TAMPA Fla. — Welcome to 9 Questions with…, a new regular feature in which we’ll get to know some of the Bay area’s movers and shakers a little better. It could be a politician, an artist, a first responder, a bartender—just about anyone, really. This week’s subject is restaurant owner, activist and philanthropist Richard Gonzmart of Ybor City's Columbia Restaurant. Is there someone you’d like to answer 9 Questions? Let us know!
What You Need To Know
- Spectrum Bay News 9's series spotlights notable members of the Tampa Bay community
- Richard Gonzmart owns storied Ybor City restaurant the Columbia
- Check back every week for a new "9 Questions with..."
Are you a Tampa Bay native? If not, where are you from?
I’m proud to say I’m a 4th-generation Tampeño.
How would you describe your job or claim to fame?
We don’t use typical titles at the Columbia Restaurant Group. I say I’m the “4th Generation Caretaker,” because that means more to me. My job is to preserve our history and heritage and pass it along to the next generation.
What’s your favorite Tampa Bay restaurant that isn’t one of your own?
Bern’s. It’s another iconic family business that always does a great job. We usually go there as soon as they open.
Do you have a personal Tampa Bay “secret spot” and/or “hidden treasure”?
I increasingly have been spending more time in Longboat Key. We have two restaurants nearby and a restaurant site to be developed. The area is laid-back and nobody recognizes me when we go out. I can be anonymous, which, believe it or not, is my preference.
What is your favorite Tampa Bay tradition?
What’s one thing many people don’t know about you that you’re willing to share with us?
I’m actually shy. The person you see doing public speaking or on TV doing interviews is something I have to gear up for. It doesn’t come naturally, but it’s part of the job so I’ve learned how to speak genuinely and passionately. It’s easy when I talk about our family business. I’m also ADD and dyslexic, but those are stories for another time.
If you could change one thing about the Tampa Bay area or your community specifically, what would it be?
As we have grown, the Tampa Bay area needs solutions to our transportation and mobility challenges. There’s no single answer, but many elements that have to work together.
As a veteran of the Tampa Bay restaurant scene who’s seen it explode in recent years, what do you consider the secret to a successful, long-running business?
For a family business, I always say that you can’t treat it like an ATM. You have to put the money right back into the business—pay off mortgages, upgrade equipment, invest in people. We have a history of taking calculated risks during tough times. My grandfather opened Tampa’s first air-conditioned dining room in 1935 at the end of the Great Depression. And we just opened our new Sicilian restaurant Casa Santo Stefano in Ybor City toward the end of this pandemic.
Do you foresee any permanent or fundamental changes to the way restaurants operate once the COVID pandemic is “under control,” however that may look?
As awful as this crisis has been on businesses and workers, we have learned from it. For example, we have evolved curbside takeout at all our locations out of necessity, but those improvements will continue even after this is over.