Oysters played a formative role in the rise of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were both founded as pearl fishing towns centuries ago, before oil, tourism, and finance became the region’s biggest draws.
But now oysters may be putting the UAE on the map once again.
On the eastern shore of the country, nestled on the Gulf of Oman which feeds into the Indian Ocean, and about a 90 minute drive from Dubai, lies a small city called Dibba in the emirate of Fujairah.
Travel through the town to the coast and behind a chain link fence you’ll find a few fairly nondescript, small buildings that contains a company called East Coast Shellfish.
Caterer Middle East visited this same place two years ago to find out more about a start-up that was beginning to make waves with the Middle East’s first shellfish farm producing gourmet Dibba Bay oysters.
Now that start-up has just received significant investment with the aim of taking Dibba Bay oysters beyond a few restaurants and hotels in the UAE, and turning it into a global phenomenon.
Ramie Murray is the man behind the Dibba Bay oysters brand. It began as little more than a hopeful idea and a small proof-of-concept operation, he tells me. “Originally, a couple of years ago when we started out we were doing everything by hand. We were bringing oysters back, we were separating them by hand, we were measuring them on kitchen scales, we were brushing them by hand, packing them by hand…”
Fortunately the hard work was worth it. What the experiment uncovered was that the sea around Dibba Bay was perfect for the production of edible oysters. The biological makeup of the water contains lots of phytoplankton which oysters feed on, so much so that Dibba Bay oysters take only seven months to mature to the perfect level – compared to two to three years in other locations.
Murray explains that as the oysters are able to feed so plentifully, and all year round, they become very fat and sweet, giving Dibba Bay oysters a particularly high and flavourful meat content.
So in less than a year, Murray was able to hold the product in his hand and begin shopping it to restaurants and hotels in Dubai.
“To get the name out there it was a lot of door-to-door,” admits Murray, looking back on the first year when Dibba Bay was still an unknown entity. “I got to visit a lot of lovely restaurant because I was just turning up and delivering a box of local oysters and having these bemused chefs walking out like ‘what is this?’”
Murray acknowledges that early coverage from Caterer was a help in getting the word out there, but nothing beats first-hand experience.
He says: “You still have to go individually as chefs want to taste it. It doesn’t matter what coverage you’ve got and what the story is, at the end of the day they want to see the product, they want to taste it, before they’re going to order it. It was very door to door, it was very organic, then it was just word of mouth.”
Dubai may have a population of over three millions, plus untold numbers of tourists, but it’s also the smallest town you’ll ever visit and word travels quickly. Soon everyone wanted Dibba Bay oysters, including huge hotel groups.
Murray says: “We’ve had wonderful support from Marriott at an international level and they’ve been promoting us around their hotels. We did a pop-up tour with them last year and went around a couple of the big hotels and response has been wonderful. The chefs got behind it so now we’re going to be rolling out in a lot more Marriott properties. There’s been blind tastes with some major hotel brands that are getting their chefs together and we’re coming out on top.”
He laughs though as he admits they do have the advantage of being barely an hour away from Dubai, meaning Dibba Bay oysters are harvested in the morning and delivered to restaurants in the evening so they are served “super, super fresh”.
SUCH A THING AS TOO POPULAR?
While Murray’s grassroots campaign was a smash success, with chefs in Dubai and other surrounding cities more than happy to celebrate a local product that ticked every box from sustainability to taste, it brought with it some other challenges for the small start-up.
“You see Dibba Bay oysters all around town which is wonderful, but a lot of the time they’ll be on the menu but they’re not available because we’ve not been able to supply them.
“That’s my bad,” jokes Murray. The fact is that for almost all of its short lifespan, the demand for Dibba Bay oysters has well outstripped supply. Not the worst problem for a new company to have.
Murray says: “There’s been so much support and we were ramping up [production], and then we had a stutter, and we ramped up… and then we had a stutter. So there’s been a few false starts and quite a few incidents of they’ve been printed on the menu but they’re not available, but they’re almost available again so they’ve been left on the menu.”
While it has been far from ideal, the supply issues have showcased just how big the appetite for Dibba Bay oysters is in the region. And, now, Murray believes, such problems are a thing of the past.
“We’ve been operating essentially as a small, artisanal farm, which in aquaculture it’s never going to work. You need to get to a certain scale to survive and have a certain profitability,” Murray tells me.
“We were looking for a partner to invest so we could scale up bit and we were blessed that we found the right partner who’s ended up investing a significant amount to get us to the sort of scale where it will be a sustainable business.
“Everything we’ve done up until now has essentially been a pilot study. It’s been a proof of concept. We know that we can grow great oysters, we know the market is there, we know the demand is there, so now it’s about scaling.”
For the past two years, Murray has been slowly increasing the farm’s rate of production. The introduction of a number of machines helped to take out much of the hands-on element. For example, while they used to wash and sort all of the oysters by hand, some fairly basic equipment has helped to automate the process and increase the stock they can hold and the amount they can sell.
But this major investment will be a quantum leap in terms of what Dibba Bay can put out to market.
“We’ve had to say no to many people who wanted to support us and stock Dibba Bay,” Murray admits. “But that should be a thing of the past as of this month. We’re scaling up from 30,000 [oysters] a month and by the end of the year we’ll be producing 150,000 oysters a month. So it’s a huge scale and something we’ve been planning for the last six months or so. This is all coming to fruition now and so there shouldn’t be any supply shortages over the Christmas period this year.”
EQUIPMENT AND INFRASTRUCTUE
Naturally, the team is increasing in size also. At the moment Murray has a team of around 20 employees, which will increase to about 40-50 by the end of the year. That alone is causing Murray a headache.
He says: “We’ve got this expansion capital but now we’ve got the growing pain of turning from a startup into a decent sized company with a reliable service. The biggest problem at the moment is manning up the team. I’ve got to hire a full commercial team, we’re looking for a marketing manager, an HR manager, we need an export team, we need a sales team. It’s quite hectic because you can’t expand until you get the people on board so that’s the challenge at the moment and then we’ll be off and running.”
There will be big changes to infrastructure with much more equipment brought in to facilitate the huge increase in oysters being produced, and plans are afoot for a mobile work platform that will remove the need for the oysters to be taken from the offshore farm 10km away and returned to base camp to be processed before being returned to the farm each month.
“It’s going to be a huge increase in efficiency that’s going to save us a lot of time,” says Murray.
The introduction of new equipment and infrastructure will mean DIbba Bay doesn’t even need to stop at 150,000 oysters a month. By the end of the following year, says Murray, the farm should have around 100 staff with an output of half a million oysters a month.
Even longer term, Murray is aiming for a capacity of a million oysters a month. A huge figure that absolutely dwarfs the current production of 30,000. But is it realistic?
“Yes it is absolutely achievable,” Murray says confidently. “What we have here is a totally untapped resource. It’s completely empty ocean. There’s very little aquaculture on the stretch that we’re in. We’ve pioneered this industry and with farming it is very much scalable so what we’re able to do is expand our original site, and we can get a second site, and a third site.
“We’ve proven that oysters grow extremely well in these conditions so now it’s fairly unlimited the expansion we can make in the ocean. Even if we 10x our production, 100x our production, the global trade of oysters is a billion oysters a year. So we’re aiming for a million a month in the future, and it’s a drop in the ocean once you access those international markets.”
So far Murray has been the face of the brand as well as the engine room, but with the introduction of a full team to back him up, he can focus on the big picture. When we meet he’s not long back from a trip to Russia to look into exporting Dibba Bay there, but it’s not been straightforward.
“I’m getting enquiries from all over the world, from high end oyster and caviar bars that want to stock us. We’re looking into Russia, we’re looking into China, and Europe. At the moment, because we are the first and only shellfish farm, not only in the UAE but in the Middle East, I merrily went off to start exporting and found out that because I’m the first person to try this, nobody has ever exported live shellfish to other countries before, so the legislation is not in place. This is the downside of being a pioneer!”
Fortunately, Murray reveals they are receiving “fantastic” government support to help make it happen, and it’s something on which he credits Dibba Bay’s success from the start.
He says: “We couldn’t have done this without high level support from the beginning. It started out with Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the rule of Fujairah. He was the one that initially gave permission for this to happen. We had support from the local community here, the fishermen’s association were very happy to see the project happen, the local municipality were very supportive.
“So moving forward the next big thing is export and we’re getting full support from Dubai Trade, from the Ministry of Environment, everyone’s being very supportive in getting the paperwork sorted out.”
CLOSER TO HOME
While international export is the big ticket for Dibba Bay, Murray isn’t forgetting about the people of the UAE – after all, there’s no better way to showcase his oysters than fresh out of the sea.
“We get a lot of enquiries that want to buy direct from the farm but because we’re out on the east coast it is a bit of a hike, so what we wanted to do is something accessible in Dubai. We’re very lucky we got a little spot in Umm Suqeim harbour in Jumeirah so we are able to put our farm shop there. This will allow us to sell directly to the customer and interact directly with them and get our brand out there.
“We’re calling it an oyster box because it’s a converted shipping container, like in Box Park etc.. We’re saying it’s the first one because we’re actually looking to roll out a few of them, so this first one is a test case. We’re starting small, so it will be pickup, home delivery, and to a limited degree you’ll be able to come and eat oysters at the shop. In the cooler months we’ll be shucking platters for you and that will be very price competitive and allow you to come down and sit by the water and have some oysters. If it all goes to plan we’ll be rolling out another two or three of them in the coming year.”
While they already sell to the horeca market and directly to supermarkets including Spinneys, Waitrose, and now Carrefour, this will be the first opportunity for consumers to buy direct from the farm. Murray hopes that doing so will make oysters more accessible for people.
He says: “Oysters are a gourmet, luxury product, but they don’t have to be priced out of the market. The benefit of Dibba Bay oysters is they are a premium oyster which to get the equivalent of an imported oyster is quite expensive but because they’re local and you’re not paying for the transport etc., our pricing matches a cheap import of not quite as good an oyster, so they are very good value.”
But to the general public, oysters still have a reputation for being very expensive and eaten only by the upper class, something that is not dissuaded when you see the price of them on many restaurants in Dubai. If Dibba Bay oysters are competitively priced, should restaurants be charging less for them?
“Of course I’d like the pricing to be as accessible as possible, especially being a local product, but I have no control over what the pricing is in a restaurant. It’s all very well saying ‘you’re selling them for this so it should only be that’ but restaurants have a lot of overheads - they’ve got their rents, their staff, their marketing budget – their food cost is actually just a small portion of a cost of a restaurant. Saying that, as a local product and we’re highly price competitive, it would be nice to them competitively priced in the restaurants. I’m a believer that if you get the right pricing and have everyone experience them and enjoy them, rather than just having them put on a pedestal pricing wise and nobody buys them, but, of course, I’m not a restaurateur.”