ASTORIA, Ore. - There are a lot of boats in the coastal town of Astoria, Ore., but you'll only find one that serves up what many claim is the best fish and chips they've ever had.
"It was all my husband's brain child," said Linda Ford. She and her husband, Ron, along with their daughter, Leah Van Hook, run Bowpicker Fish & Chips, a tiny place across from the Columbia River Maritime Museum that's operated out of a gill net boat.
They've been at it for 13 years now and have developed quite a reputation for their deep fried tuna covered in a beer batter made from Ron's secret recipe.
We had heard plenty about this little boat that served up a mean fish and chips and gave co-owner Linda Ford a call to find out some of the history behind the place.
Ford told us she had previously spent 29 years working as a waitress in Astoria and her husband had been a logger. She said it was during Ron's logging days that he started dreaming up what would one day be his family's future.
"He spent a year in New Zealand where he was thinning timber," Ford told us. "He lived in a pup tent and ate a lot of fish and chips. Then, later on, he made a couple of trips to Alaska and saw a coffee outfit running out of a boat. So he started thinking."
Ford said her husband had always had a passion for the Astoria area and gill net boats in particular. So he thought, why not turn one of those boats into a fish and chips joint?
"An opportunity came up where someone he knew was retiring their gill net boat," Ford said. "So he went through all the channels and over five or six years developed his idea. He figured out how to make it work and worked with all of the different agencies to make sure we met all of the codes. And he finally got it all put together and into service in 2000."
Ron was definitely on to something. Little did he know that food carts would one day explode in popularity and his idea to basically create one on a boat, and put it in a prime location at the Oregon coast, would pay off.
But why tuna?
Why did Ron decide to go with tuna as his staple? Easy - he asked some buddies to give their opinions and that's what they picked.
Photo courtesy of Bowpicker Fish & Chips.
"He got several guys that were logger friends and stuff and said 'OK, beer's on me - I want you guys to be my taste test people,' " Ford said. "So he fried up tuna, halibut and cod and did kind of the shell game and said 'OK, what does everybody like?' And they all chose the tuna, so he said 'OK, tuna it is.'"
Although the taste test was unanimous, the tuna idea was a bit of a stumbling block at first, Ford said. Folks had a hard time wrapping their head around the idea of tuna, not halibut, being used for fish and chips. And then there were those who were just utterly confused by it all.
"Somebody did ask us once 'well, how do you manage to cook it when it comes out of a can?" Ford said with a laugh.
The idea did catch on, though, and Bowpicker Fish & Chips (aptly named for the type of gill net boat it is) is now one of the most talked-about fish and chips places in the area. Folks are enamored by the boat and will wait in what sometimes can be a long line to get their fish and chips.
When it's busy and the line is forming outside the boat, that's when conversations begin. With Astoria being such a tourist town, you never know who you will meet there and it's all part of the experience of eating at Bowpicker Fish & Chips.
Photo courtesy of Bowpicker Fish & Chips.
"It is so much fun listening to all of the people on the deck," Ford said. "Because a lot of people end up discussing where they're from and sometimes making friends."
While customers chat with each other outside, inside the gill net boat the Ford family keeps busy preparing their signature dish for their customers. The quarters are tight, but they know how to make it work.
"Everybody knows their spot," Ford said. "You learn to move with an economy of movement."
Ford said she and her family feel blessed that their little fish and chips place in a gill net boat has struck a chord with not only the local community, but with tourists as well. And if it seems like a long wait for the fish chips during the busy times, Ford hopes folks will be patient.
"We try to do the best we can and give them the best value for their money," she said. "We apologize if the wait is a long time, but we're small and can only cook so much at a time."
Where will the family go from here?
"If everything works the way we want it to, our daughter hopes to buy it from us eventually down the road," Ford told us. "Which we would like to do. We would like to step back a little bit and smell the roses once in a while."
"But you feel bad," she added. "Because people are saying 'thank you so much for still being here.' We'll have people that call and say 'are you going to be open on such and such date because we're planning our vacation around coming to see you.'"
And what about expansion? Will there ever be Bowpickers up and down the coast? Ford told us her husband does have a few other boats in various stages of disrepair that they could certainly do something with. But they most likely won't.
"We don't really want to franchise because then we're not unique anymore," Ford said.