P&J Oyster Co. (1039 Toulouse St., 504-523-2651; www.oysterlover.com) is the nation's oldest oyster distributor. It was founded in 1876 and run by John Popich and Joseph Jurisich, two cousins whose initials give the company its current name. They were joined in 1921 by Alfred Sunseri, a salesman for United Fruit Co. who married into the Jurisich family and helped P&J expand with his fruit shipping contacts. His grandchildren, the brothers Al Suneri and Sal Sunseri Jr. joined the family business in the 1980s and run it together today. Both have been leaders for the oyster industry as it has struggled with recent hurricanes and the BP oil disaster. They help produce the New Orleans Oyster Festival, which in 2012 drew an estimated 25,000 people to the French Quarter.
There were many media reports after the BP oil spill that P&J shut down. Did that actually happen?
Sunseri: Never. P&J never shut down except after Hurricane Katrina, and that was for a short period. After BP, we had to stop shucking here because we just weren't getting the product. That's what stopped. So we purchased oysters from other suppliers, made sure they were up to our standards and sold them to our customers to keep them supplied. Our whole oysters, for the oyster bars and the restaurants, those were still coming off the same boats like before.
How are things looking in the oyster beds now?
S: It's important for people to realize that after we went through Katrina, three years later we got (hurricanes) Ike and Gustav, then two years later it was the oil spill, then two years later it's Isaac. It's like back to back, you can't catch your breath and produce a great harvest. Hopefully now there will be a chance for farmers to plant on their grounds and replenish.
What has market demand been like?
S: People are confident about them now. The health of the oysters we draw is fine, and it's more regulated and inspected now than ever. People need them, people want them. They don't feel whole without them — that's New Orleans people, though. We do still have a lack of consumption outside the South. — IAN MCNULTY