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Two Girls One Shuck: An oyster love story

 

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Bearded Oysters (photo credit: Josh Hailey)

As I got ready to march in Krewe of Freret with the Bearded Oysters, an all female Mardi Gras marching troupe, I saw her. She walked in like a force of nature; in her right hand she held an elaborate beaded head piece that plumed with white and silver feathers and smack dab in the middle shined a single oyster shell. She lifted her skirt and written around a blond toupee, it read “Make A Merkin Great Again.”

“Who is this woman?” I asked myself.

Her name is Becky Wasden, and she delightfully introduced herself as, “I’m Two Girls One Shuck.”

It made sense: female, oyster shucker, Mardi Gras. She later told me that the founder of the troupe, Karina Brees told her, “I’ve been waiting for you to join.” Becky Wasden has embraced her new home and has made it her oyster.

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Bearded Oysters (photo credit: Josh Hailey)

After Mardi Gras had come and gone, I met up with Becky at Bayou Wine Garden’s Friday’s Buck-A-Shuck Happy Hour to talk oysters. I guess it’s the years of ensuring her business operates transparently, that she quickly disclaims that on that Friday, she is only a shucker and that the Wine Garden purchased, had the oysters delivered, and takes full liability of the oysters. “All that regulation stuff can be boring as all get out.” she says.

Only weeks before, Becky won The Junior League of New Orleans 2017 Woman Entrepreneur(WE) Fellowship for Two Girls One Shuck, a traveling oyster bar serving raw and chargrilled oysters. Along with a grant component to help with the financial side of the business, it provides mentoring for one year. Becky explains, “I watched my friends pitch and win this last year; I was in the audience crying saying, ‘I want my business to be big girl enough to be on that stage.’ So, I worked my but off all year long.”

However, oysters have only recently become the focus of her life. Growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, Becky’s artistic heart fell in love with New Orleans during her first visit in July 2002. Three months later she moved to the Big Easy and began working in the service industry while earning her undergraduate degree at the University of New Orleans. She later worked as an art and music teacher at a school for students with learning differences where her enthusiasm and appreciation for technology inspired her to pursue a masters in Education Technology. That love for technology is evident through Two Girls One Shuck’s strong, creative, and engaging social media presence. Her 1,111th Instagram follower came to Bayou Wine Garden to claim her 11 free oysters—Becky’s favorite number.

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Becky Wasden (Photo credit: Sarah Isabelle Prevot)

From teacher to entrepreneur—it was serendipitous. Founders of Two Girls One Shuck, Becky and Stefani Sell, were at a crawfish boil and saw, sitting in the corner, a sac of oysters. They asked if someone was going to shuck them. After being told no, Stefani shucked the entire sac. Becky thought it was cool and began bringing a sac of oysters to parties where Stefani would shuck and Becky made the condiments. When a friend requested two sacs, Stefani turned to Becky and said, “Now it’s work and you are going to shuck with me.”

“I’ve always worked with my hands, so shucking that first oyster was like ‘Yeah!’ I loved it the first time. It’s very meditating. It’s a lot like knitting—doing a repetitive motion, but no oyster is the same so you have to give each one a little TLC. It’s very addictive.” she says, and I was about to find out just how addictive it is.

Upon graduating in December 2014, Becky found herself at a crossroads with two job offers and officially filing for an LLC, making Two Girls One Shuck legitimate.

“I sat in the office and walked the hallways, thinking this is not what I want. I don’t want to be here at 6am; I do not want to be on call 24/7; I do not want to be putting out fires. My goal was to teach teachers how to use the technology to help students, but even at that moment I said, ‘I think I’m going to go all in on oysters.’ I took a huge chance, it was very scary, and it completely paid off. I’ve never been happier in my entire life, because now I’m up at 6am but, not walking the school hallway; I’m driving all over town. I’m meeting people left and right. It’s just so much fun.”

