Columbia’s Centennial A Family Affair

His old Columbia Restaurant Group business card used to read: Richard Gonzmart, “CEO/President.” His new one: Richard Gonzmart, “Fourth Generation.”

It speaks volumes.

Gonzmart, 51, remains the out-front presence and the day-to-day operator of the CRG, whose crown jewel is the Columbia Restaurant, the iconic anchor of Ybor City. He’s also co-owner with his brother Casey, 56. But what is underscored by the new card is that this is a successful FAMILY business. It’s also the sort of symbolic gesture you make when your family business is celebrating its centennial.

“When I was younger, titles were important,” Gonzmart recalls. “But what is really important is my duty to prepare the next generation to succeed.”

That fifth generation already includes his daughters, Lauren, 28, and Andrea, 25. Lauren heads the retail sales (gift shops) department; Andrea presides over a new inventory- and food-costs software program.

Much has happened over the generations since the Columbia Restaurant was founded –as a 60-seat corner café — in 1905 by Gonzmart’s great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. Back then it was known for its Cuban coffee and Cuban sandwiches and served mainly cigar workers. Now it’s famous for its paella , caldo gallego soup and 1905 salad; renowned for its worldly wine list; and acclaimed for its flamenco dance troupe. As the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, it has become a must-dine experience for out-of-town and international visitors. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano visited; so did Marilyn Monroe, Stephen King and George Clooney.

Today it spans an entire city block, encompassing more than 52,000 square feet. It can seat 1,700 diners in its 15 dining rooms. A recent $6.5-million expansion and renovation resulted in a state-of-the-art kitchen plus new dining rooms, wine cellars and air conditioning system.

Also expanding over the years has been the number of restaurants. The Columbia family flag is now planted in Sarasota, St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Celebration. The newest is opening in the first quarter of ’05 in West Palm Beach.

Further forays into the modern marketplace range from the hiring of key, non-family personnel and the implementation of a 401k plan to the establishment of training programs and standardized recipes.

“At a certain point we had to change the culture,” acknowledges Gonzmart. “In a family business, you often see ownership using the business as a personal bank account.”My brother and I now draw a salary like everybody else,” he notes. “We hired a CFO nine years ago to bring us into the 21st century. We never had a budget. Now it’s all about re-investing in all our units and our people.”

It’s also about a long-running synergy with Ybor City. Both the Columbia’s and Ybor’s fortunes have been intertwined over the decades. During The Depression, Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. spurred business in the Latin Quarter by building the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa. During the ruinous days of urban renewal, Richard’s father, Cesar Gonzmart, began bringing in top Latin entertainment.

“Back in the ’60s, the Columbia was the only thing drawing people to Ybor,” says former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. “Had the Columbia gone away, I don’t know if Ybor could have stayed alive. But Cesar always hung in, never gave up and his kids have the same attitude.”

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