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Columbia Restaurant's longtime staff tell tales of remarkable longevity and success

It's quite extraordinary for a restaurant to be in business for more than 100 years. In Florida, that century-old restaurant is the Columbia flagship in Ybor City.

Some familiar faces have been serving up Spanish and Cuban specialties and drinks for diners all this time — not for 100 years, mind you, but for a pretty long spell considering the transient nature of restaurant work.

This week, the Columbia is honoring nearly 90 employees who have been with the restaurant's various locations for more than 10 years.

We talked to some of the most long-standing to find out how dining and drinking habits have changed. And what has kept them at the Columbia.

Laura Reiley, Times food critic

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George Guito, 63, began working at the Columbia Ybor City as a cleaner when he was 15. He moved up the ranks to general manager over 48 years. He has a hamburger named after him.

"I was already done with school (I was a bad boy then), and when I started doing odd jobs I was making $35 a week, and I worked a 48-hour week. That's not even a dollar an hour. All my money went to my family. My mother worked cleaning the hospital and my father was a cigarmaker in Ybor. One of my sisters was sick, so all the rest of us children would help our parents with the money."

After cleaning and being a busboy, you moved into the kitchen. How did that happen?

"César Gonzmart (current owner Richard's father) started to tell me, 'You should go to school, learn to do something different.' So he paid for me to go to Tampa Butchering School and I became a certified butcher. I cut all the meat at the restaurant for years and years. Then I started being the steward in the kitchen and receiving the merchandise."

Did you have a favorite job?

"There was this electrician they called the Engineer and I'd go and work with him and help do the electrical work for the shows on Friday and Saturday nights. We'd control the lights for the dancers and for César and Adela Gonzmart. She was an accomplished pianist, he was an accomplished violinist."

What has been the hardest thing you've done at the Columbia?

"When César became sick, he said he wanted me to help run the restaurant. I started wearing a suit. I was a little scared, but then I realized I enjoyed talking to people and meeting people. I've been the general manager now for about 20 years."

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Tom Harman, 45, has been a server at the Columbia Ybor City for 25 years. An avid traveler, he has two personal credos: You can't live well if you don't eat well; and life is not a rehearsal, you have to go out there and live it.

"I was working for a restaurant called Victoria Station, a prime rib place where you'd dine in these old train cars. One day I showed up for work in my uniform and it had gone belly-up. I was a student and I really needed a job so I went to the Columbia to apply and the host said, 'You were supposed to be here two days ago.' It was busy and I had to improvise a little. Three days later they found out I wasn't whoever they thought I was, but they kept me anyway."

How has waiting tables changed since you started in the 1980s?

"Servers aren't just order takers, they're salespeople. You want to highlight the items you can't get at other properties. Back in the 1980s, the money flowed like water. I don't think service itself has changed much. You still read the vibe from the table and your smile is your business card."

Do you have a favorite dish from the Columbia menu?

"I never get tired of the 1905 salad. Give me that, the Spanish bean soup and a hunk of Cuban bread and it feels like home."

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Fernando Morelos, 49, originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán, has been with the Columbia for 28 years. He started at the Columbia Sarasota as a busboy and a few years later was transferred to the St. Augustine location. He has worked his way up from busboy to assistant manager.

"I moved to the U.S. when I was 20 and I spoke almost no English. I got the job through my wife. She knew about the Columbia and that there were lots of Spanish speakers there. Still the majority of employees at the Columbia speak Spanish."

From busboy to head busser to maitre d' to assistant manager, which has been your favorite job at the Columbia?

"My favorite was when I was a maitre d'. I liked to be dealing with everybody, to have fun with the customers and the employees. I spent a lot of time at the front desk then."

What has changed in St. Augustine since the restaurant first opened in 1983?

"When we opened there were only two traffic lights in all of St. Augustine. The city has grown so much, and the restaurant is much busier than it was at first. In the beginning we had just 17 servers, now we have over 40."

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Donna Stokes, 51, has been a bartender at the Columbia St. Augustine for 27 years. A group of her friends traveled on a whim from Jacksonville to St. Augustine in 1983 when they heard the restaurant was opening. They were all hired. Stokes is the last one of that group still employed there.

"I've worked here half my life. I'd been there a year and got pregnant. For the next 20 years I worked days so I could be home when my daughter went to school in the morning and when she got home in the afternoon."

What are the trends you've seen in popular cocktails?

"They say anything Marge Simpson's sisters are drinking on The Simpsons will be the 'next big thing.' That's where the mojito craze came from. We've always had signature cocktails. When we first opened we had an ice cream machine, so we had ice cream cocktails. Now we have the best mojitos, but I think sangria is still our signature drink."

Any celebrity sightings or odd memories?

"There's a ghost. I'm not spiritually sensitive — for me he would just turn on and off the fans or move a chair. But a lot of customers have seen him. As per celebrities, I've seen Henry Winkler (very nice); Melissa Gilbert when she was dating Rob Lowe; Randy Quaid; Jean-Claude Van Damme; and Salma Hayek. And once one of the coaches of the Gators came in and you would have thought it was the president of the United States."

Will you be at the Columbia for another 27 years?

"My daughter gets out of graduate school in August. I paid for that (thanks, Richard Gonzmart). But I'll be there a few more years. I want to put a pool in my back yard."

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Caren Link, 57, has been a bartender at the Columbia Sarasota for 30 years. When she began working there, it was one of just a couple of night spots in Sarasota.

"I was in Newport, R.I., when the tall ships came in, and a gentleman friend said, 'Do you want to go down to Florida?' I didn't even know where Sarasota was. Someone sent him a phone book and we saw an ad for the Columbia. I said, 'That's where I'm going to work.' "

How have tastes in cocktails changed over the years?

"The most popular drinks when I started were mixed drinks, things like Bacardi cocktails. No one orders those anymore. These days, the sale of mojitos, oh my gosh, that drink has put us on the map. Mojitos were mentioned in the second-to-last James Bond movie. Halle Berry kept saying it over and over. So we have her to blame. But with cocktails, it all depends on what the customer likes to drink. They'll say, 'Give me a Red Flag over Hawaii,' and I'll say, 'If you know what's in it, I can make it.' "

Do you have any special bartender tricks like Tom Cruise in Cocktail?

"Eons ago there were two young bartenders and they'd try some of that bottle juggling and flaming drinks. One of the bartender's pants caught on fire, so they stopped that real fast."

Has anything changed in the barroom mating rituals?

"I see a lot more of the Internet dating now, so it's dates between people who haven't met each other yet."

Columbia Restaurant's longtime staff tell tales of remarkable longevity and success

06/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 9:55am]
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