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Dream catcher

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  • | 3:26 p.m. July 26, 2013
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Some look at the former Water Works building and see an abandoned brick warehouse in a rundown neighborhood north of downtown Tampa. Not Columbia Restaurant Group President Richard Gonzmart.

He envisions Ulele, a lively indoor-outdoor waterfront restaurant with a Native American theme that will serve beer brewed with water from the nearby Ulele Spring, which is named after the 16th century Native American Princess Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee).

Columbia Restaurant Group, started in 1905 by Gonzmart's great-grandfather Casimiro Hernandez, a Cuban immigrant, is investing $4 million to create Ulele. It is expected to open in the spring.

That's about twice as much as Gonzmart expected to spend on renovations.

“Sometimes you have to be a pioneer, but you have to remember that pioneers often got killed,” Gonzmart says.

Some have understandably questioned such a large investment in a blighted area. Columbia Restaurant Group's CFO Dennis Fedorovich is among those who expressed concern.

“I told him there's more to business and life than money,” Gonzmart says. “If it was a public company, they probably wouldn't think it's a good investment. But it's an investment in our community we believe in. I think it will be a spark plug for the area.”

City leaders agree. That's why they leased the building to Columbia for $1 a year with an option to buy. By mid-2015, a walkway along the Hillsborough River will connect the Straz Center downtown to the restaurant.

Gonzmart, who has worked for his family's company since he was a boy, acknowledges he's chasing a dream in Ulele. But he's also following the advice of his great-grandfather, who said it was important to support the community.

For Gonzmart, it's a business philosophy that has worked: The company has survived 108 years — 40 of those years with Richard Gonzmart as boss. This year's same-store sales were the best ever, he says.

“This project, I've dreamt about it for a long time,” Gonzmart says.

Gonzmart, 60, takes a personal interest in Tampa Heights. His grandparents once lived there and he and his brother, Casey, chairman of the business, were born at St. Joseph's Hospital when it was in Tampa Heights.

“To me it's not a risk, it's a mission,” he says of Ulele.

Ulele will partner with local schools and groups, including DW Waters High School, a school for at-risk teens, to teach culinary skills to students who will then get a chance to work at Ulele and other restaurants.

Says Ulele Managing Partner Keith Sedita, “We're not just building the restaurant, we're helping this community.”

No more chicken and rice
Gonzmart oversees the Columbia's seven locations, including the oldest restaurant in Sarasota at the city's tony St. Armands Circle, and the Columbia Restaurant Cafe at Tampa International Airport.

In the 1980s, he created a new concept, Cha Cha Coconuts. That restaurant is more casual than the Columbia. Shorts and flip flops are welcome.

With the recent closing of Cha Cha's at the St. Petersburg Pier, only one of the restaurants remains, at St. Armands Circle.

For years, there has been talk of the Columbia expanding to Atlanta and Fort Myers. Columbia management has been talking to Fort Myers leaders about two sites, including one on a riverfront, Gonzmart says.

But Gonzmart is concerned about the seasonality of business in Fort Myers where so many residents return north in the summer.

“The site they're showing me is very exciting,” he says. “I wouldn't talk to them if I wasn't interested. I wouldn't waste their time.”

These days, Gonzmart is busy tending to a myriad of details for Ulele. While Beck construction crews work on the building, Gonzmart and Sedita, a former Outback Steakhouse manager, and chef Erick Lackey are busy creating and tasting new dishes, such as sauteed garlic and seaweed (which you won't see on the menu — it didn't pass the taste test.)

Ulele is expected to feature a 10-foot round barbacoa for cooking meat. The menu will feature seafood, including fish species that swim in the Hillsborough River ,and oysters and blue crabs.

Gonzmart says it's fun and exciting to create a totally new menu. He has tired of being pigeonholed by those who think he only knows Spanish-Italian dishes.

“They say, 'Oh, just what we need, another Columbia, serving 1905 chicken and yellow rice, two miles apart,” he says. “It just drives me crazy. It's close-minded people who don't think you can't do something else.”

