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The luck o' the Lynches

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  • | 5:00 a.m. January 11, 2012
Ethna Lynch and Chris Lynch opened Lynches Pub & Grub in 1986 on Longboat Key. In 2003, they moved the restaurant to its current St. Armands Circle location.
Ethna Lynch and Chris Lynch opened Lynches Pub & Grub in 1986 on Longboat Key. In 2003, they moved the restaurant to its current St. Armands Circle location.
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Step into Lynches Pub & Grub on St. Armands Circle, and you’ll see the luck of the Irish.

There’s the leprechaun that greets customers outside. He’s a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day — by far the biggest pot of gold each year for owners Ethna and Chris Lynch.

There’s the infamous sign from the days when the restaurant was Lynches Landing Bar and Grill on Longboat Key. It has the shape of the shamrock — a plant traditionally thought to bring luck.

But the “luck of the Irish” doesn’t just refer to pots of gold and shamrocks. It’s an ironic phrase, one that refers to good luck as well as a tumultuous history for Ireland filled with war, famines and occupations.

The saga of Lynches’ 25 years isn’t quite so dramatic. It’s filled with the good fortune of loyal friends and customers — such as the Longboat Key firefighters, who, back in 1986, helped sisters Ethna and Chris Lynch paint their restaurant as they prepared to open or the many local restaurateurs who gave them items such as used flatware or a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey free of charge to help them get started.

“We’ve had great friends and customers over the years,” Chris Lynch said. “That’s where we’re really lucky.”

It’s also filled with battles — many waged at Longboat Key Town Hall. The shamrock sign has the battle scar to prove it: It’s sawed into two pieces, a souvenir of the Lynches’ attempt to bring their sign into compliance with the town’s sign code that ultimately resulted in a $5,000 fine. The leprechaun was the subject of an unrelated sign-code struggle.

But whether they’ve had good luck or bad luck, the most important thing about the leprechaun and shamrock sign is this: Like their owners, Ethna and Chris Lynch, they’re still standing. And, throughout Lynches Pub & Grub, new signs of good luck have recently appeared: posters that advertise the restaurant’s 25-year anniversary.

But the Lynches don’t consider luck the primary factor in their success. To get the main ingredient, you have to go back to the village of of Ballydehop, Ireland, where Ethna and Chris Lynch were two of 12 children who grew up with a tradition of hard work on their family farm.

“I used to say that I never wanted to date a farmer because farming is such hard work,” Ethna Lynch said. “Instead, I came to America and picked a business twice as hard as farming.”

She moved in 1972 to the United States and worked restaurant jobs in Boston, Miami and San Francisco, moving in 1974 to Hawaii. Chris Lynch was starting a career in banking at the time but decided that Hawaii sounded more appealing and joined her sister that year. They stayed there for eight years before heading to Florida. They visited Clearwater and drove to Sarasota through St. Armands Circle and onto Longboat Key, where they decided to settle.

Beginning in 1982, both Lynches lived and worked on the Key — Ethna Lynch at the Holiday Inn Longboat Key, and Chris Lynch at the Buccaneer Inn. Eventually, friends and customers began suggesting that they open their own restaurant. Finally, at the end of 1986, they found a spot at 4000 Gulf of Mexico Drive — the home of the old Schooner Restaurant.

They gave the place a needed gutting. They took the equipment into the parking lot for a cleaning. It fell apart by the time they had washed off all the dirt. They built a bar overlooking the water. And they used their last $20 on Christmas Eve to haul trash away from the site.

“It would be more scary to me today, I suppose,” Chris Lynch said. “I guess ignorance was bliss.”

“We just knew,” Ethna Lynch said, “that it was going to get better.”

The first day of business was Dec. 26, 1986. It was quiet, being the day after Christmas, and because they hadn’t promoted the opening.

The next day, the word was out.

They couldn’t get all the ingredients needed to make every dish on the menu because of the holidays. So, every day for two weeks, they went to the Holiday Inn and typed up a card that they inserted inside the menu, showing what was available that night, until they got everything they needed to prepare each dish.

In the early days, they were at the restaurant by 8 a.m. seven days a week. Chris Lynch did the cooking, while Ethna Lynch served as waitress and bartender.

What they didn’t know, they quickly learned from customers.

They realized early on that customers expected the restaurant to be more “Irish” than it was, such as adding corned beef and cabbage on the menu. It wasn’t on the menu, because it’s technically an Irish-American dish rather than a traditional Irish selection, but they added it because of demand. On March 17, 1987 — their first St. Patrick’s Day in the business — they learned just how much corned beef and cabbage customers wanted after running out of it.

“We had no idea how busy it was going to be,” Ethna Lynch said. “The next year, we stacked the corned beef floor to ceiling.”

