Even though her life’s legacy was tied to one of the most lauded restaurants in the Tampa Bay area, Gertrude “Gert” Laxer never forgot her rural roots.
Remembered for her stoic attitude, business acumen and love of the outdoors and organic farming, Mrs. Laxer is recalled by friends and family members as a woman more comfortable in flip-flops and shorts than in heels and a cocktail dress.
The matriarch of Tampa’s widely celebrated Bern’s Steak House died Tuesday of natural causes. She was 93.
Gertrude Rosenbaum was born on Dec. 29, 1926, in White Lake, a rural community in Sullivan County, New York. Her parents emigrated to the upstate New York area from Eastern Europe, and Mrs. Laxer spent her childhood in the small agricultural community, picking berries in the fields with her sister, Shirley, and brother, Saul, for later use in jams and pies. She attended grade school in a single-room schoolhouse where kindergartners learned side-by-side with 12th graders before moving to New York City for college.
While attending New York University, she worked in a department store and majored in advertising and marketing. It was there, in copy class, that she met her future husband, Bern Laxer. The couple didn’t have a lot of money, but their courtship included modest dates in the city and trips to Coney Island for ice cream. They were married after college, in 1950.
At the time, Mr. Laxer was supporting the couple with a one-man advertising business when the pair decided to move to California. While en route to the West Coast, they stopped in Tampa to visit Mr. Laxer’s aunt.
Life had other plans: First, their car broke down. Then, the last paycheck Mr. Laxer was waiting on never came. Stranded, and with no money, the couple decided to stay and get jobs — Mr. Laxer doing advertising for a cigar company and Mrs. Laxer working at a local department store.
Soon enough, Tampa became their permanent home.
The Laxers had designs to open a soft-serve ice cream parlor, a dream that was born out of nostalgia for their trips to Coney Island, but the local banks thought the concept a shaky proposal and denied them a loan. A restaurant, however, felt more secure, and in 1953 the couple bought a small luncheonette in downtown Tampa where they served breakfast and lunch. At Bern and Gert’s Little Midway, Mr. Laxer ran the kitchen while Mrs. Laxer greeted and waited on customers and handled all of the ordering and bookkeeping.
In 1956, the couple purchased a storefront on S Howard Avenue, the business that would eventually become their legacy: Bern’s Steak House. The restaurant became a local institution, known not just for its steaks and Mr. Laxer’s encyclopedic wine collection but for a timeless attention to detail and, above all, service.
Tampa restaurateur and close friend Richard Gonzmart credited Mr. and Mrs. Laxer for paving the way for Tampa dining entrepreneurs like himself.
“I hold them in such high esteem,” Gonzmart said. “The things that they did — today, I still shake my head. They were grinding their own flour. They were roasting their own coffee and making their own ice cream. They did things that other restaurants just got lazy about and weren’t doing.”
Gonzmart remembers how, before dinner service began at their restaurant, the Laxers would come by his family’s restaurant.
“They used to love to come to the Columbia before they would start the evening,” he recalled. “They would come at 2:30 in the afternoon, when nobody was around and we would just sit and chat.”
Gonzmart remembered Mrs. Laxer as a smart, stern, business-savvy woman.
“She was no-nonsense in business and very approachable in private,” Gonzmart said. "She didn’t put up anything about who she was or try to impress anybody — she didn’t have to.”
In 1964, Mrs. Laxer’s daughter, Julia, was born. Her son, David, followed a year later, in 1965. As the children grew older, Mrs. Laxer would work the dayshift, handling the bookkeeping and food and liquor purchasing before going home to take care of the kids while Mr. Laxer watched over the restaurant at night.
Dinners together at home were rare, but holidays were always celebrated, with someone usually having to make a run back to the restaurant before the night was over.
“I think growing up in the Depression era, all they knew was work and survival mode,” David Laxer said. “They worked a lot — my father would work all the time. So the time that we did have together was special.”
Laxer described his parent’s work relationship as a symbiotic one, with Mr. Laxer’s creativity fueling the growth of the business and Mrs. Laxer’s down-to-earth sensibility and business acumen keeping the restaurant profitable.
“They were a perfect pair for each other and they loved each other tremendously,” he said. “Because they grew (the restaurant) together and they each knew their roles, it really worked. She was as much responsible for the success of the restaurant as he was.”
As the years passed, Mrs. Laxer grew active in the Jewish community, and sat on the board for the Tampa Jewish Community Center. She was involved in fundraising and often volunteered at her children’s schools.
In 1993, Mr. Laxer was seriously injured in a car accident. In the years leading up to his death in 2002, Mrs. Laxer became his primary caregiver, tending to her husband day and night while also acting as a sounding board for her son, allowing him to bounce ideas off her as he took over his parents’ business.
Christina Laxer, David’s wife, remembered her mother-in-law as always putting her family above everything else.
“She was so devoted to Bern, she took such amazing care of him and was always by his side,” she said. “Just a strong, wonderful woman that I look up to in so many ways.”
Throughout her life, though Mrs. Laxer remained a very private person, she enjoyed time spent with her family and loved watching her granddaughters Ellie, Aimee and Bebe grow up. She enjoyed music and games like solitaire and would always look forward to her Sunday newspaper and the crossword puzzles, David Laxer said.
Mrs. Laxer was also passionate about organic gardening. Her son still remembers the early morning trips she would take to the farmers market on Saturdays, sometimes getting up as early as 5 a.m. to get the best produce. On other weekends, she would load him and his sister into the family station wagon and they would drive around Carrollwood looking for grass clippings to use for the garden compost.
Even later in life, David Laxer remembers her loving any chance to get out into her garden, and said she never forgot her humble roots.
“She liked getting dressed up, but I think she was more comfortable outside,” he said. “In her garden with her big floppy hat on, a pair of work gloves on and her flip-flops.”