Cousins Ryan Croxton and Travis Croxton, of Virginia’s Rappahannock Oyster Co., have been lauded for their success at helping to bring back healthy harvests of Chesapeake Bay oysters. And chefs like Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin proudly serve the oysters that the Croxtons grow sustainably. But ask Travis and Ryan how they ended up as oystermen and restaurateurs and they say it’s all a happy accident.

Although their great-grandfather began harvesting oysters in the Rappahannock River in 1899, and their grandfather and fathers had been working their oyster grounds ever since, Ryan and Travis had no intentions of following in the family tradition. They’d already begun other careers. Yet in 2001, when their dads told them that the family’s 200 acres of oyster leases were about to be retired, the cousins had a change of heart, and, amid an oyster industry that was in terrible shape, they set out to revive the business.

After much study of sustainable aquaculture, planting of oyster seed beds, and experimenting with techniques, they brought several varieties of oysters to market in 2004. Rappahannock River oysters are sweet, Stingray oysters are milder, and Olde Salt oysters are fairly briny. Marketing them directly to chefs, the Croxtons soon garnered a reputation for oysters that were fresh, delicate, and raised in an environmentally sound manner.

A simple oyster-tasting room, Merroir, became wildly popular, and before long its menu had expanded and Ryan and Travis were opening Rappahannock Oyster Bar (in Washington, D.C.) and Rappahannock (in Richmond, Virginia), with executive chef Dylan Fultineer. Recognition includes Food & Wine magazine’s 2005 Tastemaker Award, Washingtonian’s 2013 People Who Are Shaping Washington, and Southern Living’s 50 People Who Are Changing the South in 2015. In 2014, Travis won the Elby Award for Restaurateur of the Year in Richmond and was named as one of Style Weekly’s Top 40 Under 40.