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Sense of place, history motivate Tampa native in recreating iconic restaurants

Richard Gonzmart walks through the Goody Goody site in South Tampa.

Goody Goody opens soon in South Tampa.

Richard Gonzmart stops at the South Tampa Goody Goody location often to oversee progress.

Richard Gonzmart with his pups Rex and Rusty at Goody Goody in South Tampa. The bombshell announcement reverberated throughout the Tampa Bay area. Goody Goody is coming back!

From the moment Richard Gonzmart and his Columbia Restaurant Group revealed on Oct. 20, 2014 that it had bought the iconic burger brand and would be reviving it in Tampa, social media and strategic marketing has kept the buzz going. 


From selecting the location (Swann and Dakota in Hyde Park Village), pop-up taste testings, and refurbishing and moving the old sign that once stood on North Florida Avenue for decades, the revamped Goody Goody has maintained a formidable presence – and it hasn’t served a single hamburger yet.

When will it open? For months, Gonzmart has offered the same response to questions about the much-anticipated opening: “When it’s ready.” After all, he spent nine years negotiating with the former owners to get the name, recipes and other memorabilia, so what’s a few more months?

Now the wait is almost over.

With the final touches under way, from ordering the throwback uniforms to laying the  retro tile, Gonzmart says he feels confident about predicting a mid- to late-July unveiling.

“Believe me, if I could make it happen, it would have opened yesterday,” says Gonzmart, 63, in an interview at the company’s Ybor City office overlooking Seventh Avenue, with his ever-present German shepherds, Rex and Rusty, underfoot.

“I’m just as excited as everyone else. Goody Goody brings back a lot of fond memories for me.”

Opened in 1925, it was billed as the first drive-in restaurant east of the Mississippi. Until its closing in 2005, it was a local favorite, famous for its homemade pies and it’s Burger POX (pickles, onions and tomato-based sauce). Gonzmart calls this venture “back to the future,” promising to evoke Goody Goody’s heyday era, but also updating the menu to conform to today’s tastes.

“You think canned vegetables would make it today? No way,” he says. “Customers want fresh now. Restaurants go broke because they don’t change.”

Take the butterscotch pie with its lightly browned meringue, for example. Gonzmart has lost track how many times in the last year his chefs have tweaked the original recipe for an updated version of one of Goody Goody’s most beloved offerings. Dozens of taste testers have dug their forks into slices of the sweet confection to offer their opinions.

As for him making that final call? Don’t count on it. He's not a fan.

Gonzmart blames that on his grandfather. When he was 5, on a visit to the family patriarch’s Tampa Heights home, the older man gave him a shot of whiskey and a cigarette – his way of teaching the youngster to stay away from those vices. It would make a lifelong impression.

“Never touched the butterscotch pie after that. Because I thought it was made of butter and scotch, and I wanted no part of it,” he says, laughing. 

With all his attention to detail, resurrecting Goody Goody could be a fulltime endeavor for Gonzmart and company. But no. There’s a reason this fourth-generation restaurateur – who speaks openly about his attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia, afflictions he’s lived with since childhood – only sleeps a few hours a night. His mind is always racing to the next project. And there are plenty — some he won’t talk about yet.

Exceeding expectations

“Here’s what you can count on. If it’s got the Gonzmart name on it, it will be quality,” says Vince Pardo, retired manager of the Ybor City Development Corporation. “As for Richard, he took the Columbia brand and branched out into different venues and concepts outside Spanish-Cuban cuisine. He’s not afraid to take risks.”

Gonzmart did that with Ulele, the native American-inspired restaurant and brewery he opened two years ago in the former Tampa Waterworks building on the edge of Tampa Heights, overlooking the  Hillsborough River. It ended up costing millions more than he estimated – but on the plus side, “our profits have exceeded our projections by 35 to 40 percent,” he says. Its success has silenced the naysayers who doubted the once-desolate location and crumbling building were good starting points for such an ambitious project. 

“I listen to my gut and look for divine signs. And I pray a lot,” Gonzmart says. “If I go against what I think is right, it usually ends up that I should have listened to what was told me in the first place.” 
 
Now he’s awaiting word from the Tampa City Council on a bid to team Spectra and the Columbia Restaurant Group to be the food provider at Tampa Convention Center, which Gonzmart calls “the city’s biggest and best asset.” The proposal includes a Goody Goody hamburger spot, a Café Con Leche sandwich-and-pastry bar and a Cha Cha Coconuts for the 600,000 square-foot facility.

“It’s been a dream of mine for 20 years,” he says. “I can visualize things way far out, how they will look one day. I see them clearly. Now with the Riverwalk in place and downtown under so much development, the time is right. My main thing is to give visitors a taste of authentic Tampa Bay.” 

In September, the company expands its existing
“Here’s what you can count on. If it’s got the Gonzmart name on it, it will be quality,” says Vince Pardo, retired manager of the Ybor City Development Corporation.
presence at Tampa International Airport with three new arrivals in the Southwest terminal – Goody Goody, a Ulele Bar and Grill and a Café Con Leche. (The existing Columbia Café in the Delta terminal is also on track for expansion.)

