Reeling in the Customers: A.J.'s Fish House has its patrons hooked on southern fried catfish

Patti Sells | News-Telegram Feature Editor

A.J.'s Fish House on Lake Fork has become a popular haunt for weekend anglers and other fans of all-you-can-eat fried catfish, shrimp and other tasty tidbits. Andy and Carolyn Johnson are also hands-on owners who take a lot of pride in their work.
-Staff photo by Ricky Russell

March 4, 2004 -- Lake Fork may be the No. 1 trophy bass lake in the state, but fish aren't the only things biting. Fishermen like to eat fish, says Andy Johnson, who put the A and the J in A.J.'s Fish House, located on the west side of Lake Fork on FM 17 in Alba -- and he's reeling them in with his all-you-can-eat southern fried catfish buffet.

According to Andy, fisherman go out and fish all day, and when they get off the lake they're hungry.

"They want something quick, and at a buffet they can get all they want," he explained. "We have a casual atmosphere, they can bring in their own beer -- this is right up their alley."

Once an avid fisherman himself, Andy and his wife Carolyn first started coming to Lake Fork in 2000 for their own recreational purposes.

"We had an RV on Lake Fork and spent each weekend up here fishing," said Carolyn.

Carolyn explained that at the time they lived and worked in the Terrell area, but were looking for a business opportunity that would allow them to settle down and spend more time together. She was devoting long hours in the field of nursing and Andy worked in management, spending much of his time traveling.

When this opportunity arose, Andy recalled Carolyn saying, "I didn't say anything about working on the lake, I said, 'I want to live on the lake.'"

Well, Carolyn got her wish -- plus a little extra. The Lake Fork business opportunity included not just a restaurant, but a nine-acre RV and tent campground, storage facility, laundry mat and fishing pier.

"What convinced me was the fact that we could retire here together," admitted Carolyn. "And it was an opportunity for us to be together after just seeing each other in the evening for so long."

Almost three years after opening the restaurant's door in May of 2001, the couple agree it was a good decision.

"It combines the things that we have always enjoyed doing," said Andy. "We enjoy RV camping, fishing, the water.

"I've always enjoyed cooking and you can tell we enjoy eating," he added laughing.

According to Andy, it was pretty tough the first 18 months, but once the word got out they found their market, which includes "not just fishermen, but many locals who just love to eat fish."

A large majority of business comes from Sulphur Springs, according to Carolyn. She said people have really started to "catch on" and once they eat A.J.'s fish, "they're hooked."

"We've got some good food out here," she said. "If people come out and try us out, they'll be back for more."

Thursday night business has more than tripled, according to Carolyn, and on weekends they have customers lined up outside the door.

"That's a good problem to have," said Andy.

The buffet provides not just all-you-can-eat catfish, but fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, corn nuggets, fried okra, potato wedges and much, much more three nights a week. The buffet also includes beverage and dessert.

"Our cobblers with ice cream on top are a favorite," said Andy. "Especially our new pecan cobbler, which has really gone over well."

The restaurant also provides a full-service menu with appetizers such as clam strips and mozzarella cheese sticks. Main menu items include chicken fried steak, chicken strips, fried oysters and frog legs, just to name a few.

The Johnson's pride themselves on quality food, a genuine appreciation of their customers and their personal involvement in the business.

"We do it all," said Carolyn, who employs only a small number of people. "Wait tables, clean tables, run the cash register, cook the food, whatever needs to be done."

"It would be easy for us to hire cooks and just sit back at a table and watch," explained Andy. "But with us doing the cooking, we know, and our customers know, it's going to be the same every time. With us doing it, you're not going to get any bad fish. You're not going to get bad anything.

"No matter how good any hired cook is, if it's your business you're going to take pride in it. That's our name out there on the sign. If customers don't come back, it's not anybody's fault but our own. It's a reflection of what we're doing."

According to Andy it's important for him to go around visiting the customers to make them feel welcome and ask for their input.

"That's what we've built our business on," he said. "Their comments and suggestions are important to us. We want to always keep that open line of communication with our customers.

"Nobody comes through that door that we don't say 'Hello' to and nobody leaves that we don't thank them for their patronage. We appreciate people giving us their business."

A.J.'s Fish House

Located on FM 17, one-half mile south of FM 515 on Lake Fork

903-765-2842

Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Specialties:

A buffet of all-you-can-eat southern fried catfish, as well as fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, corn nuggets, fried okra, potato wedges and more. Menu items include chicken fried steak, fried oysters, frog legs and chicken strips. Cobblers (try the pecan cobbler) topped with ice cream are a dessert favorite.

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