Cesar Gonzmart’s magical violin is silenced on the Columbia Restaurant’s sound system. Outside Ulele, the ring of fire around Princess Ulele is unlit. The milkshake spinners at Goody Goody and tropical drink blenders at Cha Cha Coconuts sit quietly.
All the customary sounds and sights of successful, bustling restaurants -- gone.
No hostesses calling out, “Davis, party of five.” No flamenco dancers. No Bob Clark Friday weekly networking luncheon. No Rotary. No Ybor City Chamber. No Ulele Motown. No oysters. No steel drums at Cha Chas. No Run Tampa breakfasts after Bayshore distance outings.
Each of the Columbia Restaurant Group’s street-side locations closed on Friday, March 20, per the governor’s order on dine-in establishments.
Because people tend to gather in times of crisis, it just feels wrong to do the opposite and “socially distance” ourselves. As The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni pointed out, “We’re denied the solace of community just when we need it most. … Normalcy is the enemy in this pandemic. We have to behave abnormally to reach the far side of it.”
"I'm a man of great faith,'' Richard Gonzmart wrote in a note to employees. "We will overcome this together. And we will celebrate together when we overcome this unprecedented challenge.''
Even for one of the most successful independent and iconic restaurant groups in the country – and the Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida -- this is a very tough time. The Columbia furloughed 90 percent of its nearly 1,400 employees until the restaurants can reopen.
No one knows what will happen with this virus or when, whether the U.S. will be more like those countries that seem to have it contained or those countries that are suffering from unprecedented surges.
There’s no timeline for reopening the restaurants, no ETA for back to normal. We all hope it will be sooner rather than later, but no one knows.
So, the Columbia is taking steps to try and help its furloughed employees:
- Paying full health benefits for all furloughed employees until at least through April. The last thing they need to worry about right now is their health coverage.
- Starting a gift card campaign. 100 percent of the revenue from sales through April will go to furloughed employees across all the Columbia brands.
- Gathering and passing along city, state, and federal information to the furloughed workers.
How can you help Columbia’s furloughed employees? Consider buying a gift card. 100 percent of sales revenue through April will go to them. Consider it a tip jar.
Thirty thousand restaurants nationally (3 percent) have already closed permanently because of the coronavirus shutdown, according to the National Restaurant Association.
And 11 percent of operators told the trade group that they might permanently close within the next 30 days.
The 4th and 5th generation Gonzmarts who own the Columbia’s group of restaurants vow that will not happen to theirs. They have history: The Columbia has weathered numerous crises during its 115 years: World wars, Prohibition, Spanish Flu, urban renewal.
During the low point of the Great Depression, the Columbia Ybor City one day served only eight patrons and brought in $12.42. It was as close as the Columbia has come to having to shut its doors for good.
The 2nd generation owner of the Columbia, Casimiro Hernandez, Jr., went to the hardware store and bought nails.
“Another twelve-dollar day and I’ll nail up the damned place,” he told the assembled employees. But he and the restaurant survived that just as Richard Gonzmart says the Columbia will come back strong.
He says he frequently used to think about that story, and how every evolution of the Columbia involved an optimistic leap of faith:
- Opening the Saloon Columbia in the first place in 1903.
- Borrowing $35,000 to open the Don Quixote, Tampa’s first air-conditioned dining room, two years after the height of unemployment in the Great Depression.
- Opening the Patio dining room in 1937.
- Expanding to more locations across the state, ultimately seven Columbias.
- Adding four other brands and six locations under the Columbia umbrella.
And today the Gonzmart family is doing everything they can to recover from this medical crisis.
Richard Gonzmart has forfeited his salary and returned his most recent ownership check covering 2019.
Needed work on the restaurants -- the Columbia Ybor kitchen, the Ulele roof, tenting the St. Augustine Columbia -- will be done during this closure so the restaurants can reopen without further interruption. No cash is being spent now on these repairs.
"I'm a man of great faith,'' Richard Gonzmart wrote in a note to employees on Monday, March 23. "We will overcome this together. And we will celebrate together when we overcome this unprecedented challenge.''
Michael Kilgore is the Chief Marketing Officer of the Columbia Restaurant Group. How can you help Columbia’s furloughed employees across all the brands? Please consider buying a Columbia gift card at Columbia Restaurant's website. 100 percent of sales revenue through April will go to them. Consider it a tip jar. Thank you.