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Photo by Adam Ewing
Travis Croxton on the dock in Topping
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Photo by Adam Ewing
Croxton, restaurant designer Barry Griffin and GWAR guitarist Michael Derks at GWARbar in Jackson Ward. Derks will take over as chef when the restaurant opens.
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Photo by Adam Ewing
Graffiato's Richmond location at 123 W. Broad St. is a partnership between Croxton, Top Chef and Top Chef Masters finalist Mike Isabella and restaurateur Hilda Staples.
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Photo by Adam Ewing
Chef Pete Woods (left) takes a moment to chat with diners at Merroir.
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Photo by Brandon Fox
Croxton and cousin Ryan pose for their redesigned website to launch this fall.
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Photo by Adam Ewing
Tiny oysters are carefully grown to full size and then transferred to the Croxtons' oyster beds.
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Travis Croxton is kneeling on the bottom of the boat, trying to figure out how to turn on the big crane that lifts oyster cages in and out of the water while his cousin Ryan makes a call to their farm manager to get instructions. We’re not far from the first restaurant that they opened together, Merroir. As you motor out of the little harbor where the restaurant is located and start to enter the Rappahannock River, you’ll find yourself unexpectedly on top of the first of three oyster fields the Croxtons inherited from their grandfather.
“We’re not quite as hands-on as we used to be,” says Ryan, as the two try to figure out the crane. They aren’t; we’re on the boat with a photographer who’s taking pictures for Rappahannock River Oyster Co.’s new website. Any cages hauled out are for photo purposes only. The backbreaking labor involved in harvesting oysters hasn’t been part of their job description for the past few years.
Both sandy-haired men look far younger than their 40 years, and that adds to the romantic origin story everyone loves — and the origin story of the Croxtons’ business has romance in spades.
In 2001, Travis and Ryan’s grandfather’s oyster bed leases came up for renewal. The rights to those leases had been owned by the family since 1899, when the Croxtons’ great-grandfather, James Arthur Croxton Jr., founded the business. His son, William Arthur Croxton Sr., continued to run the company, but as the Chesapeake Bay became more and more polluted, watermen — crabbers, fishermen and oystermen — became more desperate. Overfishing was the result, further exacerbating the problem. The Croxtons’ grandfather discouraged his sons from going into the business, and when he died, it looked like the company would die
Travis and Ryan didn’t want to see that happen. They renewed the leases and started farming the beds as a hobby on the weekends. “We actually tried to grow oysters out of our house in the Fan at one point,” says Travis’ wife, Kristi. They purchased spat (baby oysters) and lugged home a garbage can full of river water. “For two weeks, [Travis and Ryan] let this thing decay — it smelled awful. … [The spat] had arrived dead.”
By 2005, they finally had a viable crop — growing in the river, not in the living room — and had enough oysters to start selling. Their first call, naively, was to New York’s Le Bernadin, and they asked to speak to the chef. His secretary said she’d give him the message. “ ‘Wow,’ we thought, ‘what kind of chef has a secretary?’ ” Chef de Cuisine Chris Muller called them back and said they could come up and show their stuff. When they arrived with their cooler full of oysters, Travis was nervous and started to stutter; Ryan took over the sales pitch. Neither of them could get an oyster open. Finally, Travis recalls, Muller took the oyster knife away from them and said, “Let me show you guys how to open a f-cking oyster.” Miraculously, after tasting it, the next thing Muller said was, “This is exactly what we’re looking for.”
“What people forget was, at that time, you could not sell a Virginia oyster,” says Travis. “We had to break down a lot of barriers, a lot of walls and do a lot of educating.” That same year, Food & Wine included the Croxtons in their list of Tastemakers of the Year.
Meanwhile, both were working at Capital One. They would go to New York on weekends, dragging a wheeled cooler up and down the subway steps in order to get to a restaurant to shuck oysters and convince the chef to use their product. The oyster business came first, but Capital One paid the bills. “It was hard work, but we were never in danger of losing our jobs,” Travis says. “Not having to draw a paycheck from the company meant we could invest it all back into the business. We’re debt-free and in a really good place now.”