Mind you, the Columbia's menu features more than chicken and rice. And Gonzmart frets over every item on the menu, including the Pompano en Papillot, Snapper Alicante and the Cuban sandwich.

Several years ago he reinvented the Cuban sandwich, changing it to how the Columbia made it in 1941. It took him two years to find the right Genoa salami.

This month, he canceled a scheduled Ulele food tasting after the chef emailed the menu to others without consulting him first.

“I'm a control freak,” he says. “I really don't want anyone else involved with the menus.”

He also does it his way — even in the face of adversity.

Gonzmart is a big fan of the company's CFO, who joined the business 18 years ago.

Fedorovich helped Gonzmart save the restaurant company in the 1990s. Still Gonzmart has no trouble listening to Fedorovich and then doing it his own way.

During the recent recession, the CFO and other well-wishers, including a college business professor, told Gonzmart to slash costs to save the company.

“They told me I had to change the way I did business; I couldn't give away what I did,” he says. “And that we had to reduce our portions and lower our prices.”

Instead, Gonzmart found more money for capital improvements and charitable giving: He spent $1 million to add a dining room to the St. Augustine location and he began reinventing the Columbia's menu to improve quality.

He thought of his great-grandfather, who gave away money and food to people who didn't have jobs during the Great Depression. “He said, 'When business was slow, you had to show strength and confidence in your company and in your community.'”

Gonzmart — who has received numerous awards from civic and business organizations — stepped up charitable donations.

The first year of his efforts, same-store sales were flat, but not down.

In each of the past six years, sales have increased at all locations, he says.

Year-over-year sales were up 36% in June 2012, Gonzmart says. This June, sales were up another 27%. He declined to disclose revenues or profit.

“Every year was the best year ever in every one of our stores,” he says. “If you're in it for the short term, then ultimately you're not going to be successful.”

Like all business leaders, Gonzmart has made mistakes. But he says that's the only way to grow and to improve.

And at the restaurant level, mistakes are made, but servers are empowered to respond quickly.

“If it gets to me, it's too late,” he say. “It's hard to fix it.”

Reinventing to survive
One of his biggest lessons came after his father's death in 1992.

“You have to have confidence in the product you sell,” he says. “And I didn't have confidence in the product I sold when my dad was alive.”

Gonzmart also didn't know how much the business owed, how much food items cost or much else of the company's finances.

Business was different when his father, Cesar Gonzmart, a concert violinist, ran the Columbia. He didn't believe in hiring professional managers, and the only accountants he trusted were those who told him what he wanted to hear, Gonzmart says.

The Columbia was struggling to survive.

In steps Fedorovich, a CPA. He provided a detailed financial report on the business three days after he was hired in 1996.

“We had to reinvent the company,” says Gonzmart.

The CFO presented the company's first budget to management that January. Toward the end of the meeting, Gonzmart told the general managers that if they met certain goals, he'd take them and their spouses on a 10-day cruise to Spain.

No one thought Gonzmart was serious.

“Everyone was like, 'sure you're going to do that,'” he says.

Within five to six months, it was obvious each store was exceeding its goal. He says, “We're hitting every number, blowing it out of the water.”

That summer Gonzmart wrote to the spouses of his general managers, telling them they probably already knew they were going to Spain in January, but they should make sure they had passports and babysitters.

“Of course no one had told anybody,” he says. “They all come back and say, 'Why did you do that?'”

He has taken the group, about 20 in all, on a cruise each year since.

“We've never missed a budget since,” he adds. “You have to entrust your people and treat them like family.”

This past year, Gonzmart didn't sign the group up for the trip. He expected the economy to tank in an election year.

He was wrong.

The group is taking a 10-day cruise from Barcelona to Sicily to Valencia.

While he often hears managers' complaints about the restaurant industry's “corporate invasion,” he says it doesn't worry him.

“We just have to be better than them and we have to care,” he says. “How many corporations are going to do that?”


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