In the Spanish-tiled walls of Florida's oldest restaurant, you'll find oasis from the recession.
As other restaurants withered, the family-owned Columbia Restaurant Group says it has grown sales and profit, even posting its best June on record.
The 105-year-old Columbia had come back from the brink of financial failure, a fact few knew at the time. And no single dish tells that story like its Cuban sandwich.
Its sleek pressed layers reflect Ybor City's immigrant past: Spanish ham, Cuban pork, Italian salami, cheese, pickles and mustard from the Germans.
Richard Gonzmart, 57, gets a fresh burst of energy as he describes the way his grandfather, a second-generation owner of the restaurant, used to make it. This sandwich isn't just a sandwich. It's his history, his legacy, a signature of his family's labor for four generations.
And he had let it down.
It would take a crisis and a celebration for Gonzmart to revive history.
• • •
A family business' survival hinges on the handoff between generations. The Columbia almost didn't survive the last one.
At the turn of the 20th century, Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez had opened the tiny corner Saloon Columbia. It passed to his son Casimiro Jr., then his pianist granddaughter, Adela, who married dashing violinist Cesar Gonzmart.
When Cesar and then Adela died, a community mourned the gracious pair as Ybor City royalty.
But Cesar Gonzmart's death in 1992 exposed troubling realities. His tuxedos and smooth confidence had concealed a web of debt big enough to threaten the entire chain.
"Cesar would provide whatever numbers he wanted," Richard Gonzmart told the author of The Columbia: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine. "None of the bankers believed it, but it was a different world, handshakes."
In late 1994, Richard and his brother, Casey, sat down with a turnaround expert. They closed restaurants, hired a new chief financial officer and promoted an outsider to director of operations. They paid off bad debts. In just two years, the fourth generation found its financial footing.
"It's so difficult to pass something on generation to generation to generation," said Babson College professor Leonard Green, who uses the Columbia as a case study in the school's No. 1-ranked entrepreneurship program. "And he's done it. "
But more was left to do.
Richard found himself drawing contrasts with his father: Polo shirts, not tuxedos. Quick-fire honesty in place of fancy dreams.
Where Cesar derided the Cuban sandwich as unclassy, refusing to enter the Columbia in contests, Richard called it the restaurant's signature dish.
But Richard had a problem. The Columbia's Cuban sandwich was no longer very good.
• • •
Andrew Huse loved a good Cuban. As a student of Tampa's restaurant culture, he had collected its lore and pored over its details. You could call him a Cuban sandwich expert.
In 2006, he had just sampled the Columbia's. He didn't like it. Normally that would not have been a big deal, except Huse, a 30-something librarian in the University of South Florida's Special Collections department, had a chance to write a book about the storied restaurant after the Gonzmarts had sought help with their archives from the school. Meanwhile, a newspaper reporter wanted to know: Where were the bay area's best sandwiches?
Even with his first book interview with the Gonzmarts looming, Huse didn't mention the Columbia's Cuban. He had to admit to Richard and his wife: It was just too salty.
Huse felt bad. He knew how skillfully Gonzmart had pulled the restaurant back from the precipice of financial ruin.
He saw the Cuban as the last stone to be turned, a potential metaphor for the turnaround of the historic institution.
• • •
Gonzmart fumed, at least at first.
About two weeks later, Huse returned for a second interview. Gonzmart talked first. Huse braced himself.
"He immediately launched into a discussion about all the shortcuts he had taken in making the Cuban sandwich," Huse said. "It was this long sort of self-criticism of all these various things they had done that other restaurants do routinely, but that he had identified as weak points."
Pork came premarinated, roasted, ready-to-slice. Ham, which also reached the restaurant baked, got no sugar glaze. Preslicing it meant it lost moisture, letting salt dominate. The salami wasn't the type he remembered from his childhood.
"I realized that over the years, while I was working there, shortcuts were taken," Gonzmart said.
For four decades, he said, quality had declined. Like the web of debt, it had to end.
He would re-create his grandfather's Cuban sandwich.
It started with fresh-baked Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery. Then a layer of ham, sweet on the edges, from a sugary rub that caramelized as it baked. Then thin-sliced pork, which bathed overnight in mojo marinade before it was roasted to savory tenderness. Then salami, oh, the salami, studded with peppercorns and sitting high so its fat could infuse the other meats. Then a slice of aged Swiss cheese that supported rounds of sour pickle. And under the lid, a single layer of yellow mustard. Press this into an inch or two of crusty, buttered warmth, and cut on the diagonal. Bite.
"It just explodes your mouth," Gonzmart said. "I didn't give our customers credit that they could tell the difference. I could tell the difference."
He sampled 20 types of ham He bought a $35,000 steam convection oven. He spent half a year finding the right Genoa salami.
"As a child, I remember the salami had peppercorns," Gonzmart said. "And so we looked, and looked."
And found one. His management team asked: Do you know how expensive it is?
Gonzmart told them: "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. … What's a bigger deal is that flavor."
He would order the Cuban at his restaurants, picking through each layer. One day, it was stacked in the wrong order, mustard on the bottom. He went straight to the sandwichmaker.
"It changes the whole flavor!" Gonzmart said.
In the end, his new sandwich cost just pennies more — it was cheaper, it turned out, to roast his own meat. A diner could enjoy the sandwich and plantain chips — and Columbia fountains, tile murals and white tablecloths — for $7.95.
Orders ticked up. So did sales of other refreshed dishes, even as food and beverage sales in the nation's 100 top-grossing independent restaurants last year dropped 10 percent, according to Restaurants & Institutions magazine. Overall, sales increased 9 percent in June, with the Ybor location jumping 13 percent, Gonzmart said.
Dennis Lombardi, a restaurant industry guru with WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio, isn't surprised. Just two things carry a restaurant to higher sales during a recession, he said.
"What creates value is great food, great service," he said. "If you're in an iconic environment, so much the better."
A better sandwich meant better business.
• • •
Gonzmart says he isn't done.
In user reviews on Yelp.com, 84 website commenters over three years give the restaurant an average of 3.5 of five stars. While more than half of the reviewers offered four or five stars and raved, some said the food didn't stand up to the decadent decor.
The food must be great, Gonzmart said. He won't stop pushing.
Already, he's found yet another salami for the Cuban. It may change again — he tastes whenever he travels, searching for an edge. "It can always be better," he said.
The sandwich is a cornerstone, an emblem.
"If you can't make something so simple great, how are you going to make something more complicated like a paella?"
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report, which includes information from The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine by Andrew T. Huse. Becky Bowers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.