But Travis and Ryan’s goal wasn’t simply to keep their family’s business alive and make some money. More important, they saw oysters as a way to quite literally save the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters are filter feeders that act as tiny sieves, removing chemicals and sediment in the water. Increasing their numbers in the rivers that dump into the Bay is an effective means to clean the water. The Croxtons also wanted to give the struggling watermen another source of income. They formed cooperatives and gave the brand-new oyster farmers a market for their product — and that further increased the amount of filter feeders in the Bay. Also, by giving watermen a new way to make money, it gives the always-fragile blue crab population an opportunity to grow stronger.
Next the Croxton cousins stumbled into the restaurant business. As the oyster company grew, the two, along with help from another cousin, Scott, purchased the marina in Topping, Virginia, that was adjacent to their oyster beds. Attached to it was a bait shop. That next year, they decided to convert the shop into a sort of tasting room, a place where visitors could order an oyster or two to try with a glass of wine in a lovely setting — and then get out. “I still have the early projections I did for Merroir, which [Scott] had the option of partnering in or taking as rent,” says Travis. “[He] almost took it as rent because he didn’t trust that we could do it.” It was a $5,000 investment.
Scott Croxton was right, in a way. Merroir really didn’t work out as planned. Why would anyone want to leave once they got there? At sunset, with a view of the barely rippling water and the high masts of the sailboats in the marina across the way turning golden from the setting sun, ordering another glass of wine and a couple more oysters was a no-brainer. Even the most callous urbanite couldn’t resist the seduction of the setting. “We quickly moved to [serving food] after we got more than two people a day to come and eat,” Travis says. A grill was added to the porch of the tasting room, and a simple menu was offered.
The wait for a table could be an hour, even two, and once, after I was seated, I waited just as long for my food. The little grill on the porch couldn’t keep up, and neither could the staff. There wasn’t the standard slump between lunch and dinner; it was wall-to-wall people all the time, and they wouldn’t stop coming. The Croxtons realized that suddenly they’d gotten involved in a whole different kind of business without meaning to — but a potentially profitable one. “I think we made our first million dollars off [that] $200 grill,” Travis says.
At the same time, in Richmond, friend Jason Alley had opened a second restaurant, Pasture, on East Grace Street, inside one of the old, abandoned shops that line the street. He was pushing hard for the Croxtons to open a restaurant near his, convinced that between the two restaurants and the new CenterStage complex a block away, they could revive the neighborhood. An unexpected phone call became the tipping point: Travis heard from a chef that he’d met at Blackbird, in Chicago. Dylan Fultineer was now heading up the kitchen at Hungry Cat in California, and he wanted to move back East.
In the past, the Croxtons and Fultineer had talked at length about opening a restaurant together. Here was their opportunity. But opportunity didn’t politely knock on the door — it started to kick it down like a home invasion. In D.C., Edens, a retail real-estate developer with a national reach, had begun work on Union Market. They wanted Rappahannock River Oyster Co. to anchor it with an oyster bar. “I thought, ‘This will work,’ just like [I did with] Merroir, even though no one knew where Topping was,” Travis says. And it was a sweet deal — Edens would take care of the build-out. How could they say no?
Rappahannock Oyster Bar in D.C., as it turns out, opened before the Rappahannock in Richmond. Fultineer moved from the West Coast, helped with setup in D.C. and then, Travis says, “We sent him to Merroir, and he put everybody through boot camp.” A much bigger grill was installed behind the restaurant, and the staff got some real training. Things calmed down. The staff could turn a hundred tables during dinner service without customers contemplating taking a nap in the car until their table was ready.
I’m standing next to the bar in the narrow space of Southern Efficiency in D.C., contemplating a “flight” of different varieties of bourbon. It’s been a long day, and I’ve had a whole lot of food and several craft cocktails. I’m not drunk yet, but this looks like it will probably push me over the edge. Or maybe I am drunk — after all, I just ordered six shots of bourbon to try. Travis, working with Graffiato’s chef Mike Isabella, Top Chef and Top Chef Masters finalist, has organized a road trip to take the Richmond food press up to D.C. to check out all of the restaurants the two own. Travis, Isabella and partner Hilda Staples — who’s co-owner of D.C.’s Graffiato, Range, Aggio and Lunchbox, and Frederick, Maryland’s Volt and Family Meal — are opening a second location of Graffiato in Richmond. They want to give us a taste of what to expect. Apparently, we’ll be consuming copious amounts of alcohol once they open the doors. Not a problem, just so long as they slide out a plate of grilled octopus along with it.
