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Jasmine Norton On Making Baltimore Love Oysters

A shellfish evangelist on the hunt for a new Charm City home.

In 2016, chef Jasmine Norton founded the Urban Oyster as a pop-up business in her hometown of Baltimore, becoming the first Black woman in the country to own an oyster bar. Expanding to a brick-and-mortar Locust Point location in April 2019, the pandemic forced the restaurant to close in July 2020. Norton is continuing to do pop-ups while looking for a new permanent space.

When you think of Black restaurants, a lot of them are soul food or comfort food, because those are the things we’ve come up on. Not a lot of Black people are known to like oysters. For those of us who do like oysters, no one has been daring enough to start a business with oysters and think it would be successful.

But there have been so many people who wanted to see us succeed with Urban Oyster, and they contribute to our success. We have a strong connection to the community of Baltimore as a whole. We’ve given so much to the community, and we make them proud, and they in return do the same. So many people have reached out to help us find a new location. Though I was nervous initially, and very anxious what the future holds for us, there are so many people who see us as an asset to Baltimore that they won’t allow us to not continue on.

Shutting down Urban Oyster is bittersweet. This is the closing of one chapter to prepare for a bigger and better one. It was devastating at first, but it turned out to be something a little more positive. We had been experiencing a lack of foot traffic in the shopping center that we’re in. Even a national corporate restaurant had shut down. The pandemic gave us leverage to get out of our lease. Though it was not a good feeling to know we were going down right along with them, to see larger businesses struggling let me know it wasn’t personal.

Raw food is not thought highly of in the Black culture. When we start to expand our palates with sushi, we’re going for California rolls or shrimp tempura until we become open-minded enough to try new things. I think it’s the lack of exposure to new things and the imbalance of food we had access to. That was my motivation to start Urban Oyster.

Baltimore is one of those places you have to experience for yourself. It’s important for people to understand that we are not just The Wire. That’s a portion of what our city experiences. We’ll always tell it to you like it is. We may be like a lot of the Southern states, but we are always honest, always genuine, and we support one another.

I was seven when I tried my first oyster. What I like about oysters is this very organic taste of the ocean. When I got older, my friends didn’t like oysters, and I got tired of going to the bars for burgers and wings. I’m like, “Let’s go to an oyster bar.” I already loved to cook. I already cooked a lot at home. I wanted to start a business. I do chargrilled oysters, so people can try something new that still has familiarity to it—things that they would typically eat on pizza, on fries, or wings, like cheese, bacon, and barbecue sauce. I want people to understand that oysters are not something to be afraid of. I have so many friends who crave oysters now.

I was born in East Baltimore. I studied broadcast journalism, and I ended up in New York City for work. I would go to Smorgasburg in Brooklyn every Saturday. I was so impressed that a lot of these people who had stands at Smorgasburg were self-taught chefs. To be a chef, I thought I had to be certified, and official, and put myself in more school debt. I was encouraged that it was possible otherwise.

I wanted to do this business, but I needed to do it at home where my support system is—where I know people, and where I know my family would be willing to pitch in and help me get this off the ground. I decided to transfer my job back to Baltimore and start there. But when I came back, I discovered that I had a large fibroid, so I immediately had to have surgery a month after I came home. A lot of what started the Urban Oyster was from a marketing and social media standpoint until I was able to get back on my feet, out of recovery, and have my first event. From then on, I went to farmers’ markets and festivals and any other kind of pop-up we could get into.

I feel like when I started, and even now, I shouldn’t be the first Black woman to own an oyster bar. My challenge coming out of the gate was being taken seriously, since I’m Black, I’m female, and I’m young. I had a lot of “no’s” before the “yeses.” I’ve even experienced challenges with trying to hire people outside of my race. They may not feel comfortable, because everyone else on a shift is Black, and they feel outnumbered.

I remember when I first started my business, and we were coming up on our off-peak season, and someone in the industry offered me a job to be a shucker at their restaurant. I was like, “Well, I’m too busy building my restaurant. I don’t want to work at your restaurant as a shucker. I’m running a business just like you.”

People are using the death of George Floyd as an opportunity to show unity, camaraderie, and support for Black businesses. But I want that to go on even when this is not just a trend, and when it’s not all over social media. Black lives should matter all the time, and Black businesses should be important all the time. I see the fists posted on people’s windows when I walk by. I’m like, that’s cool, and I appreciate it, but I want it to last beyond this moment.