Perry Raso started off raking clams for extra money in junior high. Today he is raking in millions by being a devoted entrepreneur with a highly successful restaurant and oyster farm in his hometown of South Kingstown, RI.
Raso started Matunuck Oyster Farm in 2002. “I knew there was a way for me to produce a high-end and high-demand item, so I started small without a lot of capital,” he said.
The 31-year-old estimates he put in around $95,000 in the first three years of farming, without much to show for it. “There was no return at all because the oysters weren’t market size, so the whole time I was going to graduate school and digging shellfish to make money,” he said.
By 2009, Raso said he was pulling in over $200,000 in revenue and was able to purchase a piece of waterfront property on the pond where he had his farm. That was a game changer.
“This was the only commercial dock on the pond, so when it came up for sale at the lull in the market, I purchased it,” said Raso. There was one catch: The property had a restaurant on it.
“Back when I was delivering shellfish to restaurants, I would always think to myself, this is one business that I wouldn’t want to be involved in because there are so many moving parts,” he said.
But, Raso took the plunge, and it worked out considerably better than expected. The Matunuck Oyster Bar opened in July, 2009, and in a year, has already racked up $2.5 million in revenue.
The place itself is small and always bustling with customers who are willing to wait up to two hours for a table. It offers everything from steamed mussels to locally-grown salad to raw and fried oysters (of course), and Raso’s grandmother’s homemade blueberry pie. Initially, Raso said it was going to be a seasonal, but because of demand, he stayed open year round.
Still, the modest oysterman seemed surprised at the wild success of his restaurant and is wary of trumpeting his triumph too soon. “I guess I don’t necessarily think of it as a success. It’s new and it’s very busy… I think we have a long way to go before I can be comfortable to say success,” he said. “I am surprised by the turnout every day, and it makes me want to stay on top of everything, details and all.”
Six Shooter Q&A with Perry Raso
1. When did you decide you were going to start the oyster farm?
In 2002 as I neared the end of my undergraduate work at the University of Rhode Island, I attended the World Aquaculture Society meeting and decided then that I would start my own farm.
2. What is your biggest tip to other wannabe entrepreneurs?
Ask lots of questions and listen to the advice of others but make your own decisions.When I was in school I was never really afraid to ask for a favor. If a professor had the knowledge to help me out I would go and bug that professor. If there was a graduate student, I would go and bug that graduate student. When there were tutors, I would be in a tutor’s office until they would kick me out. It was all about putting in the time for me.
3. What is your biggest mistake to date?
I make lots of mistakes. The way I figure it, paying for the mistakes is part of the cost of doing business. For example, I made the mistake of investing time and money in building gear that I ultimately did not use, but I learned from the mistake and moved on.
4. Do you think the entrepreneurial character is something learned or something inside you?
I believe that the things that I have learned and experienced make up the person that I am today. I don’t think being [entrepreneurial] was something I was born with.
5. Where do you hope you’ll be in five years?
Operating shellfish farms in developing countries as well as my farm here in Rhode Islad.
6. What do you like better, your oyster farm or your restaurant?
The oyster farm is where I feel more comfortable. I am way out of my element in the restaurant. But it is worth it to be able to interact with the customers.
Christina is on Twitter @ChristinaScotti