When Travis opened Rappahannock, Richmond native Jonathan Staples, Hilda Staples’ husband, came in as a silent, minority partner. At the time, Staples thought Travis should move beyond Merroir, that he had an opportunity to both make more money and become an evangelist for Virginia oysters. “No one,” Staples told him, “is going to care as much about your oysters as you.” The two had met at an event at D.C.’s LongView Gallery right after Merroir opened, and discovered they were both GWAR fanboys.
“I told Travis that there’s this guy in D.C. you should meet,” Staples says. “He’s really into GWAR and the music we like.” Staples was working on Mockingbird Hill, a sherry and ham bar, with Derek Brown, owner of The Passenger and a longtime GWAR fan, and soon, the three were opening Eat the Rich, a heavy-metal oyster bar named after a Mötorhead song. “It was a stupid idea. … But it was really the perfect storm,” Brown says. “Everything came together.”
Southern Efficiency came hard on the heels of Eat the Rich, and although the two restaurants share a kitchen, they have distinctly different concepts — Southern Efficiency riffs on Southern classics (plus a lot of whiskey), and Eat the Rich focuses on oysters, but also has high/low dishes like potato chips dolloped with sour cream and topped with caviar. Plus, the music is really, really loud.
This is where the story of the two Croxton cousins diverges. In a fuzzy sort of way. “We’re not good at splitting tasks,” Ryan says. “We take on different projects, but for the most part, Trav and I come to the middle and agree on everything first.” At the same time, Travis is moving into other restaurant projects with different partners, and Ryan’s real passion is the oyster company.
To an outsider, Merroir, and then Rappahannock, seem as if they acted as an accelerant on a tiny flame hidden inside Travis. He watched Dylan Fultineer write checks to farmers and knew that money was making a difference in their lives. All too often, the phrase “farm-to-table” is an empty marketing tool in the restaurant business. The farm’s name may be listed on the menu, but a Sysco truck pulls up in the back. In a reversal of the usual supply/demand paradigm, Fultineer actively recruits small purveyors and adjusts menu items and prices to accommodate what they may or may not have on hand. He’s been able to build back some of the trust that had been lost when other local chefs enthusiastically ordered once and then never called a purveyor again. As a farmer himself, Travis was impressed. And he wanted to do the same thing — in a big way.
Travis is looking around a large space swarming with carpenters in a new retail development off Route 29 in Charlottesville. Hydraulic lifts move men up and down, and there’s the constant sound of hammering — and shouting. Chef Jesse Fultineer, Dylan’s older brother, worries that the counter above the cold and hot stations that surrounds the open kitchen is too high for him to reach comfortably. Travis thinks it’s hiding the large wood grill that will be the centerpiece of the new restaurant.
Rocksalt is a move away from oysters. “I’m tired of being the oyster guy,” Travis says. “Of course, there will be oysters on the menu, but it won’t be the emphasis.” Instead, he wants Rocksalt’s chefs to roast meat on a spit and use every part of the animal. He wants to create a network of small farmers as suppliers that he’ll use in a consistent way. Instead of containing 10 or 12 ingredients, a dish might have only five or six. “We’ll just roast a chicken on the rotisserie over the wood-fired grill and chop it — there you go. It’s simple. Instead of calling it farm-to-table, I want people to just see it [in action].”
There are four other restaurants planned — a Rocksalt in Charlotte, North Carolina; a Rocksalt in Asheville, along with a fried chicken and champagne joint next door, Birds & Pearls; and a yet-to-be-named restaurant in Fairfax with the same concept as Rocksalt. Leases have been signed, chefs have been secured and now it’s a matter of building them out. The Charlottesville location is slated to open in the fall, and the rest will open, staggered, by spring of 2015.
In Richmond, you know the kind of guy Travis is: He could be your father or brother or your brother’s best friend. He has that Southern-boy charm, and it’s gotten him through the back doors of famous restaurants all over the country. He’s disarming. However, if you were paying attention while you were growing up, you know — if you’re smart — that these are the kind of guys who like to be underestimated. It’s their secret weapon. In meetings, he takes no notes, doesn’t read the memos put in front of him and yet intermittently asks laser-sharp questions that fluster the young Edens representative at the Charlottesville Rocksalt site. He approves construction overruns, promises checks, reassures and soothes edgy contractors. Travis has a master’s in finance from VCU, and although he’s not a shark, he is a shrewd businessman.