Then there’s 2017. Gonzmart has announced plans to open Casa Santo Stefano, an Italian-Sicilian comfort-food restaurant in the former Ferlita Macaroni Factory building right behind the original Columbia in Ybor City. Named for a village in Sicily which was home to many early immigrants in Tampa, it will feature authentic recipes from the region.

But the project he hopes will have the most profound impact is a culinary school for disadvantaged youth in the old Lister’s Furniture store on Florida Avenue in Tampa Heights. He purchased the site earlier this year and has expansive ambitions: To give area high-school students in a low-income area an opportunity to stay out of trouble by channeling their energies into a supervised 15-week program that combines culinary training and life skills preparation. 

“You don’t wait until kids are already going down the wrong path. You get them early and give them something positive that will prevent it in the first place,” he says. Students will get supervised training in several aspects of the food industry and opportunities for internships and jobs.

If all goes according to plan – there goes that racing mind again – the sprawling site would eventually include the school, a pie-making and pastry facility for Goody Goody and other outlets, a catering operation, an ice-cream plant and restaurant.

Everything that's meant to be

Gonzmart, a man of deep Catholic faith, believes there are no coincidences. Lister’s is where he bought his first bedroom suite for him and Melanie, the Academy of Holy Names girl who captured his heart back in high school and now is his wife of 43 years.

“We had that set for 30 years,” he says. “And the store is just a block away from Sacred Heart, my elementary school. It’s like I’m circling back to the place where it began, and where I should be.”

There’s also the Mystery Project Down South, which Gonzmart is keeping close to the vest. He’ll only say that he has a contract for property “on the water in Sarasota.” 

As for the rumors he may resurrect the recently closed Colonnade on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, that’s all they are – rumors.

For all of Gonzmart’s business ventures, that’s just one part of his persona. Developer Jack Shiver, who specializes in historic preservation, says Gonzmart is “very intuitive, very smart, very versatile and very willing to think outside the box. That all adds up to a very special human being.”

“There’s a strong work ethic in his family that’s been handed down through the generations. They work hard, and in turn, people work hard for them,” Shiver says. “I think the Gonzmarts have done more for Ybor City than you can measure. Visitors are drawn to the Columbia, and then they end up taking in the whole historic district. More than anything, Richard has such a deep respect and love for our heritage and a dedication to preserving it.”

Indeed, the Columbia (www.columbiarestaurant.com) has earned its reputation as a must-go in Tampa: It’s the oldest restaurant in Florida, and was named one of the country’s top historical restaurants by USA Today.

Giving back to build community

A devoted father and grandfather, Gonzmart is also known as a generous philanthropist who believes strongly in giving back to his native city, such as supporting his alma mater, Jesuit High School,  and Melanie’s Academy of Holy Names, to fundraisers for Moffitt Cancer Center, where he underwent successful treatment for his prostate cancer in 2013. 

In November, the Gonzmart Family Foundation sponsors its 15th annual Richard’s Run for Life for sarcoma research and the Advanced Prostate Cancer Collaboration, and this month, for the fourth year, Richard’s Father’s Day Family Walk/Jog raises awareness and funds for prostate cancer research. Both events direct 100 percent of the proceeds to the cause.

He’s gotten as much love back from the community as he has given. Gonzmart is a popular figure on the banquet circuit, picking up myriad awards over the years for his contributions. Among them: Person of Vision from the Lion’s Eye Institute, Community Hero from the Tampa Bay Lightning, Hispanic Man of the Year from the Tampa Hispanic Heritage and Citizen of the Year from the Tampa Police Department.

But the recognition that humbles him the most came in April, when he was bestowed with the Catholic Church’s highest papal honor given to lay and religious members: Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

“The nuns and priests in our lives gave us a strong foundation,” says Victor DiMaio, a political consultant and fellow Jesuit alumnus. “Richard is a great example of someone who never forgot that guidance and put it to work in his daily life.”

Gonzmart knows he has a timetable. He won’t be at the helm of the CRG forever; the family tradition continues into the fifth generation, with daughter Andrea and nephew Casey Jr. working for the company. An avid runner, he keeps running marathons, but he knows those days are numbered, too.
 
Still, retirement isn’t in the immediate future. His beloved father, Cesar, died in 1992 of pancreatic cancer at age 72. So Gonzmart gives himself “a good nine years of getting a lot of stuff done” before he steps down. He knows the time will go by fast. And when that day comes, he will just redirect his passion from business operations to working with young people. He wants to change lives.

“You could say that culinary school is just a way of setting up my retirement,” he says. “I love working with kids. If you want a community to be strong, you have to start with the youth.”

He knows he’s had a blessed life, far more bountiful than he could imagine. For him, it always comes back to God. Work hard, pray hard, and open up your mind, heart and soul. The rewards will come if you do the right thing, he says.

“The Jesuits tried to recruit me to be a priest back in high school. If anything ever happened to my wife, I think that’s what I would want to do,” Gonzmart says. “But this is where I am now, and I know it’s where I’m supposed to be.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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