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Clausen Oysters
By Annette Langenstein, Staff Writer 

Clausen Oysters, located on Haynes Inlet in North Bend, is owned primarily by Lilli Clausen, born Lilli Kirschbaum in Volhynia, in the northwest corner of Ukraine. During the Russian invasion, her family ended up in West Germany during “The Great Terror” a massive ethnic cleansing operation led by the Soviets. Many years and miles later, she and her husband Max started their oyster business on the mud flats of Coos Bay in 1983.  Today it is the largest oyster growing operation in Oregon, with 635 acres of oysters seeded on land leased from Coos County.

I spoke with Lilli one afternoon about her life and the business she and her husband owned together until his death in 2014.  “Thirty years and I still have this accent,” mused Lilli. “I was a teacher with a Master’s Degree in health education. I couldn’t get a full-time teaching job, and when I married Max, who was a pilot in the Air force, then a dairyman, and then worked on a local oyster farm, we decided to go into business for ourselves. Max knew all the technical stuff…I didn’t know a thing about oysters!”

Lilli Clausen poses next to a photograph of her late husband, Max.

I asked Lilli why they chose Coos Bay to start their oyster farm. “Coos Bay is one of the very best places in the whole United States to grow oysters; we’re only four miles in from the ocean, and we can grow a 5”-6” oyster in three years. When we bought this place, there was no pier or dock available, and the place had all sorts of equipment lying around. Then we had to invest in oyster seed, which is very expensive.  Oysters don’t naturally grow here because it’s too cold, but that’s what makes this a great place to farm them, because we’ve never had a problem with people getting sick from vibrio parahaemeliticus, a bacteria that multiplies in warmer water. Our water is too cold for the bacteria to grow.”

By the way, oysters are safe to eat, even if the shell is open, as long as the temperature in storage has not exceeded 40 degrees F.  So Clausens has safe, fresh oysters available year-round. They  are under the supervision of the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Water samples are taken on a regular basis to check on any possible hazard to the safety of oysters.

It takes three years for oysters to mature, and it was a great challenge for the Clausens to obtain good seed. “Our first harvest in 1984 netted $12,000 and that’s what it took to build the wooden barge!,” said Lilli. “It really took about 10 years to begin making a profit. But this business is never boring! You do the best you can, but it’s a farming life, there are good years and bad.  For instance, we had a 75% death loss from the wreck of the New Carissa.”

Clausens takes great pride in their Kumamoto specialty half-shell oysters, which are extra small and very tasty. They have six or seven different sizes of oysters, which are shipped all over the United States, even to places like the Gulf Coast and Texas, where sometimes the weather gets too hot for safe oyster harvest there. Clausens have shipped their oysters as far away as Vancouver, BC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

As I was talking to Lilli, the workers were getting ready for the busy Memorial Day weekend. “We try to be as helpful as we can to consumer concerns,” said Lilli. “We were the first company in the area to separate out all the oysters. We shuck, clean and have them totally ready for consumption. And one of the best ways to cook them is to microwave them, right in the shell! When I get home after work the last thing I want to do is spend a lot of time cooking my dinner, so I just pop a half dozen or so small oysters in the microwave and in three minutes I have dinner.   I have no problem eating a dozen Kumamotos, raw or cooked!”

Some of the local restaurants that serve Clausen Oysters are the Blue Heron Bistro and the Coach House, which prepares the shellfish a variety of different ways, from grilled to Cajun. But if you just want to try a free oyster sample, “We give free samples to people who come in. We have tried very hard to make things as easy as possible for people to enjoy our oysters,” said Lilli.

I could tell how popular Clausen’s storefront was, as several people came in and bought oysters while I was speaking to Lilli. And she made sure I had a bag of a dozen or so extra-smalls before I left, which I microwaved that night...delicious!

If you’re thinking about grilling, frying, microwaving or baking some delicious silverpoint oysters, stop in to Clausens at 66234 N. Bay Drive in North Bend. They’re open to the public 8 am  -5 pm Monday through Saturday. Or call them at 541-756-3600. And, Lilli reminds customers, “Bring a cooler, we don’t let anybody leave here without ice!”

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