Richard Gonzmart’s oldest memory takes place in the walk-in cooler of his grandfather’s restaurant, where a surprise encounter with a glossy pair of fish eyes sent him screaming into the kitchen and into the arms of his laughing grandfather.

“Que te paso, muchacho?” “What’s wrong with you, kid?” his grandfather joked, leading him back into the freezer and teaching him instead how to judge the quality and freshness of the fish. With his fear conquered and a new skill gained, this knowledge became a point of pride for the young boy as he began spending more and more time in the family restaurant. 

In the coming years, Gonzmart would make something of a habit out of turning uncomfortable experiences into triumphs, and as the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, Florida’s historic Ybor City celebrates its 110th anniversary this year, Gonzmart, its fourth-generation family owner, president, and CEO has volumes of such history to reminisce on.

The Columbia Restaurant was first opened as a small cafe space in 1905 by Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. to serve Spanish-Cuban cuisine to the cigar workers across the street. Today, four generations can lay claim to what has become one of the largest Spanish restaurants in the world, offering fine dining for 1,700 guests in its 15 dining rooms. Starting early, the fifth generation is already chipping in with day-to-day operations of what has become a Tampa landmark.

To put its local relevance into context: the Columbia Restaurant Group employs around 950 people who both create and depend on the restaurant’s success, and the community that Gonzmart serves is growing every year: The restaurant group now includes not only the flagship Columbia location in Ybor City, but also six other locations, along with empire-building concepts such as the newly opened Ulele and soon-to-open Sicilian restaurant, Caso Santo Stefano. The group has also added a local fast casual burger chain to its roster, with plans of revitalization and growth in mind. As the restaurant group continues to bulk up its list of concepts, Gonzmart says that becoming tightly woven into each of the stores' respective communities is both a business necessity and a personal mission.  

This goal of community involvement, coupled with some counterintuitive business strategies, carried the concept through both the Great Depression and the Great Recession. When nearly everyone in the industry was experiencing losses as a result of the housing crisis and anemic consumer spending, Gonzmart looked back to his grandfather, who, during the Depression, made a show of confidence by reinvesting in the restaurant, putting a fresh coat of paint on the walls, and opening the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa. While business associates suggested Gonzmart cut portion sizes and quality and adjust pricing, Gonzmart decided to take a nearly opposite approach by remodeling his business approach to find any corner-cutting in quality and eliminate. This took the form of reinventing the restaurant's iconic Cuban sandwich, taking all shortcuts out of the production to create an end product that he believed honored the flavor traditions of the immigrants to Ybor City who created the classic dish: ham from Spain, roast pork from Cuba, salami from Italy, and mustard and pickles from Germany, all pressed on bread from a local bakery.

Instead of being down double-digits like the majority of those in the fine-dining segment, Columbia sales were flat during the first year Great Recession, and over the next six years, the restaurant managed to increase same-store sales by 48 percent.

“If you seek it, you can learn from history, and I’m so blessed to be born into a family with such a history,” Gonzmart says. “I felt like my grandfather in the Depression, who stayed open because so many people depended on him, and because he had confidence in what he believed and in giving back to the community.”

The various dining and drinking locales are serving guests not only with food, but also through community engagement. Each store contains a “ballot box” of sorts where diners can chose to donate proceeds to a list of charities, or to write in their own favorite to help the restaurant learn more about local initiatives. Along with need-based academic scholarships to send academically gifted minority students to college, Gonzmart also has two privately labeled wines, whose proceeds go in part to fund cancer research.

When Gonzmart began to realize that the stigma surrounding a particular form of cancer—prostate cancer—was causing many men to avoid preventive treatment, he kicked off an annual fundraising Father’s Day walk, using his restaurant’s high profile in the community to get the word out.

“I was looking to find a man who would be vocal and support the Father’s Day walk, and I prayed about it a lot,” he remembers. “I’m a heck of a pray-er, because I was diagnosed with prostate cancer myself two years ago and I became that person who was vocal.”

The courage he tapped into to use his diagnosis as an inspiration is the same courage he says generations of his family have used to face challenges in the restaurant industry.

“Each generation has faced severe challenges of some sort in the business,” he says. “You have to have the courage and wisdom to say that you can change lives and to go forward.”

Gonzmart seems to take his own “go forward” message both literally and figuratively, as he has completed a total of 23 marathons to raise funds for cancer research [despite admittedly hating marathons], and he has continued his work to increase the quality of food, service, and overall experience in every single one of the family restaurants.

In everything, Gonzmart uses the Columbia’s local reknown to create a place and culture that celebrates, promotes, and embodies a better life.

“The Columbia has made an impact in a lot of people’s lives and memories, and it’s given a lot of immigrants reminders of home,” Gonzmart says. “So that tells me what sort of responsibility I have as the fourth generation caretaker. And I have that responsibility not just to my direct family, but also to our staff and to the huge number of people for whom Columbia is important.”

By Emily Byrd

Industry News, NextGen Casual, Philanthropy