‘2016 will make 2015 look slow.’ – Richard Gonzmart, Columbia Restaurant Group CEO and President
Fourth Generation Co-Owner and President of the Columbia Restaurant Group
Meal: All specials — sample of the vegan stew, the Mediterranean-style burger (with spinach, red peppers and goat cheese) and a scoop of house-made lime ice cream.
From the outside, it looks like 2015 was a really good year for you and the Columbia Restaurant Group. You personally received numerous awards –
- 2015 Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts IMPACT award
- 2015 Tampa Bay Ethics Award from The University of Tampa's Center for Ethics
- 2015 Luminaries Award from The Junior League of Tampa and WEDU
- 2015 Community Hero from The Tampa Bay Lightning
- 2015 Visionary Award on behalf of the Foundation Fighting Blindness
- Member of the Tampa Bay Business Journal Power 100
- One of 25 To Watch in 2015 – Tampa Bay Times
That’s a lifetime of awards for many … how does that make you feel?
It was a pretty good year. And I’m humbled. At one point, I jokingly asked if I was really sick and didn’t know it. But I’m disappointed we didn’t get Goody Goody open. It was really a goal to get that opened and completed and operating. But it was out of my hands. It’s a long-term process. So we’ll open in 2016. 2016 will make 2015 look slow.
Ulele is about 18 months old. This was a labor of love. How has the reality matched your vision?
The opening of Ulele has exceeded expectations beyond my wildest imagination!
You have a lot of other projects coming up. Let’s do a quick recap. You mentioned Goody Goody will open in Hyde Park Village this spring. It took you 10 years, off and on, to buy the Goody Goody brand, recipes, etc. Why didn’t you give up?
You never, never, ever give up on something you believe in. Before it closed, I told [owner] Michael Wheeler I wanted to buy it and I don’t think he thought I was serious. When they closed, it took awhile for him to understand my love for this iconic restaurant and the food of yesterday.
What’s the status of the expansion of the café at the airport Delta airside and the three additional restaurants in the Southwest airside? There are the second Tampa locations for Goody Goody and Ulele and a new concept Café con Leche Ybor …
The expansion of the café is important because originally we were shoehorned into an existing space. The kitchen was limited. The menu was limited. Now it will be more like the Columbia experience, although the café already was named One of the Best 35 Airport Restaurants. The iconic Goody Goody will offer its POX burgers (pickles, onions, sauce) and too-good-to-miss pies (butterscotch, coconut cream, banana cream, apple). Café con Leche Ybor will provide travelers a taste of Ybor City culture: Freshly roasted Ybor City Café con Leche with Cuban toast, (a traditional Ybor City Cuban breakfast), freshly made Spanish churros. And Ulele will showcase some of the Fresh From Florida® cuisine so popular at our Tampa Heights location.
How important was it for you to open a Columbia Café at the airport in 2012?
People don’t understand my perseverance in accomplishing my goals. It took me 18-19 years to get people to listen to me. It took [former Tampa Mayor] Pam Iorio to say “Listen, you need a taste of Tampa there.” It’s paid off for everybody – the airport, diners, visitors. It’s a taste of what made Tampa famous. And this is one of the top airports in the world.
Any update on St. Petersburg now that the former Pier which had both a Columbia and a Cha Cha Coconuts?
Nothing new. We’re anxiously awaiting the next RFP from the city.
You’ve also announced plans for a non-profit culinary school in fall 2016. What does that look like as you envision it? What’s your motivation to do that?
To give people an education and opportunity to succeed. Like my dad did with George Guito, a 15-year-old at-risk high school dropout. My dad took him on in 1961. He got his degree. He’s still with us. He's now the GM of the Columbia Restaurant Ybor.
We can change lives. Young people may lack structure in their lives or adult supervision or motivation.
I envision the school to actually function as a 15-week program in five different departments. There would be internships in top participating restaurants. We’d also have a working restaurant where students and graduates will work and get paid and sample real-life experience. It will help students for years and for generations. I want to model it after a similar school called Café Reconcile in New Orleans.
Originally, the new Sicilian-Italian restaurant Santo Stefano was going to open in Ybor City in 2016?
It looks like 2017. I can’t do everything at once. I probably would have tried when I was younger. But I’ve learned. I need to concentrate on fewer things. (Not everybody agrees I’ve learned to do that.)
