Evangelizing for open-minded shellfish enthusiasm while cutting a cautious line toward post-pandemic reopening.
By Bryan Rackley as told to Chris Mohney
Bryan Rackley is a co-owner of Kimball House and Watchman’s in Atlanta, two restaurants that specialize in oysters and cocktails among other things. Rackley is also the oyster bar manager, and his interest in oysters led to co-founding Oyster South, an advocacy nonprofit focused on southern oyster farming practices and developing the community and industry through education.
I grew up in the middle of South Georgia. I mean, gosh, I recall when the Red Lobster came to town. It was bananas. It was a big event. Two-hour waits to get into the Red Lobster. But my family would take vacations together in the summer, and we looked forward to eating fried shrimp and raw oysters by the Gulf or the Atlantic side of Florida.
I don’t think that it’s wrong for people to want to eat oysters with accoutrements, whether it’s crackers and cocktail sauce or vinegar or even scotch, which people are pouring all over the place these days. I want people to experience shellfish, and I want the farmers to have success selling them. The more methods there are for them to be consumed in a way that’s nice for the consumer, I’m all for it. You can only be a purist to a point where you start to sound like a crazy person.
I mean, what if I was talking about this with cheese? How dare you eat cheese with jam and a cracker? I like to experience cheese without all the other stuff, but sometimes it’s nice to have a piece of cheese on a cracker with maybe a piece of ham or salami or something.
In the beginning, once me and my partners knew that Kimball House was going to be a real thing, we asked ourselves—how do we want that to look in terms of aesthetics, and how do we want the food and the drink to interact? We wanted things that worked with cocktails, but we also wanted things that were sexy and thought-provoking. I couldn’t think of a better way to lasso people into an eating and drinking experience than with oysters, because it’s such a thought-provoking and engaging food. You can’t eat oysters passively. We were trying to offer people an experience—here’s all the stuff from all over the country, see how that tastes, and see how it varies from one area to the other.
There’s a lot of cocktails that are gross with oysters, but we had a lot of stuff that worked really well. French 75s and Aviations are awesome with Pacific oysters, and an ice-cold beer is really good with super-salty Northeastern oysters. We wanted people to blow themselves away with their own experience of the juxtaposition of food and drinks, and how they worked together, and then to take that sort of wild moment into the rest of their time here.
I did have a lot of fear going in that it was just going to be a miss. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yeah, it was a little tricky at times. They were like, “Holy shit, three dollars for an oyster?” Or “Holy crap, look how tiny that oyster is.” Or “Are you insane? There’s no crackers here. Have you lost your mind?”
Being positioned here in the Southeast, we are between oyster-eating cultures—Apalachicola or Savannah, maybe Charleston or even New Orleans, where historically we’ve had big, wild, flabby oysters. We’ve had people that wanted those. For people that wanted them, we had a gateway to Pacifics. We’d get this giant oyster from a farm out west that we loved a lot, and we still do love a lot. Though I mean, they were gross. You’re supposed to cook these oysters. They’re meant to be cooked. We would get them and keep them on hand for people who came from that macho oyster-eating culture, and that’s what they wanted—a gagger.
Not only did we give them what they wanted, or at least what they thought they wanted, what we actually gave them was something that wasn’t dissimilar entirely to Gulf oysters, but it tasted a lot fucking different. Because we were able to expose them to that, we were able to expose them to the process of what we’re trying to do anyways, which is lasso you into trying all these different oysters with varying profiles.
When we opened the restaurant, there was no access to anything from the South Atlantic or the Gulf that was farmed. There was wild stuff, and the wild stuff, frankly, was really inconsistent. I wanted people to experience what it was like to eat oysters that were managed, so you could get an idea of what it’s like when you take the time to control some of the variables that make oysters what you want, and eliminate some of the things that you don’t necessarily want. I think that it’s possible to eat good wild Gulf oysters, but I’ve also had some that are just not what I’m interested in.
Unfortunately, Watchman’s is closed for now due to COVID. In our opinion, the guys at the CDC are pretty smart, so we’re leaning on them to tell us when it’s a safe time to have strangers and our staff be around each other.
