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Restaurateur Richard Gonzmart eyes future of his empire

Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, sits at the bar at Goody Goody, which opens Tuesday in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village. Resurrecting the iconic and beloved Tampa landmark, which closed in 2005, is Gonzmart’s latest venture.
Published Aug. 19, 2016

TAMPA

He has been called the triple-threat restaurateur. But Richard Gonzmart's ambitions aren't limited to the 113-year-old Columbia Restaurant chain, the ever-crowded Ulele and the Tampa throwback Goody Goody, which will open Tuesday in Hyde Park Village.

The 63-year-old plans to add two new restaurants to his empire next year: An old-fashioned seafood restaurant on Longboat Key south of Bradenton, and a Sicilian restaurant in Ybor City. In 2018, he intends to open a culinary school on N Florida Avenue in Tampa, followed by another restaurant that would open next door. Also in the pipeline is a new "coffee concept," plus another addition to Ybor City that he "can't get into right now." He is considering another Cha Cha Coconuts as well.

In a corner booth at his newest restaurant, Goody Goody, Tampa Bay Times reporter Alli Knothe sat down with Gonzmart and his right-hand man, Mike Kilgore, to understand where this flurry of activity is coming from, and why it's happening now.

You have a lot going on these days. Are you still waking up before 4 a.m.?

That's late for me. I'm tired today. I've been waking up every day at 1:30. I got to bed around 11 last night. I went home just before here and I think I got 10 minutes in. Sleep seems highly overrated. Today I've hit the wall. People say I should take it easy and I say, "Well, why?"

Why don't you take it easy?

What happens with restaurants is they don't change with the trends. My father said never to get caught up in fads. You have to anticipate what the public is looking for. Some family businesses use (the business) as a personal bank account. They don't reinvest into their business because they're taking money out. I had to change that entire culture after my father died. My father had a lot of goals and wishes and one of the things was to be debt-free. We were in a bad situation. We had deferred the maintenance of our buildings. The kitchen in Ybor City was 65 or 70 years old.

How bad was it?

To the point one bank gave me two weeks to move my accounts out of the bank. I found out the CFO I had hadn't paid out the mortgage on the property and they were going to foreclose it. We hadn't paid sales tax for $280,000. We hadn't paid our major vendor in months and owed him $700,000.

So you were in severe debt, dealing with the death of your father and became the patriarch of your family ...

I was days from being homeless and losing everything I had. People don't understand how serious it was. Nobody would loan me money so I had to work my a-- off. I cut my pay and the family pay and sold my cars and drove a pickup truck. I hired a CFO who was responsible. I explained to him my situation and he comes to me with a white face and we knew where we were. My goal was to be debt-free. It's what my dad always wanted.

Everything we do is cash now. You know where hotels make the lobbies look pretty but the beds were lumpy? Well, I had to take care of the back of the house to produce the product. Because why would people come to my restaurant if I fixed the rooms up and haven't improved the plant to produce the food. We invested over $2 million in the kitchen (in Ybor) ... All out of cash. Once we got each one of our restaurants back up to speed, Ulele came about.

My father said the most important thing is learn or fail.

I'm doing research on Sicily and doing research on wines. Tampa was founded by the Spanish, Cubans and Sicilians. I'm going there to bring back those foods that we had once upon a time because it doesn't exist now.

What did you work on last night?

We did menu research for the restaurant on Longboat Key. My brother didn't want to do it, my wife told me again that I lost my mind. My father loved this restaurant. Loved it. We're going to walk in over glass over the water and we're going to have it lit up at nighttime so you can have the fish in there. I can't say anymore though. We're working as fast as we can. That was a lot of money. I hope to have everything approved by December. I'm beyond excited for this one.

It seems like in the last five years or so you've had incredible energy. Your family has been around for years and years and years and all of a sudden you have all these new projects. How?

I've had this energy all my life. I was always doing something. I was rebuilding restaurants we had and reinvesting back in. Now what's happening is I'm focusing all my energy in Tampa.

It seems like Goody Goody is ready to open and you're already onto the next thing.

Yes, this is to relax me.

That doesn't make any sense.

Well, I've been online buying stuff for the new locations. Look, you go into the Sicilian restaurant and you'd think it's an antique gallery.

I mean right now, here's the deal: My dad died at 72 years old. A friend of ours that we do business with, Miguel Torres, put it in his bylaws he would retire at 72. I hear he's working as hard as ever to pass (the business) to the next generation. If the Lord allows me to live that long, it's time to do something else. At that point I'll go coach. That's my plan. Here's the pressure: I have nine years.

Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.

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