Corpus Christi's Boat 'n Net started in 1961 by Woo Sung Lee
The days of placing your seafood order via a PVC pipe are now behind us. Boat ‘n Net, a Corpus Christi staple since 1961, shut its doors last week.
Boat ‘n Net was the creation of owner Woo Sung Lee, who immigrated to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea in 1955. Lee arrived in the country in September 1955, to begin courses at then-University of Corpus Christi as an international student sponsored by the university president Dr. W.A. Miller.
Lee’s initial plans were to study engineering, math or science, eventually earning his degree in chemistry in 1959. But during his studies as he strengthened his English skills and learned American customs, he decided those subjects didn’t interest him as much as being an entrepreneur.
“I wanted to make money and be a success. But I didn’t want to work for someone else,” he told Caller-Times reporter Grady Phelps in a 1978 interview.
Lee worked a number of jobs as a university student, from itinerant field hand to bagging groceries to waiting tables. It was his job waiting tables at popular downtown eatery Shoop’s Grill that sparked the idea of opening his own fast-food restaurant.
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Even with no prior kitchen or restaurant management experience, Lee made a go of his idea in 1961. He started with $300 in savings and found an empty building on Port and Tarleton. He talked to the owner and negotiated for three months free rent on the 300-square-foot building, in exchange for cleaning, painting and getting the utilities hooked up.
“I didn’t know how to cook but I talked to one of the cooks where I worked,” said Lee. “I asked him what kind of batter to use for the fish, shrimp and chicken. He told me just to mix egg and milk and salt and pepper and fry it three minutes.”
He bought a 20-year-old, gas-fired deep fryer for $25 – paid in installments – made himself a sign and was in business. The lunch special was two pieces of chicken and fries or four pieces of fish and fries for 49 cents, or six shrimp and fries for 59 cents. He bought Kool-Aid from the grocery store and served that free with each meal.
And the name wasn’t Boat ‘n Net, like customers are familiar with now. Rather it played into that cooking advice he received: Lee’s 3 Minute Drive In. His first day of business he had five customers. Three days after opening he served 40 customers. Business took off.
When the Crosstown Expressway cut through the city in 1967, he rented a different building at Port and Baldwin and renamed the business 65 Drive In, as the main entrees now cost 65 cents. Finally in 1972, he bought land at 4808 Kostoryz Road and built his first wholly-owned location, and the first to bear the Boat ‘n Net name. In 1974, a second location at 3022 Leopard opened, followed by locations on South Port Ave., Port and Greenwood, Flour Bluff and Robstown the following year. A local chain was born. By the time of the 1978 article, he was running eight restaurants total.
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“What I have done, I have done myself,” he told Phelps. “I planted a tree and the tree has grown.”
“I made many mistakes. But I have learned by them. A business is always changing, like the sea. At times a calm water flows far below while above there can be a storm.”
“I do not think I have made many mistakes the second time.”
The local chain was known for low-priced seafood combos and customers raved about the crunchy coating on the entrees and the tartar sauce recipes. And rather than using an electronic intercom system in the drive-through, Boat ‘n Net used a PVC pipe to relay orders to the staff.
Lee believed in giving back to his community, making donations to local projects and particularly at his alma mater, now known as Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He created a scholarship fund in 1999, and in 2003, donated $300,000 to create the Lee Plaza on campus. The plaza, a shaded fountain and garden spot with benches in the midst of a busy campus, was donated in memory of one of his sons, Yongnam Lee, who died at age 24 in 1994. He recalled his memories of attending school on the campus, even recalling an incident with some wildlife while living in a campus dorm.
“I heard some scratching sounds,” he told the reporter in 2003. “Then I saw a big rat. I said to myself, ‘God, that is a big rat.’ Then someone told me it wasn’t a rat. It was a possum. We don’t have possums in Korea.”
In 2010, the university opened the Woo Sung Lee Alumni Center, located on Ennis Joslin Road just outside the entrance to the university, on land Lee donated to the school. The center houses the alumni relations along with several other departments and serves as a spot for visitors to get more information about the university before going on campus.
The chain’s last three locations conducted their last day of business Aug. 24. Longtime customers lined up for their last chance to experience the hometown favorites, and expressing hope the chain may come back at a later date.
Allison Ehrlich writes about things to do in South Texas and has a weekly Throwback Thursday column on local history.
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