MANHATTAN — Robert Burck, better known as Times Square’s Naked Cowboy, says his plan was always to attract major endorsement deals for his underwear-clad, guitar-playing entertainment persona.
But the Cincinnati-born former stripper never predicted his most successful endorsement deal to date would be a diver-harvested oyster that graces the menus of Manhattan’s most lauded eateries.
“You think underwear, hats, boots, maybe fitness products,” said Burck, 40, who began performing in his tighty-whities roughly 14 years ago. “But [the “Naked Cowboy Oyster”] is the first long-enduring, growing and seemingly unstoppable product [I’ve endorsed].”
Trendy destinations — like Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant in the Flatiron District, Blue Water Grill in Union Square and The Grand Central Oyster Bar in Midtown — all feature Naked Cowboys among their raw bar offerings, and distributor Blue Island Shellfish Farms says it sells more Naked Cowboy Oysters than any other variety.
“It’s our bestselling oyster by far,” Blue Island owner Chris Quartuccio said. “A lot of our buyers tell us it’s their best-selling oyster.”
Quartuccio, an oyster diver who’s been supplying New York restaurants with the beloved shellfish for 16 years, first conceived of the Naked Cowboy brand in 2009 while struggling to name a new line of virginica oysters, which he planned to collect daily from the floor of the Long Island Sound.
Most seafood distributors farm their oysters, and Quartuccio was looking for a name that would distinguish his au natural, diver-harvested variety.
“I thought for weeks and weeks about what to name it, and then one day I’m driving down Seventh Avenue – I’m stopped at a stoplight and there’s the Naked Cowboy playing his guitar,” Quartuccio, 46, recalled.
“It just exemplifies New York…it’s something everybody knows.”
The name was additionally fitting because raw, un-garnished oysters are sometimes referred to as “naked oysters,” Quartuccio noted.
Three weeks later, he enlisted Burck as the oyster’s official spokesperson, in exchange for a generous monthly royalty fee.
Now, one-and-a-half years later, Quartuccio said he couldn’t be happier about the deal, estimating that the Naked Cowboy Oyster has increased his overall sales by 70 percent this year.
The brand can be found on restaurant menus in roughly 20 U.S. states, Canada and even Shanghai, China, according to Quartuccio. The Long Island oyster diver said he’s also inked a deal — his biggest yet — with the New England-based restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods.
Speculating about why the Naked Cowboy Oyster is so popular, Quartuccio was quick to give credit to the name.
“The nakedness gets your attention,” he said. “People like ordering it, they have fun with it — you know, ‘What does the Naked Cowboy taste like?’ or ‘I want a Naked Cowboy.’"
Phil Scotti, owner of P.J. Clarke’s, which serves Naked Cowboys at its Financial District, Lincoln Square and Midtown East restaurants, agreed that the name has contributed to the oyster’s success, in part because of its familiarity.
“People will not buy oysters that they can’t pronounce," he said.
However, he disagreed that the oyster line — which he said was the number-one seller at all of the P.J. Clarke’s locations — benefits from its association with the Naked Cowboy.
“That’s the only thing that bothers me about it,” Scotti, who also has the oysters shipped to his Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas restaurants, said.
Instead, he attributed the Naked Cowboy Oyster’s popularity to its uniquely fresh flavor — a “salty, briny taste” that he said can’t be found on the West Coast.
Other restaurants, like Murray Hill’s The Water Club, have more readily embraced the Naked Cowboy Oyster’s namesake, inviting Burck to appear at weekly $1 oyster nights on its waterfront rooftop.
Remarking on his weekly Water Club gig, Burck noted that the high-end seafood restaurant was not always so receptive to his budding shellfish empire.
“At first, they thought [the Naked Cowboy name] was a little too 'non-conservative',” Burck said. “[Now] they have me there in my underwear every Wednesday.”
A Water Club spokeswoman did not retrun calls for comment.
While Burck said the Naked Cowboy Oyster deal is his most lucrative, he also claimed to collect franchise fees from nine other Naked Cowboys and Cowgirls, who pay $5,000/year or $500/month for the privilege.
Combined with his other endorsement deals and $1,000/hour in-town appearance fees, Burck said he made more than $181,000 in 2010.
And, with a full year of oyster royalties coming in, he said 2011 is on track to be his best year yet.