COOS BAY — After 18 months of regulatory hoop-jumping, a pair of fishermen have joined one of the most tightly regulated — and potentially lucrative — industries in the state.
In March, Todd Osten and Rob Taylor became the first locals to harvest and sell clams for human consumption in 20 years.
While most bay residents are no stranger to clam digging, commercial collecting is a maze of red tape. Osten and Taylor have one of only 15 permits in the state for harvesting.
As the profile of West Coast Clams grows among restaurant owners, the pair hope they can leverage their exclusive status to attract a national seafood distributor.
"We would love to take this 100 levels above where we are at," Osten said. "What I would really like to see, to be honest with you, I would love to see a bigger company take us on."
For now, Osten and Taylor are facing an uphill battle for recognition. Most chefs rely on clams from farms in Washington state and Thailand, and don't realize the pair are the only ones selling local clams.
In their five months of operation, West Coast Clams has had some small but important breakthroughs. The Coach House Restaurant and Lounge is one of their biggest repeat customers. The Coos Bay eatery grills 10 to 20 pounds of fresh bivalves each week.
For Empire's Clamboree — the county's pre-eminent clam festival — the organizers scoured the country for clam sellers before returning to the region. Clamboree cooks ordered 130 pounds of shellfish from West Coast Clams.
Osten also has become a regular at the farmers market in Coos Bay, where he grills up butter clams and cockles for hungry punters — tantalizing taste buds and, hopefully, luring more chefs to become regular clients.
Speaking on a blustery Wednesday, Osten said he had just served clams to a visiting chef from San Francisco.
"And she was so excited to see it — she said they were phenomenal," Osten said.
Osten says that he and his five-man crew are diving for about 150 pounds of clams per week. He wants to expand to as much as 1,000 to 1,500 pounds per week.
To do that, the pair would need to sit down with a major food distributor such as Sysco or Food Services of America. If they can strike a deal, Osten says, the pair can take the bay's best-kept secret to the national stage.
In the meantime, Osten hopes a few more locals shuck the bay's finest clams.
"You can get crab. You can get salmon. You can get tuna. But you can only get these here," Osten said. "That's it. But the only way you would know about us is through word of mouth."