Harry and Lynn Christensen were on their way to Naples when they discovered Longboat Key.
They stopped to visit a friend in Sarasota and took a detour to the island.
They never made it to Naples.
Instead, they rented a cottage on the north end of Longboat Key, and Harry Christensen went out the next day and got a job in the kitchen at Sarasota Yacht Club.
After stints with Far Horizons and Cafe L’Europe, Harry Christensen decided he would open his own business.
All they had was $500, a TV and a car.
“That was all we owned at the time,” he said. “We stuck our necks out and did it.”
Christensen leased 5440 Gulf of Mexico Drive in 1978. It took him two months to fix the place up, though he did cater a couple Christmas parties. During the second week of January 1979, they started the take-out service.
In February 1979, they made their first bank deposit.
From roast duck to beef Wellington, customers could come in for gourmet food without having to wait at a restaurant.
Christensen began making desserts, salads and sandwiches, or as he calls them, party specialties. It started with customers ordering a dozen meatballs or vegetable platters for their events.
Then they started asking Christensen to send a bartender. Then they asked for servers, and all of a sudden he was doing dinners for 500 people for the likes of The Out-of-Door Academy and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
In 1982, the business moved to its current location on St. Jude’s Drive. The Christensens later bought the building across the street and opened it as the deli. In 1985, the restaurant opened.
The restaurant and deli shared a building until 1992. And in 2000, the business became even more of a family affair when their son, Hal, joined as catering manager. Now, he is the general manager.
Hal worked at Harry’s as a kid busing tables and running food. But once he graduated college and had experience he joined his parents full time.
“You get kind of like an instant gratification,” Hal said of the business.
Since the beginning, Harry’s Continental Kitchens has become a staple on the island, but before planting roots here, the Christensens honed their skills in Wisconsin.
Harry and Lynn Christensen met in sixth grade in De Pierre, Wis., and started dating. They married in 1973.
But it was his mother who led Harry Christensen into the kitchen and cooking.
Harry Christensen would help his mother, who was a dishwasher at St. Norbert College, during the Green Bay Packers’ summer training camp. He washed dishes, helped the cooks, served food and bused tables. The Packers had chefs come in from Chicago and Milwaukee who taught Christensen some tricks.
“Since sixth grade, it was all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “I was the first kid in my high school to do home economics.”
After high school, Christensen attended chef school at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, managed the cafeteria in McCormick Hall at Marquette University and worked in Chicago country clubs. Lynn Christensen worked as a legal secretary in Milwaukee.
Both of them eventually worked in Door County, Wis., where Lynn Christensen oversaw 30 dining room servers and Harry worked in the kitchen.
Those jobs were seasonal, so many of their fellow coworkers ventured to Naples in the winter, which is how the Christensens stumbled upon Longboat Key.
“We were 24 years old, and we had all the guts in the world,” Harry Christensen said.
“He had all the guts. I was nervous,” she said.
Forty years later, their plan has worked.
Asked what the secret to success is, the answer is pretty simple for Harry Christensen.
“I always go to the highest quality of products that I can get, and I always try to prepare them in the highest quality way, and I always try to make delicious food,” he said.
Lynn adds that good service personnel and staff who really take care of customers helps, too.
While Longboat has certainly changed, Harry’s has remained consistent in those beliefs and in its menu. The beef Wellington, quiche Lorraine, veal and duckling are still served. That consistency is one reason Longboat residents keep coming back.
Customer George Rauch said the menu offers comfort food that other restaurants don’t serve anymore, like liver and onions. Harry’s has been a place for Rauch and his family to visit since it opened. Now, his kids live on Siesta Key, but every time they visit Longboat, they go to Harry’s.
Peter Salm shops at the deli four to five times a week because of the friendly atmosphere.
“They run an excellent business, and they have good food and reasonable prices,” he said. “What more could you ask for?”
Edna Hausman has been a customer since the 1980s. She and her husband would come for vacation and use Harry’s take out service. She calls the Christensens an intricate part of the island.
“I can’t imagine Longboat Key without the Christensens and Harry’s Continental Kitchens,” she said.