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Meet D.C.’s ‘Oyster Ninja,’ a One-Man Raw Bar With a Big Fanbase

Gardner Douglas’ in-demand oyster business delivers up to 3,000 fresh bivalves each month around the DMV

Gardner Douglas’ roving business centers around oysters on ice.
Gardner Douglas

Growing up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Gardner Douglas was surrounded by water and a family full of oyster shuckers. But it wasn’t until he met his father in his early 20s when he discovered his own love for bivalves. At the time, his dad Sam Fisher was a nationally-ranked oyster shucker with his own mobile business and nickname of “Sam Sam, the shucking man.” His success planted a spat that would eventually grow into Douglas’ own oyster-shucking outfit and podcast. Known around shellfish circles as the Oyster Ninja, Douglas is a one-man raw bar who brings his S.S.Shucking catering company and roving oyster bar to all sorts of destinations around the DMV.

Oyster Ninja, aka Gardner Douglas, manning a shucking station.
Gardner Douglas

Douglas moves anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 oysters per month, he says, with business peaking around wedding season and the holidays.

Raised by his grandmother in the small town of Withams, Virginia, in a home without running water, Douglas saw the National Guard as his ticket out of the Eastern Shore. When he returned from being deployed in Afghanistan in 2014, Douglas was left pondering his next career move. There wasn’t much he loved more than being surrounded by oysters, so he got his feet wet as a shucker at Rappahannock Oyster Bar’s breakout location in Union Market.

After a few years, Douglas says, “I realized I could do the same thing I was doing on the Eastern Shore up here [in D.C.] but just kinda dress it up a little bit, put a spin on it.”

His first private gig was an oyster-and-wine pairing party he worked with his dad.

“That gave me the bug and the reassurance that we could make it a thing,” says Douglas.

As Douglas’ reputation has grown, so has his list of local celebrity clients. That includes shucking oysters for former First Lady Michelle Obama at her 54th birthday at Rake’s Progress in 2018. His family back on the Eastern Shore is aware his career entails putting oysters on the table for some of D.C.’s top power players, but for them, “it’s just a way of life,” he says.

“I get the most pats on my back by my dad,” says Douglas. “He always says he never thought I would take oyster shucking this far in terms of the parties and events I do and how it’s been elevated.”

Gardner Douglas showcasing his oyster-shucking skills.
Gardner Douglas

He started small with a simple social media account, and word-of-mouth referrals have kept him busy ever since. Douglas has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of oysters, and he leverages his connections with local farms like True Chesapeake, White Stone, and Ruby Salts, as well as national sources like Island Creek, Raspberry Point, and Atlantic Shellfish to create menus that reflect his clients’ personal preferences.

“I have a conversation with the client to see what flavor profile they like, what region they like, [and] what type of oysters they usually eat,” explains Gardner. “People will say, ‘I like Blue Points.’ And then I can say, if you like that, you’ll love this.”

But Douglas says it’s the freshness of the seafood that distinguishes him from the competition.

“Where raw bars might be sitting on oysters for a few days,” says Douglas, “the majority of the time, I’m getting my oysters the day of the event, from my distributor or from local oyster farmers.”

Some of the catering companies Douglas works in conjunction with have contracted events for elected officials and embassies. “A lot of times I don’t even know most of the politicians until I Google them,” he laughs. “I’m blessed to be in so many elite rooms.”

The masses can also slurp his freshly shucked shipments on ice twice a month. Every first Thursday his mobile oyster bar S.S.Shucking parks out front of Johnny’s All American in Columbia Heights, and every last Thursday he pops up at Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale. He also does one-off pit stops at places like Hill East Burger.

Gardner Douglas sources many of his plump bivalves from various Virginia farms.
Gardner Douglas

On his podcast, Douglas covers everything from what makes a good shucking knife to the best hot sauce for oysters. In one episode, he traced the Black history of oyster shucking to tell the story of fellow Eastern Shore native Thomas Downing, the son of enslaved parents who rose to prominence as an oysterman with his Thomas Downing Oyster House. The parallels between Downing and Douglas are hard to ignore; both men enlisted in the military to escape poverty and hardship on the Eastern Shore and went on to serve oysters to an elite clientele.

Gardner Douglas participating in a past oyster-shucking competition.
Steve Vilnit

Though he’s made a name for himself as a shucker, Douglas says his grandmother taught him to stay humble and to always keep pushing forward.

“You can’t stay or dwell in your past,” Douglas says. “I set goals for myself. I keep moving and pushing even when it seems like I’m not moving at the pace I want to. I’m still moving, and that’s the most important thing.”

Because his events business is booking up so fast, he doesn’t have the time to participate in as many oyster-shucking competitions as he used to; he’s still pondering a seat at this year’s big Prince Edward Island International Shellfish Festival.

—Tierney Plumb contributed to this report