BAY CENTER — In 1982, Ekone Oyster Company started with two people and a small smokehouse. Since then, the company has grown to more than 60 employees producing several varieties of smoked oysters, mussels and tuna from their Bay Center facility.
In February 2017, Taylor Shellfish purchased the company from founders Nick and Joanne Jambor.
Over the past year, the company has continued to expand and evolve adding 10 full-time positions and introducing octopus to their canned seafood lineup.
The ‘best bay’
The farm grows Pacific Oysters primarily using an off-bottom culture on 350 acres of pristine Willapa Bay tide flats. The off-bottom, or “long lining process,” is more labor intensive than traditional on-bottom methods as each oyster has to be individually strung and eventually removed from the line. The extra toil however, is worth the work, Ekone believes.
“The oysters will grow faster and eat better,” said Ekone assistant manager Todd Parkins during a tour Monday, March 26. “It also helps with our product — they look nicer. It’s done really well for us over the years.”
Fundamentally, the lines keep the oysters from sinking into the soft mud loosened by burrowing shrimp.
“There’s a lot more labor involved, you have to string each individual oyster on the line, but you don’t have as much of a problem with the mud shrimp,” Parkins said. He estimated that 80 percent of what the farm grows is off-bottom.
“We have one large bed that we dredge,” he said. They also purchase from other farms on Willapa Bay, which ideal for farming oysters.
“We have the best bay,” Parkins explained.
“Every tide it empties out and you get a new surge of ocean water. In some places in the Puget Sound, it can take months for the water to recycle. We have clean, cold water that helps us grow a nicer oyster here.”
Monday is the unofficial octopus day at Ekone Oyster Company. Shipments arrive sporadically, the unintentional bycatch from other fisheries, and staff start the process early in the week.
“We get an odd amount. Often it’s one or two octopus — sometimes it’s four,” Parkins said standing over a frozen 37-pound block containing two giant Pacific octopus, the most recent arrival from Trident Seafood. The octopus is cleaned and cut into smaller pieces with the unwanted parts discarded. Daniel Hemmer then cooks the octopus for about an hour before it’s divided into 3.5 ounce cans, brushed with organic olive oil and loaded — up to 800 at a time — into a commercial pressure retort.
“It’s like a giant pressure cooker,” Parkins said. “It runs steam just like you would canning jars, just bigger.”
The cans are then individually labeled by hand, a task that will soon be replaced by an automatic labeler.
Growing product line
The first shipment of canned octopus are just arriving on distributer doorsteps, but quantities are limited and released sporadically, as supply dictates.
“It takes a full day to do a basket (800 cans),” Parkins said. “If we’re selling more than 1000 cans a week, it will be tough to keep up.”
The idea of octopus being canned and sold commercially started with the Ekone employees, who couldn’t seem to get enough of the cephalopod as a snack during breaks.
“Our workers are now buying more of it than anything else,” Parkins said.
The canned octopus joins five varieties of smoked oysters — original, habanero, terijaki, lemon, barbecue — and three flavors of tuna — original, lemon and premium smoked — plus mussels.
Octopus are unlikely to be the last addition to the firm’s product lineup.
“We’ll probably do some smoked scallops at some point,” Parkins said. “We’re going to continue to grow.”