Faces of Family Business: Larry and Tina Toomer
At the helm
How Larry and Tina Toomer are expanding their third-generation family seafood business with their children and grandchildren by their sides.
If you live in the Lowcountry, you’ve probably heard the name Toomer before, most likely said in the same breath as “seafood.” It seems like Lowcountry locals have been recommending Larry and Tina Toomer’s family seafood business, the Bluffton Oyster Co., forever because, well, they have.
Built up by more than a century’s worth of discarded shells from previous shucking operations – and the Toomer family’s dedication – the Bluffton Oyster Co. has been open for over 100 years. Now with the fourth and fifth generations of Toomers at the helm, the seafood dynasty expanded to include a restaurant, the Bluffton Oyster Co. Family Seafood House.
Larry grew up in the family seafood business. His family’s history is deeply rooted in the Lowcountry, as Simpson V. Toomer Sr., Larry’s grandfather, opened the Hilton Head Packing Company in 1913. It was an oyster house until 1928, then a raw oyster factory that remained in business until 1958. Larry’s father, Frank G. Toomer, and his uncles kept the family business alive by opening other seafood factories along Skull Creek on Hilton Head Island and the Buckingham Landing area.
Larry followed in his family’s footsteps by working in oyster factories in his early teens.
“I knew I wanted things: I knew I wanted a family, a business, and I wanted to be my own boss and carve my way in the world,” Larry said. “I had been around this lifestyle forever, and I didn’t have to go to college to do it, so I took what I had learned and bought my first shrimp boat when I was 20.”
Many of Larry’s workdays are still spent on the water, while Tina handles the Bluffton Oyster Co.’s daily operations. The Bluffton Oyster Co. is best known for its namesake, as all of the market’s oysters are harvested and shucked by hand, but it also carries local shrimp, clams, mussels, crab, scallops and a variety of fresh fish.
The quality and variety of the Bluffton Oyster Co.’s seafood have earned the market a loyal following, though Larry credits much of the company’s continued success to its devoted employees and to diversifying its operations. Catering is now a large part of the Bluffton Oyster Co.’s business, featuring oyster roasts, clam bakes, Lowcountry boils, crab boils and barbecue. And now customers can enjoy a perfectly cooked seafood dinner at the Family Seafood House as well.
All five of Larry and Tina’s children have a role in the family business, but their daughter, Jessica, has been the biggest advocate for opening a restaurant since she was a teenager. Larry and Tina told her that when she was old enough to run a restaurant, they would open one. Sure enough, when Jessica turned 20, the Family Seafood House opened its doors.
“Aunt Becky,” Tina’s sister and Jessica’s aunt, who had experience in the restaurant industry, moved to Bluffton for two years to help get the Family Seafood House off the ground. Jessica’s husband, Akeem, is the chef, and her niece and nephew work at the restaurant too. Larry and Tina’s son-in-law, Michael Mocny, is the assistant manager.
Larry and Jessica agree that one of the best parts of working in a family business is the flexibility. Jessica has three children – including a 13-year-old-daughter who wants to work in the restaurant when she turns 14 – so she appreciates being able to bring them with her to work when necessary.
The downside to being part of a family business? The Toomers’ off-the-clock conversations usually revolve around the seafood business anyway, even when they’re on vacation.
Larry also serves as Bluffton mayor pro-temp, assuming Mayor Lisa Sulka’s responsibilities when she is away. Larry uses his position on the Town Council to be a voice for the May River’s wildlife and for water conservation. Larry and Tina are very active with the South Carolina Seafood and Southern Shrimpers Alliance to promote only local seafood. The Oyster Factory is an FDA and DHEC-inspected facility and works closely with its regulatory agencies on ensuring water quality.
Larry and Tina’s mission is not only to continue their family’s seafood legacy but to preserve the Lowcountry’s natural resources for generations to come.
Learn from Larry Toomer’s decades of experience running his family’s successful seafood business, Bluffton Oyster Co.
1. Listen to your children. They will have better ideas about how to keep up with the constantly changing world we live in.
2. Hold your own on quality and don’t let money dilute your passion.
3. Be sure to work hard at not letting business disagreements ruin family get-togethers.