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The Columbia Restaurant’s Richard Gonzmart, retiring? Can it be?

The legendary restauranteur says he’ll stop in a few years. “But nobody believes him,” his daughter says.
Richard Gonzmart, fourth-generation caretaker of the Columbia Restaurant Group, speaks to attendees of the April 28 Familia Martinez Bujanda wine dinner at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor.
Richard Gonzmart, fourth-generation caretaker of the Columbia Restaurant Group, speaks to attendees of the April 28 Familia Martinez Bujanda wine dinner at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor. [ The Columbia Restaurant ]
Published Jun. 4

TAMPA — Richard Gonzmart, 69, fourth generation co-owner of the historic Columbia Restaurant and the company’s other 13 restaurants, is handing over more of the daily tasks to his daughter.

Andrea Gonzmart Williams, 43, is increasingly becoming the face of the family’s famous restaurant.

Richard Gonzmart has said he plans to retire at age 72, the age of his father, Cesar Gonzmart, when he died.

”But nobody believes him,’’ says Andrea Gonzmart Williams.

This is the second part of the Tampa Bay Times’ conversation with Richard Gonzmart, who talked about what the servers need to know, the struggle to get the company out of debt, and his two beloved bodyguards, the burly German shepherds Quentin and Pascha.

Related: PART 1: Growing up in the Columbia Restaurant and serving a Tampa mob boss
• • •

You’ve said in the past that the business was in trouble when you and your brother took over.

When my dad passed away in ‘92, December 9th, he had made my brother (Casey Gonzmart Sr.) and me co-presidents. He had a CFO (chief financial officer). I called him the chief disaster officer because he could not provide profit and loss statements. He did not have things organized. He would provide what my dad wanted to see, and I wanted to know what’s factual.

In 1995 I found out that he had gone through our reserves ... and was trying to get a bridge loan from a bank that called me to tell me, “Did you know you had not paid sales tax?” What? And we had not paid vendors, we had not paid mortgages. We were in foreclosure, we were being evicted. I was told there was no way I would make it.

I had to take over and I met with every vendor. Flew down to Miami to see Ed Sternlieb, whose family owned Henry Lee (Co.), food distributors, with my new CFO.

Richard Gonzmart, left, is the fourth-generation caretaker of the Columbia Restaurant Group. His daughter Andrea Gonzmart Williams, 43, is taking on a greater role in the family business.
Richard Gonzmart, left, is the fourth-generation caretaker of the Columbia Restaurant Group. His daughter Andrea Gonzmart Williams, 43, is taking on a greater role in the family business. [ The Columbia Restaurant ]

Everybody was dressed in suits, like 12 people, and I had to tell them what my situation was. We owed them $780,000. I said, “Mr. Sternlieb, as I stand before you, I’m embarrassed.” I said, “If you’ll give me terms over three years, I will stay current.” And they looked at each other (like), what do we have to lose?

They did, and I stayed current. I did pay it in 36 months. ... I met with every vendor that could have pulled the trigger. I met weekly with the state of Florida, which could have arrested me any day. They could have locked up all the restaurants. And for some reason they trusted me.

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We had to make changes. And (Outback Steakhouse founder) Chris Sullivan one day had told me prior to this, he didn’t know why we gave away the 1905 salad. We should charge for it. That’s the first thing I did. … Cokes were ridiculously inexpensive (compared to) what the competition was charging. And just raising the price of Cokes was going to generate another $200,000 in sales.

• • •

What do you tell your staff about serving customers?

I read a book, “Yes is the Answer. What is the Question?” Just say yes to the guest, whatever they might want. It’s one of those things right now toward the end of my day-to-day tenure that I’m trying to get across, that people have special needs or wants and why not just do it for them? I dislike when restaurants say that they can’t do this.

It’s really important to listen to the guest’s expectations and to meet it. I just really dislike that word “no.” I hate the word “no parking.”

So anything we do, we try not to have the word “no.” “Columbia Restaurant parking only,” that’s a way of saying “no parking” (laughs).

Related: Under the minarets, teaching history at Tampa’s Henry B. Plant Museum
• • •

You’ve said in the past that you don’t sleep much.

No, I don’t sleep much. I wake up between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. ... I had a teacher, a priest at Jesuit (High School, who) told me I should get up at 4 in the morning to study. You need to understand, I was dyslexic and had (attention deficit disorder). Early in the morning is when I best can focus. I like the solitude. I’m a person of great faith — I meditate.

Your father said in an interview that every morning when he came to work, he ate Cuban bread with olive spread on it. Do you have any rituals like that?

Richard Gonzmart shows off his Tampa restaurant Casa Santo Stefano in October 2020.
Richard Gonzmart shows off his Tampa restaurant Casa Santo Stefano in October 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Olive sandwich. After my dad died I went to his grave and I took an olive sandwich with me. I didn’t bite it till I got there. I said, “Dad, this is just horrible. This is just terrible.” I kept saying, “I can’t eat this. How did you eat that?”

I have rituals. As a child I had cafe con leche with Cuban toast. I make cafe con leche when I wake up. I wait to have coffee at five in the morning and then another one at seven. So I do three about 8 ounces of coffee. I don’t do any more after 10 o’clock.

Related: Teaching rookies the right way to ride a motorcycle
• • •

You have your German shepherds, Pascha and Quentin, here in the office. Why do you like that breed?

My mother and I were held up at gunpoint at the house. And I heard my mom screaming that they dislocated her shoulder, and a guy came around the corner with a gun at my head and said he was going to kill me if I didn’t leave, and I walked out. We got a German shepherd then named Hobo. And then when Hobo died when I was away in college — it broke my heart — we bought another dog, named Blanco, a German shepherd.

As long as my parents had German shepherds they were never held up. … So I have a fear for my safety. So I keep two dogs, always. I have two in Germany right now training. As nice as they are, you see where this one (Quentin) is? He’s by my side. He goes with me to the barber shop and Luis (the barber), he takes out this chrome dryer. I said, “Luis, put your hand down,” because it looked like a gun. He’s holding it like a gun. (Quentin) thinks it’s a gun, and he’s up. I said “Luis, put your hand down.” He said, “I don’t think I’m going to dry your hair today.”

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