Eric Giesbrecht is Calgary’s “oyster man”
Serendipity, passion, inspiration, self-fulfilment–these are all guiding elements of Meta4 Foods that would make bottom-line-driven suits like Kevin O’Leary throw a hissy fit. But, owner Eric Giesbrecht’s business is thriving, without having to ask, “What’s in it for me?”
Meta4 Foods is a premium Canadian food wholesaler based in Calgary, best known for providing oysters in the city. If you’ve ever slurped an oyster in any of Cowtown’s top restaurants, chances are, it came from Giesbrecht, who is often found shucking the bivalves at food events around the city. He is known as the “oyster man”, and you might even find his name stored as Eric Oyster in the phones of people in the food industry.
So how does one become the “Oyster Man”? At the start of Giesbrecht’s cooking career, he apprenticed at the notable Catch Restaurant. There, chef Michael Noble insisted on buying oysters from the best small farmers from the East and West Coasts, and not brokers whose offerings were largely driven by the market and prices.
“It drove up food costs past the comfort zone of the owners at the time, but it was because of his desire to maintain direct working relationships with these small seafood producers that changed the landscape of how seafood came to the prairies,” Giesbrecht recalls.
Thus Giesbrecht developed a non-negotiating attitude towards excellent seafood. Before long, he was participating in oyster shucking competitions in B.C. and P.E.I., and building professional relationships that later proved pivotal to his business.
He worked as a personal chef for an affluent family, while maintaining his connections to the oyster scene by delivering the bivalves to downtown restaurants, weekly. When the family later moved, Giesbrecht wanted out of the demanding and often unhealthychef’s world, yet still to be close to his passion for cooking. Catering offered the flexibility that Giesbrecht was looking for, and Meta4 Foods, inspired by the oyster’s metaphor for an unmediated, unadulterated way of experiencing the world, was established.
From the close ties that Giesbrecht maintained, Brent Petkau (of Cortes Island) approached him to distribute his products in Calgary.
“I was excited just to be working with him,” he says. “I thought I wanted to move to the West Coast to continue working in the shellfish world but there’s just so many cool things going on in Calgary: my family is here and there’s lots of opportunities, so I decided to stay and forgo this idea of opening a little restaurant in Nanaimo.”
Eventually, the demand for oyster distribution eclipsed the catering side of the business and Giesbrecht made the call to pursue supplying premium foods in full force, offering products that excite and inspire him, rather than what is traditionally thought of as profitable.
“I connect people and products and, in exchange, I feel connected to my world,” says Giesbrecht.
Although the growth of Giesbrecht’s career into culinary arts and Meta4 Foods’ nature from catering to distribution was organic and natural, it was not without challenges. When the economy took a dive in the 2000s, Giesbrecht had to make the difficult decision of re-entering the corporate world for a steady income, which led to deep soul-searching for personal fulfilment. When the job didn’t work out, the silver-lining was that it left him more determined than ever to succeed.
Today, Meta4 Foods carries ten to fifteen varieties each of East Coast and West Coast oysters, other shellfish, along with Canadian caviar and sturgeon, fresh farmed halibut, wild foraged mushrooms, fiddleheads and other specialty products. Currently, Giesbrecht is working on a hot sauce that pairs with the oysters.
In a landlocked province, educating customers and keeping abreast of industry news on a coastal product is especially important. In addition to shucking oysters at various dinner events, Giesbrecht gives presentations on behalf of Slow Food Calgary, an advocate group that champions the connection between farmers and consumers.
“The hot sauce has actually been around for ten years, but I am just now looking at bringing it to the marketplace of street level consumers.” Giesbrecht continues, “It is being served at a couple of restaurants…MARKET right now and downtownfood on past menus.”
To keep up the knowledge that is required to be an expert in the area, Giesbrecht travels to the coasts as often as possible and connects regularly with farmers and producers, as well as departments of fisheries about issues concerning the environment and prices. On the topic of sustainability, Giesbrecht not only considers the sustainability of the products in relation to their surroundings, but to the livelihood of their producers.
“I’m 100% behind sustainable food sources. I also take into consideration the lives of people who are producing the food, ensuring they’re getting a fair price and wage,” he says.
What fuels Giesbrecht has always been finding inspiration from and building relationships with like-minded oyster geeks. Today, with Meta4 Foods booming, and he is taking his passion to the next level with the launch of OysterTribe — a new brand that currently has a line of oyster paraphenlia in the works. “I will begin to present myself in the city as hailing from OysterTribe, per se.” he explains, Meta4 Foods will remain the identity of the food service/wholesale company.”
Sounds pretty shucking cool to me!
Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel