When Mike and Isabel Osinski started Widow’s Hole Oyster Co. they were taking a bet on history. Greenport was once a mecca for oysters with as many as 14 oyster processing companies in the early part of the 20th century. Blame industrialization or an obsession with steaks and burgers, but it wasn’t the same after World War II even though the water has remained perfect for it, clean and deep with a good flush.
The bet paid off. Widow’s Hole Oyster Co.’s first shipment of Greenport oysters was 400, delivered in the back of a Cadillac in 2003. These days, they ship as many as 10,000 pearls per week, with the largest orders coming in around the holidays.
Widow’s Hole Oyster Co. is how Mike and Isabel are spending their retirement. Their software company was bought out in 2000. A year later, a court action led them to learn their property included five acres of water. The news inspired them to help revive the Greenport oyster farming industry.
“I was retired, I had nothing to do, I was in my early 40s and I had two little kids,” Mike said. “I wanted the kids to see us working.”
Work they have, and the kids have gotten in on it too. Before they entered kindergarten, Susanna, now 17, and Merc, now 15, had jobs. They got up early, went out on boats, helped haul gear and hoisted, counted and sorted oysters. To prepare for the holiday whirl, they helped their parents clean and count oysters through the spring, summer and early fall. On Christmas, one of the busiest days of the year in terms of orders, they’ll pick 1,000 oysters before they open presents. Susanna, who is applying to Cornell and Stony Brook, hopes to expand the farm and Merc, a master handyman at the top of his class, are walking contradictions of the kids-these-days stereotype.
“That has been the greatest benefit of this farm…how competent and hard working my children are,” Mike said. “It’s taught them discipline, competence, hard work.”
Mike can’t find harder workers than his own children. It is a family-only business, something he thinks benefits diners at Manhattan restaurants like Eleven Madison Park. The only oysters on the hotspot’s menus come from the Greenport farm.
“It’s all family, from my family to yours. We spend a lot of care and effort and work on this,” Mike said. “These are animals that are tended. They’re tended with care and devotion. Would you rather eat a pig that someone put in a kennel and force fed or would your rather have something that someone cared for and made sure was in a good environment?”
People are starting to gravitate towards the pearly shellfish, which has caused a surge in Long Island’s commercial oyster industry. As the trend grows, it could mean more competition for the Osinskis, but they don’t see it that way.
“The more the better because then people associate this area with oysters, which is what they should do,” Mike said.
Mike’s happy to be one of the trendsetters.
“It’s a good feeling to revive what was a dominant industry,” he said.