YBOR CITY — Two distinct personalities, George Guito and Joe Roman, share one goal: pleasing Columbia restaurant diners. Between them, the Ybor City natives have clocked 104 years at Florida's oldest restaurant.
Don't even try to count the number of Cuban sandwiches they've served, or urns of cafe con leche they've brewed.
Roman, 81, flashes a Milton Berle smile that makes every customer feel like nothing matters more than their arroz con pollo. Hired in 1953 as a dishwasher, then promoted to waiter, he quickly learned that entertaining and silly tricks could add up to $50 in tips on a busy weekend. The singing waiter honed his showmanship watching the maestro, the late Cesar Gonzmart.
"I would sing as he played his violin around the tables,'' said Roman.
He stopped waiting tables when his knees gave out in 2002. A year later, during the restaurant's 100th anniversary celebration, he became Ambassador Joe, commissioned to greet diners and guide tours. The Florida tourism office honored him with a hospitality award in 2004.
A slight stroke earlier this year limits his services to the lunch hour. He returns to his home near Egypt Lake for dinner with Matilda, his wife of 60 years. The couple have two sons, Joe Jr. and John, and four grandsons.
Guito, 62, now the general manager, stays on task, having worked most every job in the joint, from butcher to maitre d'. He installed the dishwasher, wired the computers, hung the chandelier. Everything but tend bar and dance flamenco.
"You've got the best of both worlds right there," said Casey Gonzmart, chairman, before the loyalists were introduced Tuesday at a premiere dinner party for the recently released book, The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine by Andrew Huse.
Roman and Guito were among a dozen "characters" invited to read excerpts "to bring the book to life," said Richard Gonzmart, president, as his grandchildren toddled onto the stage. Each participant contributed to the Gonzmart legacy and the iconic restaurant's survival through Prohibition, world wars, the Great Depression and Ybor's urban renewal.
"I was about 15 when Cesar gave me a job,'' said Guito. "He said I was too young, but I begged him to give me a chance." He was paid $35 as a "porter" to mop floors and clean bathrooms six days a week.
The son of a cigarmaker, Guito "worked to stay out of trouble,'' soon quitting Washington Junior High to begin what would become a lifetime career.
Cesar continually added to his responsibilities, even sending him to a professional butchering school at night.
"I used to cut all the meat," he said. "Bought it, too, for 10 or 15 years.''
As steward of the kitchen, he purchased produce and supplies, "everything but the wine and liquor." When the chef retired, he temporarily took on the cooking.
"I know how to make all the dishes,'' he said. At his home in West Tampa, paella is his signature dish.
When the family opened a branch on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, it was usually Guito who made the daily trek delivering garbanzo beans and sausage.
For decades, he spent Sundays and holidays at the Gonzmart home on Davis Islands. When Guito married, Cesar not only paid for a wedding reception at the Columbia, but handed over his credit card and Cadillac for the honeymoon. Now divorced, Guito remains "so close to his ex-wife that you'd never know it." They have one son, George Jr.
The men grew emotional as the evening closed with a video of vintage photos from the book.
"I can't express what this means to me," said Guito.
Noting his 55th anniversary as a Columbia employee, "starting the year Richard was born," Roman said, "I never wanted to be anywhere else.''
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.