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Restaurateur details pandemic's toll, how he plans to stay in business

Richard Gonzmart says crisis preparation will help his company survive the pandemic, but lack of human contact is a struggle.

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  • | 7:00 a.m. April 14, 2020
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File. To help his company survive the COVID-19 pandemic, Richard Gonzmart, head of the Columbia Restaurant Group, isn't taking a salary and has given back his 2019 profit share.
File. To help his company survive the COVID-19 pandemic, Richard Gonzmart, head of the Columbia Restaurant Group, isn't taking a salary and has given back his 2019 profit share.
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Company: Columbia Restaurant Group, Tampa

Locations: 12, under the brands Columbia, Ulele, Goody Goody and Cha Cha Coconuts

Employees: 1,400

Executive: Richard Gonzmart

Title: President 

Work situation: I’m still going in the office, properly masked and quarantined in my office. Obviously, all of our streetside restaurants are closed for now. I am visiting all of our projects now undergoing improvements and construction, like the new insulated roof being installed at Ulele and the termite tenting at our St. Augustine location. I’m also very excited about the new dish and glass washers we’re installing at the Columbia in Ybor City. To be Florida’s oldest restaurant with the most modern dish room is a big deal to me, even if it's something our guests will never see.

Biggest challenge with the current work setup: Well, obviously, I miss seeing everyone. We have team members who have worked for the restaurants for 10, 20, 30 and even 58 years. Also, communication is more difficult because I learned a long time ago that looking someone in the eye and shaking hands is better than any contract or email. Obviously, that’s a challenge right now.

Most important lesson you've learned so far during this time: I’m reminded, again, that you need a crisis plan before you have a crisis and that the best defense during difficult times is a strong team. I have been planning for a crisis like this over the last 25 years. We are ready.

Books, articles, TV shows, podcasts and/or audiobooks you've focused on: There’s not really time for any entertainment right now. I’m spending every waking moment (and some nonwaking moments) figuring how to best get through this. I am reviewing communications from other businesses that I admire to see how they might apply to us.

How far out into the future are you looking? In Spain, they take the long view. I’ve always said that short term to me is 10 years. That said, we’re looking at short-term managing through this crisis and reopening and then surveying the new landscape once restaurants are allowed to reopen. But we are making large long-term investments in our company while we have the opportunity. We know there will be a pent-up demand to dine out again. In what numbers and how fast they return are questions we have to resolve.

How do you maintain your spirit/morale when everything has changed? I look at the examples from our 115-year-old history, at the way my grandfather got through the Spanish Flu outbreak, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the way my father and mother got through Ybor City urban renewal in the 1950s and even the financial issues that I inherited in 1995. Every generation of our family business has faced moments of crisis when survival was not guaranteed. But we got through them all with hard work, good ideas, effective teamwork and some "impossible" dreams. Also, I’m a man of great faith. So during the Lenten season, I attend or stream daily Mass, and during this Holy Week, I’m reading even more scripture than normal for comfort and perspective. Together, we’ll get through this.

Exercise or stress relief: “Allowing” my two German Shepherds to take me for a walk. I probably should take this time to exercise more, but I’ve been spending all my time on the business.

Favorite meal to eat at home: Breakfast: two eggs over easy, with home fries and bacon or Italian sausage. Dinner: homemade yellow rice and chicken or spaghetti with meatballs with homemade “fresh tomato” sauce.

Have you taken a pay cut or made any personal sacrifices, financial or otherwise, for the good of the company and its survival? I’m not taking a salary, and I turned back my ownership profit share for all of 2019, one of our most successful years. I will do whatever it takes to preserve this family business and to take care of our team members.


Click the links below to hear how more regional executives are handling the shutdowns.


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