Austin Seafood: A family affair spanning six decades

By on May 28, 2018

Sandra Austin at the register.

Two surefire ways to know you are at Austin’s: The iconic great white shark outside (top) and Sandra Austin at the register. (Kip Tabb)

Austin Seafood is a family affair. When Jimmy and Sandra Austin first opened their doors in 1960 it was that way, and 58 years later it still is.

Jimmy passed away in 2010, but the philosophy and the belief in what it takes to create a successful business has never changed.

“You will never come in this store and not find one of us here. In our business we have never left it for someone else to do,” said Debbie, Sandra and Jimmy’s daughter.

It wasn’t always Austin Seafood. It took a while to get to that, but there has been a business at the foot of Jockey’s Ridge owned by the Austins since Jimmy opened a gas station.

“We’ve been at the same location right between the two roads. We got the perfect location,” Sandra said.

Business was good in the summer, but when the winter came and customers were scarce, Jimmy, who had grown up on Hatteras Island, dug into his seemingly endless chest of skills and ideas and started fishing.

He was not, however, satisfied with the results. The problem, as he saw it, was that he was putting in a lot of work for not enough reward.

“He was selling to other dealers,” Sandra recalled. “And he said, ‘Why should I do that?’ So we bought one truck and he started trucking to New York and Philly…selling his catch. Before you know it we had packing houses here and on Hatteras Island.”

When Austin Seafood was trucking product to northern markets, part of their regular run was to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City.

“Them fellers were something. They were the best people. You sent your fish up there on consignment,” she explained. “They would say, ‘Trust me.’ And they would open their market at 12:00 all night, and by 8:00 in the morning they would tell you what you made. They were some of the best people you’d ever met.”

The couple also opened a retail business.

“We still kept this and we leased Midgett Seafood for a couple of years, but we couldn’t run both of them,” Sandra said. “So I said, ‘Lets change over to seafood.’ That was ’75 or something. We still had the gas station. The grease room changed into a steam room and kitchen. The restroom changed into a freezer.”

And it was successful. Maybe it was because Jimmy aways seemed to have a trick up his sleeve.
Back when it was just a service station, he had Debbie and her friends pumping gas.

“That was fun because I had all my friends here because we were kids and we were giggling. God only knows what the people we were waiting on were thinking. It was definitely a show,” Debbie said.

When Austin Seafood opened Jimmy knew what he wanted to do to promote his business.

“We had two dories that set out there in the front,” Sandra said. “He put gals in there in bikinis and put head on shrimp to sell. Till the town stopped us. You weren’t supposed to be doing stuff like this.”

That was, according to Sandra, typical Jimmy Austin thinking – constantly coming up with something that would grab the customer’s attention and get them in the store, which is how a shark ended up on the roof of the store.

“My husband would always have some kind of gimmick,” she said. “The shark? It was 1986 I think it was we got that.”

"We just have a product that people want. Try to keep it good and fresh."-Sandra Austin

“We just have a product that people want. Try to keep it good and fresh.”- Sandra Austin

It wasn’t all gimmicks, though. Most of it was hard work and maybe a little bit of it was fear, remembering what it was like to have nothing.

“He was a major workaholic,” Debbie said. “He grew up with nothing. He grew up in a really poor environment. It was determination.”

It was a lot…probably too much, and in the 1980s the couple started simplifying.

“In ’87 or ’88 we started getting out of that hard stuff. It just got too much. Sold all the tractor trailers. Closed all the fish packing houses. We kept packing here. And made the store larger to make up for it,” Sandra said.

Business was thriving. Some of that was certainly Jimmy’s personality and how he seemed to be able to chat with anyone.

“He would stand and talk to them (customers) all day long. Tell them jokes and things all day long,” Sandra said.

But there was and still is an understanding that they had to give the customers what they want.

“We just have a product that people want. Try to keep it good and fresh. Try to give it to them with good service,” Sandra said.

When Jimmy passed away eight years ago, Austins did something they had never done before—the closed the store for three days.

“My dad passed away on October 1st. On October 4th we were back at work,” Debbie said, adding that would have been her father’s philosophy. “You can’t turn down your work. If you don’t make it this season you’ve got nothing to live on.”

And they didn’t see to miss a beat—a tribute, perhaps, to Jimmy, or possibly a family that had worked out what everyone’s responsibility would be.

“We have our roles here,” Debbie said. “My mom she’s always at the register. I’m always here taking care of the customers, doing the cooking in the back. My daughter’s in the back doing the book work. My dad was doing the fish packing. And he was talking to the customers as well.”

The fish packing ended after 2010.

“When my dad passed away, that was the last time we packed fish,” Debbie said, but that has been the only change.

That may be why people keep coming back, for the product, but the friendships also seem important.

“I know people that have been with us 40 Years,” Sandra said. “I know one lady been coming into us. I know the third weekend in July she’ll be here. I just know her as Miss Ohio. The kids are grown. They got grandkids.” Adding, “I enjoy people.”

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  • Anna Sadler

    What a wonderful story Sandra, a real tribute to our long ago friend Jimmy. And you and your girls have always been there for so many, as you have for us. Keep it up, those folks out there depend on all of you. Budgie and Anna

    Monday, May 28 @ 11:37 am
  • EA Collins

    Very well said!!! This family has made all of us, who flocked there not just for the best seafood at the best price. But because of their special brand of authenticity, and genuine “customer service” made us feel like we belonged to this community, unique and timeless, just by association with these genuine Outer Banks treasures. They have always treated customers like family and are the reason many of us feel that Nags Head is truly home.

    Wednesday, May 30 @ 7:51 pm
  • Harold

    Great story on a great local institution run by wonderful people. The Austin’s business is truly a family affair, and Miss Sandra is a pleasure to deal with. She always gives straight advice about what they have in the store and is willing to help with advice on the local catches, which assures you of getting the best when it is at its best.

    Thanks for this article on my favorite place to shop!

    Saturday, Jun 2 @ 10:13 am