TAMPA — When Columbia Restaurant Group president Richard Gonzmart heard about the community center planned in an old church in Tampa Heights, he wanted to contribute a $100,000 commercial kitchen for job training.
But the idea fell through after City Hall reminded the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association that it was renovating the old church without the approval of its owner, the Florida Department of Transportation.
With regret, Gonzmart said it just didn't make sense to go ahead with the kitchen project. In the near term, there was a cease-and-desist order from the city. In the long run, FDOT plans to demolish the church so it can expand Interstate 275's "Malfunction Junction" interchange.
But he did not give up on the idea.
On Thursday, Gonzmart said he has signed a contract to buy an old furniture store on the east side of N Florida Avenue, just north of E Lake Avenue. There he plans to spend an estimated $2 million-plus developing a culinary school for high school students on the site, as well as a bakery, ice cream plant and catering service.
The goal, he said, is to provide job training for the same young people who would have used the kitchen at the Tampa Heights church.
"This would be greater than anything we could have done with the church," he said. "The idea is to try and touch as many lives as we can."
City Council Chairman Frank Reddick welcomed the project.
"It's a great opportunity for the kids in that particular community, because they lost out on the (program) being held at the church," he said.
As the Tampa Bay area's food culture has evolved, training the region's next generation of chefs has emerged as a growing need.
While at least 18 local high schools have launched culinary programs, many students have limited options for learning beyond that.
That's starting to change. Earlier this year, Phil Meola, culinary teacher at Steinbrenner High School in Lutz, and Benito D'Azzo, chef at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, launched Future Chefs Tampa Bay. The program brings schools and the food industry together to help students with internships, jobs and training.
Gonzmart did not disclose the purchase price for the property he's pursuing for his project. Assuming environmental tests don't turn up any problems, he expects to close on the deal by Jan. 12.
Demolition of the existing building on the site would begin soon after. He hopes that the 9,200-square-foot culinary school could be ready for its first students by next fall.
The school is very much a work in progress, but Gonzmart talked of hiring two culinary instructors who are chefs to launch it, and he hopes to enroll about 50 to 60 students.
Gonzmart expects the operation to be a business by day, turning out pies for his revival of Tampa's old Goody Goody restaurant in Hyde Park Village, as well as pastries to sell at Tampa International Airport. Long term, a restaurant could be added to the site.
By night, students would learn the restaurant business.
He said he wants to help students, many from publicly subsidized housing nearby, who might not necessarily go to college or who could face other challenges.
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.