Boat House Grill closing after 19 years

By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News

The Boat House Grill — one of Four Points’ oldest eateries — is closing on Sunday  after 19 years of serving the local community.

“It’s been a long time coming. It’s heart-wrenching and freeing,” said owner Tracy Collins, who started the restaurant in Feb. 8, 1999 and built it from scratch at 6812 RM 620, at the heart of Four Points near RM 2222.

She turned the tiny burger and fish joint into offering much more with a staff of 15 employees, most who are full-time.

Collins set out to build a restaurant that reflected the history and personality of the local Lake Travis area. She filled the cozy spot with old lake memorabilia that reminds many of a slower place in time.

“I started working on it while I was 27 and now am 47. I accidentally became a restauranteur anyway,” Collins said.

She has been involved in different projects including real estate over the years and says she is ready to make the change.

Taxes and regulation have increased on the site and business over the years under the city of Austin.

“We’re taxed so heavily. With the land value versus the business value, it’s kind of a tough go of it, especially with city regulations and codes and everything else,” Collins said.

Collins owns the one-acre site where the Boat House sits and the adjacent office building, where she said the traffic and parking was becoming an issue. Bartlett Real Estate Group used to office there but moved to new River Place offices a month or so ago.

“No hard feelings,” Collins said. “I’ve been toying with the idea of selling the land. It seemed like a good time.”

Collins moved to Austin while she was in middle school and graduated from Westlake High School. Her mom Linda Humphrey and her husband started Springhill Restaurant at 2505 Pecan St. in Pflugerville near Highway 71. Her mom retired about six years ago.

“I learned the business from them,” said Collins, who was looking for something to do after college. That is how the Boat House came about.

Her mom, Humphrey, actually spotted the location off of RM 620 in Four Points in the late 1990s.There was a barbecue trailer with screened porch called Mr. Brisket there.

“She kept trying to talk me into it and sweetened the pot with a small loan. I was 27 without money or credit. I appreciate, acknowledge, blame her (my mom),” Collins said with a laugh. “She was an integral part of this.”  

Collins bought the Mr. Brisket site lease from the Sharp Propane family. She believes they bought the land sometime in the early 1980s.

In the early days of the restaurant, utilities were harder to come by. Water was a precious commodity and only delivered on weekdays and the kitchen staff used as sparingly as a restaurant could. The place was also on a septic system.

Next door to the Boat House was a dive shop called Dive Texas, which was demolished after the city of Austin bought the land around Collins’ site for the water plant.

“We used to trade out my dumpster and bathrooms for their swimming pool,” Collins said. They didn’t have restrooms and the Boat House staff would often go over to take a dip in the pool between busy times and after work to cool off.

In 2005, the opportunity came to buy the land where the restaurant sits. Not long after Michael Sharp Sr. passed away, his son, who was a JV baseball coach in La Grange at the time, put the land up for sale.

As Collins remembers, Michael Sharp Jr. was posting a sign outside and let her know she had 30 days to vacate. She let him know that she had eight years left on her lease. The two came together on a price and she bought the one-acre site.

Over the years, Collins added onto the Boat House including a room for live music and seating.

Then not long after she had her son, Gus who is now a Four Points Middle School 6th grader, she added a playground and outside seating.

“When (Gus) was born, I brought him to work until he started walking. Denise and Shana would hold him if I was doing something dangerous,” she said. “(Boat House) evolved with my life.”

Collins used to commute from downtown but has lived in Four Points near Hippie Hollow since 2011. Ironically she bought the house of one of her first regular customers, Bob Schusler, who had passed away.

In the early days of the restaurant, Schusler stopped in nearly every day, and would update Collins on the crazy pool he was building at his house. When the house listing became available, she knew it was his house because the pool is one-of-a-kind. Another twist to the story is that Collin’s dog has the same name, Sally, as Schusler’s dog did years prior.

Collins shares another interesting part of the Boat House history. Years earlier, she used to wait tables for more than a dozen years at her mom’s Springhill Restaurant with Shana Whiteley. Whiteley left to join the Peace Corps  and later sent a letter to Collins from the Ukraine saying that she had a dream that she and Collins had opened a burger place and made a million dollars. Oddly enough, Collins’ plans were already in motion at that time as she was a couple of weeks away from opening the Boat House Grill.

When she returned to the U.S., Whiteley came to work for Collins part-time while looking for a “real job” with her MBA degree. As it turned out, Whiteley became the Boat House general manager for eight years, married a guy who worked there, and ended up leaving in 2007 to open her own restaurant. Now Whiteley owns and runs two restaurants, the Lucky Duck in Taylor and the Good Luck Grill in Manor.

Collins is thankful for so many loyal employees over the two decades. She shared the news last week with them to let it settle in a bit before making the public announcement on Jan. 11 and posting banner signs on the restaurant of the upcoming closing.

“They are staying until the bitter end,” she said.

Collins plans to close at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 21 and “make a big afternoon of it.” Then most likely in February she plans to auction off equipment and decor.

Since announcing the closing, there have been lots of well-wishes from customers and requests for t-shirts. One customer has been coming in every day to work his way down the menu.

She doesn’t know what will happen to the site. She would not be surprised if the buildings are taken down. Collins used to sell real estate and plans to field calls from interested parties. She plans to work with buyer’s agents and sell all as one parcel.  

“It’s hard to subdivide, in the city of Austin with impervious coverage, etc. It’s best served to be one parcel,” she said. “I’m not sure what it will become. Somebody will decide what is the best use.”

In 1998 Tracy Collins with her new restaurant sign. “I told my sign man that I was going to name it the ‘Boat House Grill’. I thought it would be understood that the word ‘the’ would not be included,” she said.

Armando Soto, who’s worked at Boat House Grill since 2012, cuts tomatoes for the day while Santos Coronado, who’s worked there since 2001, preps the fish fillets. The Boat House Grill serves an average of 3,000 pieces of fish and 10 gallons of tartar sauce a week in non-peak times.

Longtime, loyal Boat House Grill staffers include: Armando Soto (since 2012), Santos Coronado (since 2001), Tracy Collins (founder), Denise Hall (since 2006), John Rhodes (since 2010), Darius Anderson (since 2014), Fernando Celis (since 2009), and Oscar Romero (since 2008).

Linda Humphrey holding grandson Gus Collins at his first Halloween in 2005 at the Boat House Grill.

Gus Collins, FPMS 6th grader, stands at the entrance of the restaurant his mom started 19 years ago.