Hopefully we get one of these loans. We applied for the EIDL and PPP and have not gotten anything back just yet. We’ll have to see how that shakes out, too, because that could definitely be a factor in how soon we’re able to reopen, if we’re able to reopen at all.
The ownership, the partners, have put all of their energy and focus into Kimball House for now. We did have to lay off almost the entire staff. We were able to keep most of our management team on board. We’re doing what we can do—we’re selling carryout stuff. The community’s been super, super supportive. It’s left us down about 50 percent, but a lot of our other expenses have gone away, too.
It’s not ideal, and it’s definitely been taxing mentally and physically. We’ve been able to keep up with some of the payments that we didn’t want to get behind on. Even with relief, being behind on healthcare insurance premiums—I’ve run into problems with stuff like that before. The last thing I want to do is be in debt $60,000 to someone, and they just want it all back in one chunk, and you’ve got two weeks to do it, or some scenario like that. We’re trying to keep everybody insured, keep the infrastructure sound so that if and when, we can ease back into it.
We won’t have a full-throttle reopening. We’re going to wade into it to make sure that we’re doing it right in terms of a hospitality perspective and a safety perspective. We’re still offering dozens of oysters for people to pick up and shuck themselves. It’s been cool. It’s not a big moneymaker, but we don’t really have to do a lot. We’re selling over 2,000 oysters a week, which is a fraction of what we were doing before, but it’s a little something for us, and it’s definitely meaningful for the farmers. They’re in the same shitty soup as the rest of us. They’re all struggling just like we are.
Everybody is semi-patiently waiting. There’s not a lot of control any of us have over any of this stuff. We’re buying what we can. We’re trying to provide as much information as we can about what we’re capable of doing. What the farmers want to know is, “What are you projecting? What are you thinking?” It’s unfortunate. I can’t project anything. There’s no certainty at all.
I’ve got one farmer that sent me a text this morning—”Hey, if it will help you out, we’ve got a bunch of inventory that’s harvest-ready, and we’ll just start shipping it to you for free. I’d rather you find a use for it.” Otherwise the oysters either get too big for the raw bar market, or they’ll just die out there on the farm, one way or the other. That’s the kind of position some of these guys are in. They’d rather use some of their current inventory as marketing material, just so they can stay on folks’ radars while this is all happening.
Here in Georgia, restaurants are able to open, technically. Am I planning to open up? Fuck no. It’s not that we don’t want to reopen. It’s a lose-lose, because the restrictions in place if you open are pretty prohibitive from a practical standpoint. The amount of temperature-taking and sanitizing and stuff like that. We have a small dining room anyway—how many people can we actually fit in there?
I just think the optics of it are not good. We’ve got so many people in our two- or three-mile demographic that would think it was a selfish move for us to open up for full-on business. For us, if we’re going to be down 50 percent, we might as well be down 50 percent and doing it safely. Kimball House is a standalone building with this sidewalk that loops around it—we have one entrance, one exit. Everything’s sanitized. No one comes in the building. We’ve got a pretty good system down, at least as far as we can tell. If we can generate some money and keep people safe, that’s what we’ll do until we have a little bit more proof that it makes sense to let people in. We’re paranoid about the safety of our families and our little people. We’re taking it seriously.
I’ve been trying to project what happens overall to the industry. I know there’s going to be a lot of people disheartened by this. I feel like there was a little bit of a bubble anyway. Some of the stuff that we’ve put premiums on in the past has turned out to be completely meaningless. It’s going to be hard to reconcile what it means to be in hospitality, and also this existential crud we’ve been steeped in over the past six weeks. There might be some really cool stuff that happens. There’s always been a lot of creative people in the restaurant industry, so I don’t doubt its ability to evolve and do some really interesting stuff.
I do a little walk to work just to get some fresh air. People stop on the road to tell me they’ve ordered from us, which is nice. We’re in survival mode. It’s one foot in front of the other. Every time somebody asks me a question about what we’re going to do, I feel like a fucking high school football coach. All I can do is pitch cliches. Between the restaurants and juggling our three-year-old so my wife can work, and I can get in and try to do stuff, it really is take whatever is in front of you.