With great anticipation, Scott Fritze, the young co-owner of Marvesta Shrimp Farms, pulled up to Woodberry Kitchen in his black Pathfinder with his first delivery—a large cooler full of Maryland's first home-grown shrimp, still alive and squirming.
The grueling days and sleepless nights of building a shrimp farm from scratch would be worth it if Spike Gjerde, chef/owner of Woodberry Kitchen, liked the product. After all, this is a chef who prizes fresh ingredients like a sommelier treasures fine wine.
"You almost have to do a double take. Shrimp on the Eastern Shore?" says Gjerde. "You think about the Chesapeake, about oysters and crabs, but shrimp is not part of the equation."
But, finally, he was going to get to taste the organic shrimp, which are grown in self-contained pools of warm saltwater in an unlikely place, the little town of Hurlock. "I thought it was a remarkably clean product, great shrimp flavor," Gjerde says. And perfect for his Clipper Mill restaurant, which emphasizes locally grown items on its menu.
Today, Marvesta grows 30,000 pounds of shrimp a year and has served 20 restaurants in Baltimore, Washington, and the Eastern Shore. An ambitious building plan will quadruple the operation, allowing the operation to grow 120,000 pounds of shrimp a year and serve another 50 restaurants by the end of summer. When the expansion is complete, the multimillion-dollar enterprise expects to also have shrimp available to the public through its website, marvesta.com.
It is one of only a handful of indoor shrimp farms in the United States. Others are in Virginia, where Blue Ridge Aquaculture is still testing its operation, and in Michigan, where the small-scale Seafood Systems sells its shrimp to the public from its own market.
Success hasn't come without serious growing pains for the Marvesta owners—Fritze, Guy Furman, and Andy Hanzlik, all are in their 20s, had never worked in the commercial fishing industry, had never run a business, and had no clue how a fresh shrimp should taste.
The early days in 2002 were rocky—many thousands of baby shrimp died from trial and error while the men slept by the side of the shrimp tanks—which look like large concrete swimming pools—to monitor water conditions.
It all began with Furman's master's thesis at Cornell University. Furman, who, like partner Fritze, grew up in Roland Park and graduated from Friends School, earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in biological engineering from Cornell. Because he was interested in aquaculture, his thesis was about the economic model of a hypothetical, self-contained shrimp farm.
Most shrimp farms in Asia and Latin America are notorious for destroying and polluting the environment, growing the shrimp in large areas of natural waterways where farmers hack out the mangroves and sustain shrimp with antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals. Furman's idea was to grow organic shrimp inland in pools of clean, re-circulating saltwater, taking up a comparatively smaller space without using any chemicals or antibiotics.
The term 'hypothetical' from his thesis didn't deter him when he approached Fritze and Hanzlik, a Pennsylvanian who met Fritze at Bucknell University while they were studying business. Fritze and Hanzlik were about to take jobs in investment banking and venture capital when Furman made his pitch.
"He sat us down a week or two before graduation, and said, 'I really want you to take a look at this proposal,'" Hanzlik says. Furman told his friends that they could "create a niche market and show it is different from everything else you buy in a supermarket from an environmental and sustainable level," Hanzlik recalls.
"We had the opportunity to pioneer a new industry by paving our own road map," says Fritze. "The challenges were immense, the learning curve was steep. There was no blueprint we could follow, no one we could call to ask for help."
Each task was daunting. The men needed loans to buy land to build their greenhouses and concrete tanks. They needed to find affordable, flat land. They had to figure out where to get building permits and how to get 400,000 gallons of saltwater to fill the pools. They had to find a supplier of baby shrimp, learn what to feed them, and what water temperature and saline level were required to keep the shrimp alive.
They also needed a name for their new company and to find restaurants willing to try their shrimp. They had to be sure their shrimp would taste exponentially better than what was available. As restaurateur Gjerde points out, Marylanders are used to eating frozen shrimp with the heads removed, which all too often come from halfway around the world.
The shrimp-farm entrepreneurs also needed not to lose their shirts—or their wits. They were all 22 years old.
"There was so much we needed to know that we didn't know," Hanzlik says.
After convincing their skeptical parents that their venture was worth trying, they began to look for land in Baltimore County, but it was too hilly and costly. Furman's father suggested they look on the Eastern Shore in the town of Hurlock, with a population of 2,200, outside Cambridge.