Regardless, you have a lot of exciting projects, both announced and unannounced. I’m sure some people are asking you “Why now” when many people are thinking about retirement?
After my father died, it took me 21 years to get the Columbia caught up and up to date in the physical plants, the menu and training … It took a big investment, millions and millions and millions of dollars for the buildings and the kitchens. We also had to adjust the menu to current needs, in some places going back to the way it was in the 30s and 40s. Now, I’ll never take my eye off the ball, but there are other opportunities. Tampa has been great to us. I can only have one big Columbia here, but I can create new concepts like Ulele or reinvent iconic restaurants in the city that I call home. It makes the most sense.
A few years ago, in search of growth, I went to Atlanta. A longtime broker there asked what I thought my volume would be. When I told him, he laughed and said only two or three restaurants in Atlanta do that kind of volume. So I said I’d stay in Florida; three of my five Columbias do that volume.
Why now? Because the opportunity exists to do it. I can create the infrastructure and hire the right people to create and support these new ventures. You have to determine what your needs are and surround yourself with people who can help keep the train moving down the track.
Speaking of retirement, do you have a timeline? You’ve joked about it being when you’re 72. That’s in about 9 years.
That’s how old my father was when he died. I might step down as president when I’m 72. I think the next generation [the fifth] has to look for those opportunities and realize that there is time limit. Time passes and they have to be prepared. Will I retire? I’ll never retire. I’ll be involved in the business of the restaurants. But my other passion — to help educate kids and to inspire them. So that’s the reason for the culinary school – that’s my retirement.
What’s the best thing about being a family business? The most challenging thing?
The big problem with family businesses can be if they use the cash register as their personal bank account. The first responsibility is to the employees and the vendors. There is no family first … it’s the business first. The 900-some employees first. The family has to expect to live within the means of what their salaries pay them. If you don’t work, you don’t get a check. The first priority is investing back in the business.
The best thing? Having the ability to be responsible for your success, to learn from the mistakes of previous generations, not having stockholders to answer to. If this was a public company, they would have fired me. Do you think they would have let me do Ulele? A public company is about the stockholders. Too often, food and service take a back seat to the bottom line.
You are a graduate of Jesuit, a man of great faith. How does that influence your daily decisions both personally and professionally?
It’s my belief that we’re here on this earth to help make life better for others. Take Ulele, in Tampa Heights – a once-proud suburb with depressed property values. My mission and goal is to help change that, to give them hope and hire young people. My parents, Sisters of the Holy Names, Jesuit priests – they taught me it was important to help others. And if you do good, good comes to you. It’s not for us to question; it’s for us to act.
You’ve been married for 42+ years. What’s the secret to your success?
Finding someone that you truly love and that you can’t live without. Always be honest and share your life with them. Even if you’re working long hours, you always have to make time for the love of your life.
When people think of the Columbia Restaurant, what’s the first thing you’d like to come to their minds?
You have ADD and you’re dyslexic, but you cite those as advantages. How do they help you?
People like me have vision and creativity, the ability to think outside of the box and of what some people say is logical. To find ways to success. When I was young, I felt challenged reading or memorizing. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 40 years old. I had to record my sophomore algebra math class because I transposed numbers. Some numbers are challenging to me, other numbers I can do easily in my head. I’m public about it because there are students out there who need to hear it.
My work is like Monopoly or chess, trying to think 10 steps ahead. You have to be willing to alter your course. When you’re dyslexic, that’s easy.
Describe your desk and your office.
Organized chaos. I clean it up when I can’t find the one thing I'm looking for.
If you could give one piece of life advice, what would it be?
Never never never give up. It saddens me that people think there is no hope. Jobs, school, marriage. As long as you have hope, you have a chance.
People don’t understand the challenges I had [when my father died]. I met with every vendor we owed money to; you talk about a humbling experience. But when people believe you, they’ll give you an opportunity.
There was more than one creditor including the state of Florida that could have pushed me into bankruptcy. I owned a motorcycle. I had life insurance. If the Lord said that’s the only way I could save the company, he would have taken me that way. When I got the business turned around, I had to sell it fast.
Anything I didn’t ask you?
You know I carry around this quote [from George Bernard Shaw] and I use it frequently. I read it at my mom’s funeral. I hope some day someone will read it at mine:
“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”