill, Mitch Jurisich, an oyster fisher and supplier based in Empire who is no relation to P&J's co-founder, sold to P&J once a week. "We're kind of like winemakers," Jurisich said. "We don't harvest oysters before it's time." Jurisich has yet to resume supplying P&J since he stopped harvesting June 4, although he returned to the water April 19.
Around the same time P&J received a shipment of shell oysters from Copano Bay, just north of Corpus Christi, Texas. The company has a long history dealing in Texas oysters. During the months of November and December, when the demand for Gulf oysters is at its height, P&J used to rely on Texas for nearly half of its supply.
But in the 1990s, Sunseri said an increase in the number of New Orleans oyster bars increased demand for Louisiana oysters among P&J's customers. "When that happened, those customers demanded we only sell them Louisiana oysters," he said.
As the oil spill dried up the Sunseris' established sources for Louisiana oysters, they had to scramble for supplies from Texas to keep up with demand.
"Now our customers want to make sure that we have oysters for them, but these are oysters that they wouldn't buy before," Sunseri said as he handed over a shucked Copano Bay oyster, which was cool, mildly salty and about as big around as a satsuma. "They're beautiful oysters, but they're not the kind of oysters that I would regularly sell. They're too small. Our (regular) oysters would probably be between a half-inch and an inch larger than that."
The Sunseris have been able to source quality oysters from Louisiana, too. They insist the second annual Louisiana Oyster Festival slated for June 4 and 5 will feature nothing but local product.
But the impact of the spill on smaller farmers and fishers has rendered P&J's old business model of relying exclusively on regional oysters untenable.
More bad days ahead
And things are about to get worse. With the opening of the Bonne Carre and Morganza spillways, tons of freshwater will invade brackish waters where oysters thrive. Most of the reefs that help Louisiana produce 40 percent of the nation's crop are located along the southeastern corner of the coast from Lake Borgne to Vermilion Bay.
"We're very likely we're going to see more mortalities in our oyster beds," said Olivia Watkins, special adviser to the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries. Watkins declined to speculate on how much damage the freshwater would cause, but members of the Louisiana oyster industry are bracing for paralyzing losses.
"I think we're going to lose 50 percent of what's there," said Mike Voisin, owner of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma and a Louisiana Oyster Task Force board member.
The prediction is especially grim in light of the severity of oyster mortality stemming from the oil spill. Louisiana oyster production was down more than 55 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, according to Wildlife & Fisheries, dropping Louisiana behind Washington state as the country's leading domestic oyster producer. The level of damage Voisin and others fear would put local oyster production at 25 percent of what it was just over a year ago. "And that," according to Voisin, "would hold true for a couple of years."
That's the Sunseris' greatest concern.
"I'm 53 years old. I've already worked 32 years. I was hoping my son would be here," Al Sunseri said, referring to his 25-year-old son Blake, whose September departure from the company he blames on the oil spill.
"That's another reason I'm angry. My son has been in the hospital a couple of times because of complications with this whole thing, depression and all. He was being groomed to take over this thing like my grandfather did for my daddy and my daddy did for us," he said. "I don't think that's going to happen now."
Sunseri was sitting up on the couch. Glassy-eyed, he pointed toward an empty chair.
"That's Blake's desk," he said. "He would be the first one here in the morning after I got here. We'd do things together. I was teaching him all of the stuff he needed to do. Now I don't see him. I call him every day just to see what he's doing. Sometimes he doesn't answer."
Brett Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3353. Read more dining features at nola.com/dining or nola.com/dining-guide. Follow him at twitter.com/BrettAndersonTP.
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