Using $500 dollars of leftover money from her masters, Becky made the only initial investment into the business. Within one year, Two Girls One Shuck was self-sustaining. “The overhead is so low. The biggest cost is labor because, I pay my lady shuckers ridiculously well. They deserve it. They do something very difficult and make it look very easy. I value my employees above and beyond anything in the whole business. You always get two lady shuckers. It’s kind of a performance piece as much as it is offering a delicious product.”

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The oyster tag holds all the important information—it tells what time the oysters came out of the water, where they came from, which area they were harvested, and the harvesters ID number. By regulation, Becky has to keep them on file for ninety days. “I’ve never throw one away. I have a shoe box of every tag I’ve shucked. It’s like a little trophy. I open about 100,000 oysters a year,” admits Becky. (Photo credit: Sarah Isabelle Prevot)

It reads on her website, ’Self proclaimed oyster ambassador’ and she is. When Becky starts talking oysters, it is like getting lost in a National Geographic magazine. I was thankful I was recording our conversation, she was coming at me with so many facts and tidbits about regulations. I learned the word merroir—a take from the french word terroir (used in reference to grapes)—means the oysters take on the flavor from the region where they drink. Becky prefers the region around St. Bernard Parish because it tends to be brackish water—a nice salt and fresh water mix that gives the oyster a good flavor. Another french word I learned was mignonette—a vinegar based oyster dipping sauce traditionally made with shallots and cracked pepper. But of course Chef Virginia Demarest of Bayou Wine Garden gave the french dressing a Louisiana twist with a cucumber, ginger, and red pepper mignonette. My mouth waters even as I write this. I was impressed and getting a phenomenal one-on-one science lesson. She also ensures Two Girls One Shuck remains earth conscious and recycles their shells with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

As she set up the oyster bar and began shucking, all the while talking with me and the customers, I observed her calm demeanor. With striking numbers like approximately 7,000 oysters shucked in the past month and coming off of nine events in four days, I asked her how she handles stress. She replied, “Because we are a on-site mobile oyster bar, the environment changes every day. I love it; I thrive on it. You live in chaos and you absorb the chaos at a certain point.”

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Laurie Thomasee, a happy oyster customer celebrating National Oyster On The Half Shell Day with Two Girls One Shuck (Photo credit: Becky Wasden)

She admits, “The first couple years were tumultuous.” With perseverance and fearlessness, she made the mistakes and faced the challenges of being a start-up.

At the beginning of 2017, Two Girls One Shuck got the first ever mobile catering oyster license from the city of New Orleans. This means she can only exclusively sell oysters in a catering style with one set price for one client. “This ensures that the oysters can be tracked from the point it is harvested to when it is served,” Becky explains and that there is, “A lot of regulation with time and temperature and moving the oysters around. Our goal is to provide the safest, cleanest, and freshest oysters.” I asked about the “R” rule my mother always said, ‘You only eat oysters during months with an ‘r’ in it.’ Becky smiles, “There’s folk lore and there’s reality. My guy in particular, Captain Johnny Smith, he goes to the deepest farthest waters he can in the middle of August and sources from the deepest coldest waters he can find. I serve his oyster year round.”

After the first sac, Becky glanced up from shucking and asked if I wanted to give it a try. I kind of had an inclination, but two sacs later Becky gave me the confirming compliment when she offered me a job as a shucker with Two Girls One Shuck. It was addictive. The three key things a good shucker is always doing: ensuring the meat stays intact, getting the shell bits and mud out, and trying to keep some of the juice (called the oyster liquor—highly covenant in the cooking world).

“People say I’m a trailblazer, pioneer, and in a certain sense, ‘Yes’, but, at the same time, there are several other restaurants that cater oysters here. What I’m doing isn’t necessarily unique, I’m just doing it in a different way.”

Two Girls One Shuck is right on trend—interactive live based performances at weddings and events are all the rage. With weddings already booked for 2018, Becky expects to expand her business from 6 lady shuckers that she calls her ‘Army of Lady Shuckers’ to at least 20 come next year. As Queen Shucker, Becky Wasden is making New Orleans great with one ‘erster’ at a time.

 

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