There, the young men found a small industrial park with flat land and bought five acres, later expanding to 32 acres. They built five large tanks. This year, they have already expanded with another 12 tanks.
They found help from the Hurlock town government, which was surprisingly open to their venture. Hurlock, it turns out, already has a self-contained tilapia farm, so the idea of an enclosed shrimp farm wasn't so far-fetched, says Linda M. Nabb, Hurlock's zoning administrator.
When she met the three men, she says, "They were young, they had a glint in their eye, and a fire in their belly to make it work. To tell you the truth, the whole process has been exciting. It was worth a shot, giving them the opportunity to try to make a go of it."
Helping them through the permit process, she adds, came naturally. "That's what a small town can offer. Hold their hand, be a point guard," she says.
While they had many difficult challenges, the men say they enjoyed the advantages of starting a business from scratch. For one thing, they loved choosing their own name. After much discussion, they chose Marvesta because 'mar' is the Latin word for sea and "Vesta" is the Roman god of home and hearth.
In the early years, when the owners began testing their new shrimp-growing system, they had to experiment, not knowing what water salinity would keep the shrimp alive. They stayed close to the pools, checking the salt level around the clock. Finally, after killing about 150,000 baby shrimp, they discovered that their early system failed due to low salinity.
"It was a valuable experience," says Fritze. "You have to evolve and be innovative. We are probably up to version 500."
"A lot of people are shocked we're still doing this," adds Furman.
Today, the Marvesta owners' tanks are teeming with healthy, lively shrimp in warm, bubbling, brownish water kept at 80 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit that has a salt level of 18-20 parts per 1,000 to keep toxins and bacteria stable. Each tank has 4,000 pounds—or 80,000 to 100,000 shrimp. While showing a visitor around the property, Furman picks up a large shrimp that practically jumps from his hand. "The big ones are the feistiest," he says proudly.
"They are lightening quick," says Fritze. The men gaze fondly at these crustaceans—like proud parents—that they worked so hard to keep alive. The shrimp they grow, called Penaeus vannamei, are pale white and a bit translucent with healthy, pale green shells.
Up until this year, the three men have run every inch of their business themselves, from growing, feeding, and harvesting the shrimp (which means jumping into a pool with nets to collect them), to taking orders, and delivering to restaurants.
"The neat part for us is the interaction with chefs," said Fritze, who enjoys the direct contact with the people who cook the shrimp he raises. He loves to watch a kitchen staff when he delivers live shrimp, which range in price from $8-16 a pound, depending on size, plus shipping costs. "They're trying to corral them in the kitchen. It's a neat experience," he says.
John Shields, chef/owner of Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is a Marvesta convert and uses the organic shrimp at his restaurant. Before he got his first taste, he says, "I wondered if the product was going to be any good. It is just amazing, the ability to get shrimp right out of the water."
The shrimp remind him of the shrimp he used to get fresh from Monterey Bay when he lived in northern California. "It has a wonderfully firm texture, very crisp, and sweet flavor," he says.
The flavor, he says, "can spoil a chef."
With shrimp production increasing, the Marvesta owners finally hired their first employee in February. It wasn't easy finding someone in Maryland with expertise in shrimp farming.
"You can't put an ad in the paper that says, 'Shrimp farmer wanted,'" says Fritze with a laugh.
Through word of mouth, they hired a production manager, 60-year-old Jack Crockett (a descendant of frontiersman Davey of coonskin-hat fame), who's been shrimp farming for more than 30 years in outdoor shrimp farms in Nicaragua and Honduras, as well as at an indoor shrimp farm being tested in Texas.
Crockett says his job is "to get as much shrimp as possible out of the tanks at the lowest cost," while maintaining the highest quality. Of his new bosses, who are young enough to be his sons, Crockett says, "Not only do they have great insight, they are hard working and very smart."
But the three buddies aren't done yet: Marvesta's owners dream of one day having their own shrimp hatchery and being able to heat their pools with solar panels and other alternative energy sources.
They've come a long way since the initial days when they couldn't be sure of success until they tasted the product. And that wasn't for two years after they started the business.
When the day finally came, they cooked the shrimp a little too long—for a couple of minutes, they said. They eventually concluded that Marvesta shrimp are best cooked for 40 seconds on each side, sautéing them on high heat in a little olive oil after peeling them, but leaving the heads on.
After they took their first bites, Hanzlik recalls, "We thought, 'Thank God, they're really good.'"