Instead of going to their bank, law office, hospital or real estate company — or dozens of other businesses — these men and women showed up at Hungry Harry’s Family Bar-B-Que on a recent sunny and clear Wednesday morning.
They were there to honor Harry Wright and his son-in-law, Chad Hudson, for their restaurant’s longstanding contributions to community life in Land O’ Lakes.
Members of the Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce’s community affairs committee presented a sign declaring Hungry Harry’s as “The Heart of Pasco.”
“Hungry Harry’s has been actively involved in the community and has given back to the community in countless ways,” Mary Lynn Gorsline said, as she read from a letter explaining why the restaurant was singled out for the honor. Sandy Graves, also on the committee, presented a plaque to Wright and Hudson.
After the formalities, those attending huddled around Wright and Hudson for a group photo, and then the two men posed with individuals and groups who wanted a picture to mark the occasion.
Wright said the recognition wasn’t necessary, but he was obviously pleased.
“Just being part of the community is enough acknowledgement for me. To have this many business people acknowledge me, is really good,” Wright said.
He’s also happy that his son-in-law, who runs the operations now, has kept up the restaurant’s tradition of giving back to the community.
Hungry Harry’s, at 3116 Land O’ Lakes Blvd., has a long history in Land O’ Lakes.
When the restaurant opened, 33 years ago, it was a very lean operation. Just Wright, his wife, Sherry, and one employee handled all of the chores.
Over time, Hungry Harry’s has become a mainstay at charitable events in the community.
When volunteers for Coastal Cleanup finish cleaning up, for instance, they’re rewarded with a meal supplied by Hungry Harry’s. That tradition dates more than 20 years.
Wright estimates the restaurant has been involved in 5,000 fundraisers. At the 30-year mark Hungry Harry’s had given away about 250,000 meals, he said.
Like most businesses, Hungry Harry’s has had its successes and setbacks.
At one point, when a portion of the restaurant’s property was taken by eminent domain to widen U.S. 41 — also known as Land O’ Lakes Boulevard — Hungry Harry’s was closed for eight months. At another point, Wright was knocked out of commission by a heart attack.
When the recession hit, it wiped out nearly all of the restaurant’s commercial catering and dealt a serious blow to its walk-in trade, Wright said.
But, the family has stuck together, and through hard work, it has weathered the storms, Wright said.
It now has a thriving catering service for weddings, which Hudson developed, which catered more than 400 weddings last year, Wright said.
Opening a barbecue restaurant was never part of a grand plan, Wright said.
“I was running the world’s largest service center and tire store in Tampa. My boss wouldn’t pay me my $11,800 bonus,” he said. So, he turned in his two-week notice.
He and Sherry had five kids at the time.
“She was really concerned and upset. “She said, ‘Well, what are you gonna do?’”
Wright had an idea.
He had been working near a barbecue joint that enjoyed an excellent reputation.
Wright thought he could do better.
“I said, ‘Honey, if this guy around the corner can be the best in Tampa Bay, I can cook barbecue better than that. I cooked barbecue for our wedding.’
“She said, ‘You stupid fool. I’ve never worked in a restaurant, and we don’t have any money.’
“Twenty-four days later, we opened,” Wright said.
Now, Wright and his wife are partners with their daughter, Stacey and their son-in-law, Chad.
“My son-in-law is an unreal businessman,” Wright said.
Things are far more systematic than they were when Wright ran things.
“We had no recipe books, when he came.
“He said, ‘Starting tomorrow, everything you do for the next year, you’ve got to write it down.’”
“I’d tear off box tops, and I’d write down, ‘Mashed potatoes for 600.’”
Hudson took the recipes and converted them into spread sheets, with step-by-step instructions.
At its inception, the restaurant was named Hungry Harry’s Famous Bar-B-Que.
“Who decided it was famous?” Wright asked, rhetorically? “I did,” he answered, with a laugh.
Now, that the restaurant’s ownership is in the family’s second generation, the company refers to itself as Hungry Harry’s Family Bar-B-Que.
Initially, the restaurant operated out of a former barbecue joint called Rib Junction. It had been closed for two years and its lot was choked with weeds. Its dining room had 130 seats and stretched out to what is now the middle of the highway.
To help fill those seats, Wright went to church — many churches, actually.
He would tell the pastors: “You pick a night that works for me, and I’ll feed every man, woman, (and) child a complete dinner, with everything including dessert, for $2.”
The church dinners often would draw 300 to 350 people, and roughly 150 of them would end up at Hungry Harry’s for a meal within a week.
Wright said he has always been his own man.
“I did what I wanted to do. I fought the county, when I wanted to fight the county. I fought for causes,” he said.
The American flag that covers the restaurant’s roof is proof positive of that.
“Eight days after 911, the flag was started to be prepped and painted. I was so upset at that time,” he said, and he wanted to do something.
“So, we painted it.
“Sometime after that, Pasco County came to warn me that I was in violation of the sign code.
“I informed them I didn’t want to be warned. I told them I wanted to be cited. They’d have to take me out of here in handcuffs, feet cuffs (ankle cuffs). I had people in the armed forces who said they would sit up on the roof.
“So, they (county regulators) decided just to leave it alone,” he said.
Wright is a big believer in Land O’ Lakes, and in supporting local businesses.
“We have six kids. We had five when we came. The sixth was born almost in the restaurant.
“We have 14 grandkids, 11 of them in Land O’ Lakes, so I’m pretty well vested in the community,” Wright said.
He appreciates the relationships and friendships he’s formed through the years, with local business owners and local organizations.
“I don’t think I had anything but relationships in business when I came here. That was all that kept me in business,” Wright said.
While he appreciates the chamber’s recognition, it’s not something he sought after, he said.
“I have never been a person who needed to be acknowledged. I got the satisfaction from what we’d done. I’ve never done anything unless I’ve wanted to, and that’s a real freedom,” he said.
Now, he’s working on a book he plans to call ‘Everybody knows everything about life, and barbecue.’”
His favorite sentence so far is this: “Two days after everybody agrees on religion and politics — two days after that, they’ll agree on barbecue.”
In looking back, Wright said, “I don’t think I was a very good businessman.
But, that doesn’t seem to bother him.
“I probably could have been a whole lot more successful monetarily, but I couldn’t have been a whole lot more satisfied,” Wright said.
Published April 5, 2017