7 Jul 2021
By Kathi Ferguson
It was my first visit to Wittman Wharf Seafood. The customer ahead of me had just finished paying for his purchase. “This is the second day in a row I’ve come in for scallops,” he told me. “They are amazing. I’m heading home now and putting them on the grill – might wrap ‘em in bacon first!”
Located on approximately nine acres at the water’s edge of Cummings Creek in the village of Wittman, this former seafood packinghouse had been a fixture at the community wharf for nearly 50 years. Opening as an oyster business in the 1950s, original owner and lifelong Wittman resident, the late Ray J. Jones, grew his company into a full time seafood processing plant, Ray J. Jones Seafood Company, which he and his family operated from 1966 to its closing in 1989. The facility is one of a small collection of early to mid-twentieth century packinghouses to remain in Talbot County.
Before current Wittman Wharf Seafood owner Nick Hargrove’s family purchased the property 18 years ago, the single-story concrete block and frame building remained vacant. “The place was boarded up when my parents bought it,” says Nick. “It was primarily being used for storage. But the interior was pretty much unaltered.”
As fate would have it, the abandoned building proved to be the perfect location to serve as home base for Hargrove’s new venture, Wild Divers Oyster Company. Wild Divers hand harvests oysters from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, reaching areas that tongs or dredging cannot, without disturbing the surrounding ecosystem. Together, in 2016, with co-owner and professional oyster diver, Derek Wilson, the pair moved their business from Nick’s parents’ garage in St. Michaels to the unoccupied space where the two cleaned and boxed their oysters to sell to area restaurants. “We put some pretty significant work into the place,” says Nick. “Now Derek and I were able to shuck and process out of here.”
Wittman Wharf Seafood began operating in April of 2020. Hargrove already had the ideal location, and soon began processing and selling seafood harvested from local waters from the renovated packinghouse. “I don’t want to run a lemonade stand,” Nick told his colleague, Marc Van Pelt. “If we do this, we do it right, with a whole cabinet of fish, working with the people catching it, buying it, the whole nine yards.” Selling oysters and soft crabs kicked things off for Wittman Wharf, and it was not long before shrimp, scallops, and a variety of other fresh fish started appearing in the display case.
Hargrove buys everything he can right off the boats as local watermen unload their catch. Otherwise, he sources from a variety of mid-Atlantic seafood suppliers. “Our tuna, swordfish, and day boat scallops come from Ocean City, and shrimp come to us from a processor in North Carolina,” says Nick. “We’ll also get things like clams from Chincoteague and salt oysters from Virginia. We are always seeking out new sources.”
Some of the first officially brought on board to help run Wittman Wharf were Jeff Tunney, Marc Van Pelt, and Elaine Crow—each with their own connection to the water.
Tunney had been culling crab and crab potting for Nick, as well as purchasing oysters for Wild Divers before Hargrove brought him back on shore to manage the processing. Van Pelt, the general manager and right hand man to Hargrove, once was a charter captain out of Rock Hall, and helped run Wild Divers. Elaine grew up in Tilghman and began working on the water in 1972 culling crabs and oysters, baiting up for trot liners, and crab potting. “When Nick opened up the peeler floats about a year ago, he hired me to maintain them,” Crow says. “I knew this place when Ray (Jones) had it,” she recalls. “Watermen used to bait up and hang out here. Good memories.”
Hargrove’s philosophy for running his business is one of innovation, trust in his staff, and a strong work ethic. “I want to be as transparent as possible with my employees as well as with my customers,” Nick explains. “We’re far from perfect, but we’re genuine. If we mess up, then we fix it. There aren’t many places where you can go buy seafood on the water anymore,” he adds. “Knowing your product went from right here to right there, and then home with you is something special.”