“Chefs don’t realize that it takes a little bit more effort, but you can keep your costs down if you ask that farmer, ‘What do you have [too much of]?’ … The most in-demand cuts are expensive. Craig Rogers [of Border Springs Farm] has this issue all the time. He says, ‘Everyone wants the lamb chops, but I’ve got the whole other part of the animal available.’ ” Travis’ partner Mike Isabella figured this out when he opened his Greek restaurant, Kapnos, in D.C. After its spit-roasted meat goes into items on the restaurant’s menu, what doesn’t get used goes to a sandwich shop, G, next door. The initial extra cost of an animal raised by a small producer is effectively neutralized in this way. Or near enough to make Travis happy.
Another construction site, this time in a sagging former shot house in Jackson Ward. The place has been gutted. Inside, GWAR guitarist Michael Derks and designer Barry Griffin are mapping out how to move forward with the construction of GWARbar. They need Travis to help them make the decisions to get at least the first floor open by the annual GWAR-B-Q on Aug. 16. It doesn’t look like they’re going to make it.
The plans for GWARbar had been in the works for months when band founder and lead singer Dave Brockie died last spring. Jonathan Staples, Brown and Travis had commissioned a painting by Brockie for Eat the Rich. Not too long after, Staples was down in Richmond visiting and met Dave and the other members of GWAR at Rappahannock. He invited Travis to join them. “I explained to Travis that the guys are actually up for this idea, GWARbar. I asked him, ‘We need to know if you’re in.’ He immediately said, ‘I’m in.’ ” When they tried to rent several different locations around Richmond, they were repeatedly turned down, so they decided to buy a place instead. When they found one, “We said it was for GWAR,” Staples says, “and they said nope.” They came back to the owners of the Jackson Ward property with a lower offer, claiming they were going to open a French restaurant — and the owners took the deal. Brockie, in full costume, announced the news at the Richmond magazine restaurant awards, The Elbys, in February.
After Brockie’s death, things were uncertain. The band wasn’t even sure if it would play again, and the notion of opening a GWAR-themed bar seemed a whole lot riskier. Travis and Staples were unwavering: The bar was going to be the band’s legacy (and a source of income for its members) — and they were going to build it. A Kickstarter campaign the band started didn’t make its goal, so Staples and Travis stepped in to secure funding.
As of publication, there have been rumors that Erik Bruner-Yang of D.C.’s Toki Underground, who got his start at Main Street’s Sticky Rice, will open a restaurant in Richmond with Travis. Travis does have plans to open a little place, RappSESSION, next door to the bigger Rappahannock, but only Ryan is involved in that project. Other than that? Travis hinted that he was in negotiations for several more spots.
Travis now owns or co-owns five ongoing concerns (Graffiato hadn’t opened by the time of publication, but when it does, that will make six) and has seven other projects actively moving forward. For those keeping track, by 2015, he will have opened 13 restaurants in four years. And that’s not even mentioning James River Distillery, from which he had to divest himself when the Virginia ABC Board informed him that it’s illegal to own a business that sells alcohol while owning a business that buys alcohol. (His wife, Kristi, is the co-owner and operator of the distillery. Staples, who partnered with Travis on the project, has disentangled himself from 17 restaurants in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia so that he can remain a co-owner.)
Travis recently hired Kim Coughlin as financial analyst/director of operations to help oversee all of his projects — but she’s the only employee he has, outside of those in each individual business he owns. He’s also the father of three boys, ages 4, 6 and 8. As I watch them run around Merroir and down to the dock where the oysters come in, I realize that I still haven’t figured out how Travis makes it all work.
Whether it’s driving an oyster boat for a photo shoot or talking to a testy restaurant designer — or making sure three rambunctious little boys don’t kill themselves around heavy equipment — he stays the same: even, laid-back and somewhat bemused by his life.
“It’s all happened so organically,” he says, referring to how he got from a bucket of dead spat in his living room to a portfolio of restaurants. It’s the mission, more than the money, that drives him. “At one point, we were invited to Red Square [in Las Vegas], where we served caviar and blinis. We didn’t even know how to eat them,” says Travis. “ ‘These guys actually think we’re important,’ we thought. That’s I want to do with Rocksalt. I want to make other farmers feel that way.”