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PJ's Seafood: Dishing up fish for 35 years and counting

By ALLISON MILES
Nov. 16, 2013 at 5:16 a.m.
Updated Nov. 17, 2013 at 5:17 a.m.

Michael A. Kostella restocks the display shelf with red snapper, one of the stores most popular fishes at PJ's Seafood Shop & Diner.

If you go ...

• WHAT: PJ's Seafood Shop & Diner

• WHERE: 1804 N. Navarro St.

• HOURS: Market: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; diner: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

• FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 361-578-7302 or visit PJsSeafood.com.

If Michael A. Kostella looks at home inside PJ's Seafood, it's with good reason. The 35-year-old with a family business the same age quite literally grew up there.

"This was my day care, my after-school care and my only job for a long time," he said while seated in a booth. "I moved away a few times but never got too far."

And now, he's taken that involvement to another level.

In September, Kostella took over the reins from his parents, owner Michael J. Kostella and Marsha Kostella, who got the business ball rolling in 1978 at 1804 N. Navarro St.

Diving in

PJ's began with a leap of faith.

The family lived in Washington state in the late 1970s, with Dad working for UPS. One day, he came home with an announcement.

"He said, 'Guess what? I quit my job. Guess what? I bought a station wagon. Guess what? We're moving to Texas," Marsha Kostella said with an incredulous shake of the head. "That was all part of the same conversation. But this was his home. I always knew we'd return."

Thus, the family made its way to the Lone Star State.

Dad said the original plan was to raise bulls the family would lease out to ranchers, but they soon realized Texas ranchers were pretty well-equipped. Instead, he thought back to his boyhood days when he spent his free time fishing.

That's when it clicked.

"There wasn't a lot going on here with fresh seafood," he explained. "We decided to open a market."

Michael J. Kostella, 33 at the time, purchased a washateria and transformed it into PJ's Seafood, which, when it opened in 1978, was just a market.

As for the name, he had his reasons.

PJ's is easy to remember and even easier to spell, he said with a grin. And anytime a store advertised a sale on pajamas?

Free advertising.

Really, he said, it was a mix of his children's initials: Pat, Jenny and Shannon. They even factored in his namesake, a medical marvel, as they weren't supposed to be able to have more children.

"He's the apostrophe," Dad said.

Cooking up business

The market got off to a healthy start, serving up fresh fish and oysters from Gulf Coast waters. Still, it didn't end there.

After placing fryers along the market's north wall and offering to-go plates of fried fish and hush puppies, customers wanted more.

Once the antique shop that occupied the other half of the building moved out in 1979, they opened a diner.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Kostellas developed a menu, and minus a few additions through the years, it remains largely unchanged today.

"A lot of customers come two or three times a week and have for 35 years," Michael A. Kostella said with a shrug. "You can't change it on them."

For Marsha Kostella, who joked that her only real gift is remembering names, faces and phone numbers, those longtime customers are a big part of what makes the work so rewarding.

She said she takes joy in getting to know the regulars and then their children and grandchildren as the years progress.

"I feel blessed because they come in and say, 'I've been coming here since I was just this high,'" she said, gesturing close to the floor. "What's made us successful is the people."

That idea extends to the family itself, she said, noting everybody - including her children and nine grandchildren - get involved from time to time.

It's especially true as Easter nears, and it's all hands on deck for extra busy days, her son said.

"During Lent, you'll see three generations of Kostellas on the floor," he said with a laugh. "In 35 years, I've never missed a Good Friday."

Victoria residents Joyce and Bob Neel live just down the street from the restaurant's former owners, but that doesn't keep them from making the trip out to PJ's. They don't just eat there on Good Friday but almost every Friday of the year.

The food - namely the shrimp and fish - is a big reason behind that weekly trip, Joyce Neel said, but so is the camaraderie.

"There's a lot of people we know there every week," she said. "It's usually a whole lot of regulars who go in there, and they all know you by name."

Another set of Friday night regulars, Victoria residents Bill and Wanda Birmingham, cited the same reasons - although for them, the oysters take center stage - for their weekly visits.

"Generally, there are about four of us who go out, but then other people will come in that we know," Bill Birmingham said with a laugh. "At one time, we counted 28 people we knew."

And while he said he knew the eatery recently changed hands, he said he isn't worried about what the future holds. After all, the couple has seen the new owner at the restaurant ever since they started eating there.

"In fact, I made a comment last week," Bill Birmingham said. "I looked over there and told him, 'You pay attention to your mother now, so you can learn to cook real well.'"

Passing the torch

The Birminghams aren't the only ones assured the eatery remains in good hands. Both Michael J. and Marsha Kostella said they're sure sure their son will continue on just fine.

"Mickey knows how we want our name carried on," Mom said one Thursday as employees prepared for the incoming lunch crowd. "He treats customers the way we do."

Really, Dad said, any one of his children could step in and carry out any job in the place without a hitch.

And the new head honcho said he rests assured knowing he has support not only from the business' longtime employees but also from his parents, who still venture in to help.

He might not allow his dad to start his workday at 4 a.m. as he once did, he admitted, and Mom typically sticks to gumbo days - Thursdays and Fridays, that is - and a part-day Saturday, but they're ready and willing to offer up their wisdom.

Case in point: Mom's advice Nov. 7, as crews worked to install the new phone lines.

"You don't do things like this on a Thursday," she whispered to her son.

A few changes might enter the mix down the road, Michael A. Kostella said, such as a new Facebook page and updated decor. For the most part, however, he said he plans to keep things the way they are now.

"It's worked. We're surviving," he said. "Hopefully, we can go another 35 years."

And Mom said she hopes so, too. After all, at this point, the business is a fixture in Victoria.

"You don't come down to eat at this side of town to go shopping," she said. "You come down to eat at PJ's."

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