Toasted Oysters: A Veteran-Owned Culinary Gem

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Toasted Oysters partners Mike Miezianka, left, and Ray Smith Jr. have an oyster farm in the Great South Bay in New York.

Mike Miezianka’s journey from Long Island to military service is a tale of duty and sacrifice. Today he uses those skills in running Toasted Oysters with longtime friend Ray Smith Jr.

After 9/11, Mike joined the Navy, where he spent over a year in training and shortly thereafter deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in support of the Global War on Terror.

After successfully completing his tour, he resumed duties with the New York City Police Department, working in an intelligence capacity, which afforded him the opportunity to work both on domestic and international fronts.

The transition from military service to oyster farming might seem unconventional, but Mike’s love for the water coupled with his military background equipped him with the discipline required for the highly regulated oyster farming industry.

As shared on the Toasted Oysters’ website, Mike and Ray’s friendship goes back nearly two decades. Ray, a paramedic with numerous business interests, was often paired with Mike, at the time a dispatcher at Hampton Bay Fire Department and an EMT (emergency medical technician) as they worked a side gig with a private ambulance company.

In 2020 Ray was taking an oyster gardening class offered by the Town of Islip. He told Mike about it one evening while the pair enjoyed a cold brew by the firepit in Ray’s backyard. Mike signed up for the next available class taught in the Great South Bay by Sixto Portilla, owner of Maris Stella Oysters.

“The two-day instructional class also came with 450 or 600 oyster seeds to grow on Sixto’s farm, which would take about 18 months for this seed to become market size,” Mike said. Market size for oysters, Mike explained, is usually 3 inches long by 2 inches wide and 1 inch deep on the cup, which is presumably the perfect oyster size.

“In addition to monitoring the growing cycle of our classroom seed with Sixto, I volunteered on his farm a bunch of times, learning the trade,” Mike added. “Sixto texted me last October and said this guy is selling his farm. Call him now. Don’t wait, or it will get scooped up. So Ray and I did, and made the offer the same day and the owner accepted.”

Paperwork for the sale of the 3½-acre farm was completed in January 2023. Mike said farm sizes vary from 1 to 5 acres. “Some sites have deeper water and you have to work off the boat, and some you can walk around,” he said. “We are about 85 to 90 percent walkable at high tide.”

They quickly came up with the business name Toasted Oysters, hinting at casual camaraderie, perhaps with a drink in hand, and enjoying being surrounded by good company.

“We got a lot of on-the-job learning,” said Ray about starting the business. “It took us 10 times as long to do the work as it does now. When you’re putting out 100,000 oysters and you see you’ve got two hours before the sun goes down, you figure out how to get it done.”

The Oysters

The focal point of Toasted Oysters’ offerings is the Blue Point oyster, cultivated in the pristine waters of the Great South Bay. The oysters, renowned for their quality, flavor and health benefits, have gained recognition beyond the shores of Long Island.

This oyster, rich in essential nutrients such as zinc, iron and omega-3 fatty acids, has a mild flavor and firm texture. Although the same type of oyster is found throughout the East Coast, its unique terroir comes from the bay it’s grown in.

Nestled near Islip, New York, the rich maritime history of this region, woven into the fabric of Toasted Oyster’s story, contributes an extra layer to the culinary experience.

Mike grew up on the East End of Long Island, which at that time was much more rural. It was full of farms, open spaces, and his immediate and extended family, who instilled the values of hard work, family and patriotism.

He officially retired as a detective from the NYPD in October with 17 years, 3 months of service. Coupled with previous work as a dispatcher for the Hampton Bays Fire Department, Mike was able to retire early with a full pension for 20 years of service.

His last day in the office was Aug. 11. The next day he was working on the oyster farm. Toasted Oysters is now his full-time gig.

It’s still part time for Ray, who works as an outreach educator with Northwell Health System and remains an active paramedic with the Islip Volunteer Fire Department.

Toasted Oysters purchases oyster seed stock locally and meticulously checks and rechecks their growth.

Learning Curve

“The most important thing I learned being an oyster farmer …,” Mike said, “is it’s not how many oysters you have on the farm, it’s how many you can sell. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby.

“In the warmer months, especially in July and August, you have to be on the farm. The oysters are growing like popcorn and you must maintain your oyster bag densities to avoid the ‘tombstones.’ Bags become so full the oysters grow and stick to each other like a nice hard tombstone.

“At the end of the day the environment wins with the tombstones anyways as the oysters will still be doing their job filtering the bad stuff from water while they live in on the bay floor. So that’s pretty cool.

“Full bags also make you more susceptible to fouling, such as worm tubes on the shell and other pests and gunk that gets on the oyster shell, the cages, the bags themselves. We roll our cages so the oysters are out of the water and in the air for 24 hours and that makes everything go away, keeping the oysters pristine.”

For Ray, the main thing he has learned is the need to be physically strong.

“You can fit 300 oysters in a bag,” he said, “but you can’t lift 300 oysters. You have to be freaking strong to do that. But we’re getting stronger every day.”

Mike joked that they don’t need to have a gym membership as long as they’re working with the oyster bags, with anywhere from 100 to 200 oysters per bag being weights they can currently handle.

HBH Label

Toasted Oysters proudly carries the Homegrown By Heroes Veteran marketing label, reflecting its commitment to supporting fellow Veterans and first responders. In 2023, it earned distinction as the most viewed Farmer Veteran Coalition member’s page on MarketMaker. Plans for widespread distribution and shipping across the United States are on the horizon.

Ray said he sees first-hand how Mike embodies the values and discipline gained from military service.

“He’s an amazing guy and a loyal friend, and I’m honored to be partners with him,” Ray said.

For Mike, the HBH logo gives their business a certain level of distinction and respect.

“From time to time a customer observes the HBH logo on our invoices and they may ask who was in the military and maybe why did I join,” he said. “It allows me to tell them a story of my service, which I’m very proud of.

“It also allows me to sometimes talk about my grandfather, Edward Miezianka, who was a father figure to me. He was drafted in ’55 and was a very proud U.S. Navy Veteran (stationed aboard the USS Muliphen), and even prouder of me when I joined. He was influential in my decision to join the Navy.”

Although Ray didn’t serve in the military, his father, Ray Smith Sr., had a short stint in the Navy as a cook on a destroyer that cruised the Bahamas right after the Vietnam War.

“Our second customer was excited about doing stuff with Veterans and us because of the Homegrown By Heroes label,” Ray said. “He’s featured us on his Facebook page and continues to share about us.”
Mike reflected on the importance of his time serving his country.
“I might be off a little on this, (but) only 7 percent of the population joins the military,” he said. “It’s not always an easy decision to make. I joined in March 2009. I was three years a cop already, a Nervous Nelly, as I knew I was going to Iraq or Afghanistan after training.
“Not an easy pill to swallow, but I knew the Navy would project my career in the direction I wanted to go. Because of that, I think a Veteran should be given a certain level of respect as it takes a certain person and a gut check knowing there is a large portion of their life they may be sacrificing when they sign the line on those papers and to get on the proverbial bus to boot camp. My opinion is the HBH logo provides that respect.”
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– Kate Bowen provided research for this story