Oyster King Grady Leavins' Straight-Talk on a Fading Way of Life

The Oyster KingGrady Leavins talks plain and straight about oysters and a fading way of lifeBy Jason Dehart

Once upon a time, when Grady Leavins first started out, a fellow oysterman he worked with called him a "candy ass."

"That was a mistake," said the scrappy little 65-year-old Leavins, who had just left his job "pushing test tubes" at the Arizona Chemical Research and Development Laboratory in Panama City.

In time, the hard life of an oysterman prepared him to meet the challenge. "I went from 38 (inches) in the chest to 44 in six months," he said. "It was very hard work. So when I got into shape, I said, ‘Remember calling me a candy ass? You shouldn’t have done that. We’re going to find out who the real candy ass is today.’ "

Like pairs of steam shovels, the two men and their partners worked Apalachicola Bay all day long. Leavins said that at the end of the day, his challenger was the first to quit.

"Me and my partner had 70 bushels and I think he quit at 65 or something like that," Leavins recalled. "We finally got back to the truck and got all the product loaded and I said, ‘Make sure of one thing: Don’t ever call me a candy ass again.’ "

The competition didn’t end there. In 1972, when he and wife Alice first came to Apalachicola, there were so many oyster boats you could just about walk across the bay and not get wet.

"There were 65 oyster businesses in Apalachicola 38 to 40 years ago," Leavins said. "They were everywhere. There were actually 1,800 boats that worked the bay then."

That much competition made it hard to find fishermen to buy from, Leavins said. "I had a very hard time getting the oyster fishermen to sell their product to us because there were so many other people here," he said. So in 1973 he jumped into his International seafood truck and drove to Louisiana to buy oysters. He still has to do that today because the bay has lost much of its oyster habitat.

"Without a source from Louisiana or Texas we’d have to close doors," Leavins said. "I’d rather sell (Apalachicola Bay oysters) than anything. But at the same time, there’s just not enough production to sustain the entire business."

Despite that, Leavins has risen to the top. "I’ve always been very innovative about many things and we’ve more or less set the standards for the industry nationwide," he said.

For example, in the old days, oysters used to be packaged in tin cans and tin cups. But those tended to rust. That was unacceptable. So Leavins won approval for a food-safe plastic bucket to package the shucked product in. Soon the rest of the industry caught on. Next, he started distributing plastic cups of half-shell oysters directly to supermarkets. The company already sells oysters to wholesale food distributors but the supermarket link has proven to be a winner. He said sales have increased 50 percent.

Another innovation is his patented method for killing harmful bacteria that make people afraid to eat oysters raw. Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus can multiply quickly in warm Gulf water, but Leavins uses nitrogen to "frost" his product, killing the bacteria and greatly reducing the risk of illness. The product is called "Leavins Frosted Oysters," but they’re nicknamed "Fearless Frosted" to boost consumer confidence.

"They can eat them without fear of illness," Leavins said. "You can always eat them when they’re cooked."

Innovation aside, unchanging fundamentals are a key part of his success.

I’ve always been a man of my word," he said. "Success is based on quality of product, hard work — and you do what you say."