Many Duke students know where to find Foster's, the yuppie food capitol of Durham, yet most don't realize that the other side of Chapel Hill Blvd. harbors "the treasure of eating pleasure," Shrimp Boats, which, in addition to serving popcorn shrimp, has fried the best chicken in town since 1970.
Admittedly, it seems odd that a restaurant called Shrimp Boats would be the premier place for fried poultry, yet Randy Holloway, who has worked in the treasure of eating pleasure for 22 years said, "We sell more chicken than anything."
Although the people at Shrimp Boats care about their chicken-which they marinate for 24 hours before frying-the restaurant is more than just a fried chicken wonder in the guise of a seafood joint: Shrimp Boats is an institution. That's why Phyllis Lane drove 65 miles from Selma, NC for the "best fish and vegetables" around. Ms Lane, who was in Shrimp Boats with her son, said, "since school was out today, we thought we'd make the extra trip."
During lunch hour, Shrimp Boats is packed to capacity. Hungry business people, construction workers, cops and delivery men, many of whom the owners know by name, wait eagerly for one of the eight vinyl booths to open up. And the influx never stops; even at 3 o'clock there's a substantial flow of people coming in for dine-in or take-out.
Few would argue that the bountiful business netted by the Durham Shrimp Boats would have been possible without the work of a man named John Workman, the restaurant's founder and former owner. At the age of 29, Workman bought into Shrimp Boats Inc., a regional chain, and built one of the formulaic towering quasi-IHOP-esque edifices which then housed all Shrimp Boats and still houses the Durham location to this day. When the national franchise was flying at full sail, Workman's Durham location was one of 95 other Shrimp Boats trolling the southeast. Yet most of them failed to net much profit; Shrimp Boats Inc. went defunct, and now Workman's Durham location is one of the only three Boats still afloat.
In the wake of the fleet's demise, Workman chartered his own course and became financially independent from the defunct franchise. The Durham restaurant succeeded, in part, because Workman introduced a number of particularly southern innovations such as homemade cakes and pies, and a wide array of vegetable sides like yams, fried okra and cabbage. The other surviving Shrimp Boats in Gastonia, NC and Rockhill, SC are strictly fries and cole slaw affairs, but benefit from being close to local factories with lots of hungry workers.
Tiring of his job at the helm, but like a seaman discontent with the life of a landlover, Workman has twice sold his Shrimp Boats and then repurchased it to continue turning out the best fried chicken around. In August 1997, Workman finally found successors capable of navigating the restaurant into the 21st century and sold it to Mohammed Yousef and Nancy Norwood-Yousef, both former employees.
Nancy and Mohammed, who met on the job at Shrimp Boats and married, still sometimes call Workman for advice. "He's like a second father to me," said Nancy, who has worked at the Shrimp Boats off and on since she was fifteen.