INTERVIEW: Adam Loo of Oyster Cart — 'A shucker is like a magician, a showman'

Adam Loo (PHOTO: Oyster Cart Singapore)
Adam Loo (PHOTO: Oyster Cart Singapore)

SINGAPORE — I’m scheduled to meet Adam Loo, founder of Oyster Cart, on a Thursday at Rangoon Road’s leafy neighbourhood, where its retail-office unit is housed. He greets me outside mid smoke break with a firm handshake, apologises for the wait, and invites me into the store where I set up my voice recorder on a tall table that sits flush against a clear window overlooking the road outside. On the opposite table, a team member busies himself with the task of measuring sauces and caviar for repackaging into smaller takeaway containers.

A few moments later, Adam enters and sits with me, his hair slightly unkempt and the stresses on his face apparent. This is, as I eventually learn in the course of this interview, symptomatic of a founder juggling with expansion in the works and a burgeoning demand for the oyster shucking services he offers. In this interview, Adam shares the origin story of Oyster Cart with me and reminisces about the company’s first order on Christmas Eve some ten years ago.

How would you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?

I run a mobile oyster bar in Singapore called the Oyster Cart. We’re the pioneers of the on-site oyster shucking concept, founded eight years ago in 2013.

What is the origin story of Oyster Cart?

It all started when I was still employed as a marine engineer with a scholarship bond to serve. The job wasn’t what I expected, but thankfully I end work at 5.30pm every day to do something else in the evening. It just so happened that one day, I received a box of fresh oysters. Before that, the only time I had oysters was at a hotel buffet, and the quality was vastly different from this box of fresh produce.

That’s when I thought, “Okay, maybe I should open an oyster bar.” I remembered visiting Venice and seeing oyster carts along the streets. You could just head over to the cart and then say that you wanted oysters, and they'll serve it to you, shucked, at one euro. So I thought maybe I could bring the entire concept to people's house, to shuck and serve them on-site. My first ever order was on Christmas Eve of 2013.

Shucked oyster (PHOTO: Oyster Cart Singapore)
Shucked oyster (PHOTO: Oyster Cart Singapore)

What has been the hardest thing about running Oyster Cart that many people aren’t aware of?

When I first started taking the business seriously, there were months where I would only get one order. I didn’t know how to improve the company because I was an engineer by profession with no marketing or sales skills. I decided to switch jobs to learn new business skills that I can apply to the Oyster Cart.

It paid off, and when I saw sales increase, I decided to do this business full-time and focus on its growth. Of course, when the pandemic hit, we had to switch entirely to deliveries. That was also when we saw an unprecedented increase in deliveries never seen before in our history. We had orders every day—on Father’s Day alone, we had 200 to 300 orders.

Did this success come as a surprise?

We weren’t ready for it. We just tried our best and did the best that we could. Now that we have a broader customer base and repeat clients, we thought it was an excellent opportunity to move to this bigger space at Rangoon Road that we currently occupy.

Looking back, I realise that I overthink and over plan things to the point where it descends to doubt and negativity. And when that happens, there’s a high probability that I won’t make the change. So what I’ve learned is that if I think it’s an okay decision, won’t cost me too much, and is not that risky, I will give it a try regardless.

Oyster Cart (PHOTO: Oyster Cart Singapore)
Oyster Cart (PHOTO: Oyster Cart Singapore)

If you could go back to the year 2013 when you received your first Christmas Eve order, what advice would you give yourself?

I would tell my 2013 self to invest in better equipment and be more focused on listening and observing the things our clients are trying to say to us. It’s in the little feedbacks, the telltale signs that maybe we are talking too much or we come across as being too eager to please. Those are the things that we should have planned for, but we didn’t. We just went in with a square focus on shucking oysters and nothing more.

It seems like the performing aspect is an important part of the experience.

Yes. A shucker is like a magician, a showman. Showmanship is very important. If you source your oyster fresh from reputable brands from overseas, chances are, if you know how to handle them well, you’ll get excellent produce. It’s the showmanship that makes a difference to the whole experience. You need a showman, an oyster artisan, to truly bring out the best of every oyster.

Tell me more about your Shuck for Good initiative. What was the inspiration behind it, and what do you aim to achieve?

I see Oyster Cart as a social enterprise where we hire people with vulnerabilities and disability to help in various business aspects. They help me prepare the oysters so that it’s easier for the customer to shuck them at home. In the first few weeks on the job, they start by helping us with the essential sauce preparation before preparing the boxes for delivery. And then eventually, we will train them to de-barnacle an oyster.

Adam Loo (PHOTO: Oyster Cart Singapore)
Adam Loo (PHOTO: Oyster Cart Singapore)

How has Singapore’s ‘Circuit Breaker’ affected Oyster Cart’s day-to-day running, and what was the most important lesson you’ve learned out of the pandemic?

Business has been very good—we saw more sales than we’ve ever seen before and our customer base really expanded. But we weren’t really prepared for the sales uptick, particularly in having a big enough team to help handle the different aspects of the operation. Due to difficulties in getting shipments in, some customers may have received oysters that weren’t up to standard.

We always strive for 100% of our customers to be happy and pleased with their purchase, but of course, that’s not realistic. I used to lose sleep over this, but now, I’ve learned to let things go and take things more in my stride. If 80% of my customers are happy, we will ensure they’re consistently satisfied with what we offer. For the other 20%, we will do our best to find out what we did wrong and try to improve. But I don’t lose sleep over this anymore.

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