From 1988 on, St. Patrick’s Day became a giant party at Lynches Landing that often drew 1,000 people.
Chris Lynch used to warn her staff — not just on St. Patrick’s Day, but every day — that, “You never know when the bus is coming.” She meant that they should be prepared because you can’t predict rush hour. But one St. Patrick’s Day, a staffer warned Chris Lynch: “Look, Chris, there really is a bus.”

There were three buses, in fact.

But even on normal days, it was a popular Key hangout. The restaurant had a group of regulars that Chris Lynch dubbed “the Peanut Gallery.” Over time the group’s nickname evolved into the “Men’s Club,” which sometimes had a crowd of 30.

“It was electric,” Ethna Lynch said. “The fun quotient was just unbelievable.”

Wednesday night Dixieland Jazz nights featuring Mike Moran’s Jazz Band also became a tradition. One night, a member of the Irish Tenors happened to be at Lynches Landing and surprised the crowd with a song.

But, despite the fun times, there were tough ones as well. The Lynches’ first battle with the town came in 1993, when they remodeled the restaurant and installed a sliding-glass door and outdoor tables. The town initially opposed the seating but later permitted it. The next year, it was turtle-lighting issues. The year after that, the town passed a new sign code.

The leprechaun was the Lynches’ first casualty. The wooden shamrock he had always held had rotted, so they replaced it with an ice-cream cone because they had recently installed an ice-cream parlor. The town considered the leprechaun a sign because his ice-cream cone advertised a business. It also considered the ice cream cone as a separate sign than the leprechaun, but the restaurant was only allowed to have one sign. Eventually, the Lynches replaced the cone with a rusty shovel — which wasn’t a violation, because Lynches didn’t sell shovels.

In January 1999, Code Enforcement opened a case against Lynches for its shamrock sign, claiming that the Lynches missed a three-year grace period for compliance with the new code. Eventually, in July 1999, the Lynches attempted to bring their sign into compliance by sawing off 19.5 inches of their sign. At the time, Ethna Lynch said she felt as if one of her own arms had been cut off.

Days later, Code Enforcement told the Lynches their sign could still infringe on the right of way. Ultimately, the Lynches paid a $5,000 fine for noncompliance. The Lynches also fought the town for allowing weeds to grow up to 4 feet outside their restaurant.

Then, in May 2002, the town planted a string of buttonwood trees that blocked the restaurant’s view. The town removed them two weeks later. But, ultimately, the Lynches said it was the shamrock-sign issue that led to their decision to leave Longboat Key.

In February 2003, they opened Lynches Pub & Grub on St. Armands Circle. As they worked to set up the new restaurant, the Lynches got one sign of good luck: Their sliced shamrock sign fit perfectly on the new building’s wall. Three months later, they held a party to celebrate Lynches last night that drew more than 200 people.

“Everyone was sad because we were closing,” Chris Lynch said. “(But) we were the two happiest people in the room.”

Since its move to St. Armands, Lynches’ history has been less eventful. And for both sisters, that’s a good thing.

They’ve continued to hold St. Patrick’s Day extravaganzas and obtain a permit from the city every year to erect a tent. The celebration often draws up to 500 people.

The Lynches feel that the city of Sarasota has been more business-friendly than the town was when they did business there. Last October, with few hurdles, they got the approval they needed to sell liquor. Within the next few months, they hope to obtain a liquor license.

By now, Ethna Lynch said that she and her sister “have the business down to a fine science.” Ethna Lynch does all the ordering, while Chris Lynch makes the desserts and pays the bills. Aside from that, they both do a little of everything — whether it’s scrubbing floors or washing dishes or driving a guest home who has had too much to drink.

And they don’t plan to give it up anytime soon.

“Someday, we’ll be sitting here in our rocking chairs greeting customers,” Chris Lynch said.

“A mini St. Patrick’s Day” is how Ethna Lynch describes plans for Lynches Pub & Grub’s 25th anniversary celebration. The two-day event will begin at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13, and Saturday, Jan. 14, at Lynches Pub & Grub, 19 N. Blvd. of the Presidents, and feature roll-back prices, T-shirts and music by Patsy & Majella. For information, call 388-5550.

Lucky Numbers
$4,000 — The amount the Lynches raised for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society when they auctioned off items from the old Lynches Landing. The most expensive item was a poster with an Irish blessing that went for $750.

500 —
The number of people who come to Lynches Pub & Grub on a typical St. Patrick’s Day.

200 —
The approximate number of people who came to Lynches Landing Bar & Grill on its last night on Longboat Key.

2-1 —
The margin by which the Lynches estimate that Guinness beer outsells any other brand of beer at the restaurant

0 —
The number of times in 25 years that the Lynches have changed their cottage pie recipe.



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