Maybe it’s the collection of guitars or the enormous number of awards and newspaper clippings surrounding his office but walking into Richard Gonzmart’s world is telling.
His mind darts around and his ideas are large and vivid.
He’s a passionate philanthropist, a devoted father and husband, a genius restaurateur—we all know this already—and so much more.
It’s a challenge to find stories untold about him. He loves his German shepherds and takes them nearly everywhere, he doesn’t sleep a lot—he doesn’t need to, he says. The story of the Columbia is well documented.
What else could we possibly uncover in the two hours we spoke with him? The tender, and humorous, relationship he has with his daughter, Andrea Gonzmart Williams. She, along with her cousin, Casey Gonzmart Jr., stands ready to take the reins when Richard, someday, reduces his daily workload.
Together, they are leading the charge of the Columbia Restaurant, as well as the other family of restaurants under its roster. The Columbia is among 14 restaurants and six brands under the umbrella of the 1905 Family of Restaurants, which had more than 2.4 million customers in 2022.
The latest in the lineup of dining properties is the soon-to-come Buccaneer, which is a concept near and dear to the Gonzmart family’s heart. The previous iteration of it, which closed in 1992, was the favorite restaurant of Richard’s parents.
It’s Richard’s last major restaurant project, he says. Andrea just smiles, knowingly, when he says these things. The beauty of the father, daughter dynamic.
THE 1905 STORY
It would be unfitting not to recap the rich history steeped into the Columbia Restaurant in a story about the fourth, and now fifth, -generation leadership.
Richard Gonzmart’s great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., a Spanish-Cuban immigrant, arrived in Tampa in 1902 with his family, including his four young sons, searching for a better life.
“I wonder what my great grandfather was thinking when he left his native country of Cuba, in the late 1890s, with four sons, not knowing the language and having little education to come here, looking for an opportunity,” says Richard.
In 1903, Hernandez helped to establish the Columbia Saloon, which later was renamed as the Columbia Restaurant, in 1905. A number that comes up a lot in the Columbia lexicon.
Now, 120 years later, the 1905 Family of Restaurants has expanded its footprint and includes Ulele, Casa Santo Stefano, Goody Goody Burgers, Cha Cha Coconuts and Café Con Leche Ybor City at the airport. In 2022, the collective group of restaurants surpassed $100 million in annual sales.
The Columbia now has seven locations in Florida and is still owned, and operated, by descendants of Hernandez.
On some accounts, it is said to be the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.
But it all started with a saloon, in Ybor City, at the turn of the century.
The story goes, in December 1903, Hernandez opened a small saloon on the corner of 22nd St. and Broadway (now Seventh Avenue), which quickly became a “local watering hole” for cigar workers in Tampa’s Latin Quarter, Ybor City.
Richard’s grandfather, Casimiro Jr., was a part of the second generation that worked for the family business.
“My grandfather was known to work 24 hours a day and would be found taking naps standing up,” Richard recalls.
The third generation included Richard’s parents Cesar Gonzmart and Adela Hernandez Gonzmart.
Richard remembers spending a lot of time at the restaurant when he was a child.
“I have these fun memories. The Columbia kitchen was our playground,” he says.
He recounts a story of being frightened as a three-year-old by whole fish in the walk-in refrigerator with its teeth visible and its eyes looking at him.
“I ran out screaming and the chef started laughing at me,” Richard says, laughing at the memory.
“Then he takes me back and explains to me, ‘You need to look in the eyes for the clarity. The gills should be dark, red and moist and the flesh should be firm.”
Richard’s new job, maybe his first, was to check the fish for freshness, every Friday.
“Honest to goodness, I thought it was really my job,” he says. “I felt like such a big boy.”
One day, Richard made his way to the kitchen to do “his job” and found a bunch of fish missing their heads.
“I started crying, ‘I can’t tell if the fish are fresh, there are no heads,’” he says, laughing now. “Everybody laughed at me. I remember that so well.”
THE FIFTH GENERATION
Andrea describes her childhood as “very normal.” Unlike her father, she didn’t spend a lot of time at the restaurant during her childhood. Her mother was the caregiver of the Gonzmart home and Andrea says with her father working so much, she didn’t see him often.
“I really didn’t have a relationship with my father until I was older,” she says. “Mom would cook dinner for us every night. We ate normal stuff.”
At 10 years old, she began to spend more time at her father’s business. At first, it was filing paperwork and helping with office tasks.
“As a child, the most time I spent at the restaurant was when we lived in St. Augustine,” Andrea says.
The family lived there, while Richard opened that location of the Columbia, in 1983.
Now, as a mother to a daughter, she encourages her own daughter to roam the halls when at the Columbia so she can capture memories of exploring the nooks and crannies of the building, with the imagination that, often, only a child has.
“My mom is sometimes like, ‘Where’s Amelia [Andrea’s daughter]?” And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. She’s somewhere around here.’ I’m not worried, there are, like, 100 people watching her.”
Andrea, upon reaching the age she could, eventually, became a hostess at the Columbia. That was her job every summer.
“I would work for maybe three to four weeks and then I would ask [Richard] if I can quit,” she says. “He would let me go and release me for the summer.”
During high school, she began to run the cashier booth. “I don’t know how you would trust a 17-year-old to do every single transaction. It’s scary they trusted me with that,” she adds laughing.
Andrea moved on to college at the University of South Florida, studying business management.
“When I graduated, we talked about me getting experience elsewhere, but when it came down to it, I didn’t really want to. And my father said, ‘Yeah, I really don’t want you to either.’ I felt like it was going to be time that would be wasted not learning about my own company.”
From then on, Andrea became a staple at the Columbia. Learning the ropes from her father and, yes, being prepared for the day when dad would finally retire, but that road was long in the distance. They had work to do together, first.
“I wanted her to work with me. We understand our business. We understand what it takes,” Richard says. “She understands that when a child comes in, that child may have never been to a restaurant before and they’ll remember, and they’ll come back … it’s about the memories.”
THE GOAT OF GONZMART
While similar in a lot of ways, Richard and Andrea do have their differences—a dynamic that serves them well in business.
Andrea is a very extroverted, gregarious person. Often seen in public with her bright flowers adorning her signature bun.
Richard appears extroverted but is much more content moving through places unnoticed. He goes to galas and fundraisers, a bit reluctantly, because the attention he receives can make him somewhat uncomfortable.
Andrea is pragmatic and does her best to stay on track with budgets and deadlines, Richard, ever the dreamer, has the vision and once he sees it, there is no changing his mind … he said often in his interview, “I just figure it out …”
The Buccaneer, Richard’s latest restaurant project, and one he has said will be his last major restaurant project in his career, is being designed to pay homage to the Buccaneer Inn, which closed in 1992. It was his parents’ favorite restaurant.
Located on Longboat Key, in the former location of Pattigeorge’s, the new restaurant has been proposed for 4120 Gulf of Mexico Drive, just north of Bayfront Park. It is expected to have 196 seats and 10-13 boat slips. No opening date for the Buccaneer has been announced as of time of publication for this story.
Ever the visionary, Richard does not use a designer for decorating any of his restaurants. And, with the Buccaneer being his newest “passion project,” he’s not backing down from what he’s seen in his mind.
“It’s going to be the greatest restaurant I have built,” Richard says, matter-of-factly. “It will be unique. It has to be. It can’t be like anything else.”
He is hesitant to share too many details with the public, just yet. “People steal my ideas,” he says, sort of joking, but also still protective. He has obtained an old menu from the Buccaneer, but that is also something he’s not ready to share yet.
A few things he was willing to share were plans for a living shoreline, which he is working with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium to design. As a testament to his mind for details, he has an exceptional vision for the bathrooms.
“When you go inside the bathroom, it’s going to be a window, but it will be a screen, and it will be a video of the beach throughout the day, reflecting how it looks outside,” Richard says. His excitement is palpable.
“I’m trying to scale it back because we’re so over budget, but he keeps coming back to this bathroom,” Andrea says.
In typical Richard fashion, his reply? “I got it figured out.”
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
There are specific ways of doing things at the Columbia. Richard likes to make his way around the restaurant to observe and note anything that isn’t being handled properly.
“I learned a lot from my grandfather, and a lot from my father, and it’s been my job to teach [Andrea] everything. None of us are as strong as all of us,” Richard says. “It’s about the community that supports us, and we support them.” Somewhat surprisingly, as many would assume a tremendous amount of tourism traffic, Richard shares that more than 80% of its business is from locals.
“When I take my last breath, whenever that is, I want to know I did everything I possibly could within my power to make this a better place for the world and for my daughters,” Richard says.
Philanthropy runs deep for the Gonzmart family.
When Richard was in first grade, he took $20 in tuition money his mother had given him and donated it to orphans in Central America.
“A month later, the school called my mom because my tuition hadn’t been paid,” Richard says. “She asks me, ‘Well what did you do with it?’ I told her I gave it to the children because they were orphans. She cried. It made me realize I was doing something good, and I prayed to God to give me the courage, strength and wisdom to help others.”
Richard’s Father’s Day Walk & Jog is an annual event benefiting Moffitt Cancer Center. As of publication, the walk had raised $915,000 for Moffitt in nine years. This year’s event, on June 18, will push that total to more than $1 million.
Although the run has many vendors as sponsors, “What a lot of people don’t realize is that many of his donations are him, personally, donating along with my mom,” Andrea says.
The giving heart is something that was passed down from her parents.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she and others in the Columbia management team decided to do something to assist the staff through the months when the restaurants were greatly impacted.
“I wanted to do something bigger, to really give them something that would significantly make a difference,” Andrea says.
The Columbia dipped into its pockets and helped employees make rent, car payments, whatever they needed, as much as they could. The company also sold gift cards to the public to raise money for an employee assistance fund.
Andrea lobbied to her father that it continue the internal giveback program. Now, the program is a fixture in the charitable programs the Columbia partakes in.
When they aren’t busy running a family of restaurants, the Gonzmarts are running as a family.
Richard and Andrea’s relationship blossomed when they began running marathons together.
She estimates that since training together, they’ve run nine marathons. Richard, alone, has participated in the Boston Marathon four times.
“It gives us a lot of time to spend together,” Andrea says.
While there is always business to handle, Richard and Andrea have learned a great deal from one another over the years.
“You can’t force your child to do something if they don’t like it. If they don’t love it, they won’t succeed,” Richard says. “Nobody ever forced me to do this [work], and I never forced her.”
For Andrea, it’s about pride. Pride for her family and the legacy it has built.
“I don’t want to see a day that I walk into a Columbia Restaurant and I can’t say that I’m the fifth generation. I don’t want to see that day,” Andrea says. “It’s my home. Being in that restaurant and talking to people about my restaurant and about my family, it’s my favorite thing.”
Richard has shared publicly that the day is nearing when he won’t be in the office every day.
“I established that, at age 72, I would step away,” he says.
Andrea adds, “It has gone from retiring, to ‘stepping away,’ ” she says, with a hint of “I’ll believe it when I see it” implied.
She continues, “It’s not going to happen. He can’t help it. I’ll be like, why are you here? Get out of my office.” Andrea and Richard share a good laugh at that one.
One thing Richard wants to do in his free time is work more with children with learning disabilities.
Richard learned at the age of 43 that he was dyslexic and had ADHD.
“I’ve taught myself how to figure things out. I can’t remember a verse. I can’t remember lyrics to songs. I can remember numbers. I drive people crazy,” he says.
Even after he reduces his workload, the truth is he will never be too far away. Andrea and her father are next-door neighbors, after all.
Toward the end of our time together, Richard moves over to his desk and brings us a small card with handwriting on it.
“I read this at my mom’s funeral on December 24, 2001. It’s from George Bernard Shaw. It says, ‘I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. The harder I work, the more I love, I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me, sort of a splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment. I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations,’” Richard says, as he gets emotional. “I read this every day.”
The Columbia runs through the veins of the Gonzmarts. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life and has been for, as of now, five generations.
And, again, it all started with a small saloon, in Ybor City, that renamed itself Columbia Restaurant, in 1905.♦
Photos by Pamella Lee