Ulele Restaurant Steps Into Tampa's Culinary Spotlight

Richard Gonzmart's passions are evident in all he does. Nothing is half-way and details don't slow him down. They spark his joy in getting it right.

The President of the Columbia Restaurant speaks his mind with each ''that's what I want.'' And is delighted when he sees the results.

Nearly three years into what Gonzmart has described as a ''quixotic'' dream, the Ulele Restaurant will debut in the historical Water Works Building. The 200 plus-seat waterfront restaurant beside Ulele Spring and the Hillsborough River is anticipated as Tampa's next culinary destination and the strongest statement yet that Tampa Heights is an up-and-coming neighborhood.

Gonzmart is as excited as a kid in a candy store, according to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

And yet there is something about a dream when it is about to be realized.

"It's frustrating. It's coming to an end," says Gonzmart.

He's content for now with the buzz over Ulele's arrival even as he ponders the next project around the corner. It's something Gonzmart says he's not ready to share with the public, but he's already got the candy store in mind.

As for Ulele, Gonzmart has been asked so many times when it will open that he may have jumped the gun a bit by posting on Facebook that the big day is on or around July 15.

It is a target date but not set in stone, he says.

Adjacent to the Ulele site, work crews are busy at the city's adjacent Water Works Park, sprinting to have most of the $6.5 million construction done for the restaurant's opening in mid-to-late July. The city should be completely done around August.

The park with a splash pad, floating docks, a band shell, a lawn and a playground will be family-oriented and kid-friendly, says Buckhorn. He stops by nearly every weekend to check on the progress of Ulele and the park.

"I think it's another piece in the mosaic," he says. "Like Le Meridien [Hotel], Ulele will be a destination. It's going to anchor what will happen on the northern end of the river and provide another venue for people to enjoy the river and enjoy the urban core."

Tampa Riverwalk Nears Completion

In the next year and a half, the Tampa Riverwalk will be about 90 percent complete, stretching through downtown from the North Boulevard bridge near Ulele and Water Works all the way to Channelside.

"If that's not transformative, I don't know what is," says Buckhorn. "The river is now and should be the focal point for all we do downtown."

Buckhorn's administration is leading the charge to transform Tampa's urban core by putting the river squarely in the center of redevelopment. Downtown, West Tampa and the Channel District are bursting with construction or ideas for construction for hotels, restaurants, residential towers, shops and restaurants.

Tampa Heights is primed by SoHo Capital for the next major residential and commercial development on a large swath of riverfront land that includes the historical Armature Works Building, next to Ulele.

In 2012 the city tapped the Columbia Restaurant Group and Metro Bay Real Estate, LLC to renovate the 100-year-old Water Works building. The Beck Group is a partner in the architectural design and construction of the building which is a former pump house that supplied the city with drinking water from Ulele Spring until the 1930s.

The piped-off spring recently was unplugged and is again bubbling up fresh water into a "basin" and flowing into the river. It is expected to draw manatees.

Gonzmart points out catfish and mullet fish-tailing through the basin.  A pair of mallards -- Lucy and Desi -- wade along the shoreline. "They adopted us," says Gonzmart. "I adopted them."

Balancing Creativity And Tradition

On a recent morning walk through the property, he is engaged in discussions about the menu's design, contemplating a background of a centuries-old map of the newly-discovered Florida. But ask him about Ulele and his passions are off and running again.

He offers a sneak peak at an Iphone snapshot of the life-size bronze statue of Ulele that will be unveiled at the restaurant soon. It is a one-of-a-kind artwork, he says, by Icelandic artist Vala Ola, who lives in Arizona but met Gonzmart when both were on a trip to Peru.

The story of the Native American princess who saved the life of a young 16th century Spanish explorer may be mythic but it is embedded in Tampa's history. And it's personal to Gonzmart who sees comparisons between the courageous, soft-hearted Ulele and his mother, Adela Gonzmart.

"My mother was known for her compassion," he says. "She was a re-incarnation of Ulele. I'm excited that Ulele will end up brought to life."

Gonzmart believes there are no coincidences. For him, history and family are inextricably linked with Tampa Heights and the Water Works building.

He ticks off the connections. The Water Works opened in 1903, the same year his great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., began working at the Florida brewery in Ybor City. The family patriarch's dreams of owning a business led him to the Saloon Columbia, and in 1905 he founded the iconic Columbia Restaurant.

Gonzmart's family lived in a home only four blocks from the site of Ulele; Gonzmart was born 300 yards away at St. Joseph's Hospital.

Family ties to other local businesses dating back years are being reclaimed as part of the Ulele family. Brewmaster Tim Shackton is creating six craft beers at the on-site Ulele brewery, a throwback to Hernandez Sr.'s first days in Tampa. One of the brewery's six craft beers will be dubbed Rusty Red after Gonzmart's dog.

The restaurant will make its own organic ice cream serving a coconut specialty in a coconut half-shell. Hernandez Sr.'s son, Gustavo, founded Tropical Ice Cream Co., and from the 1940s to '60s sold ice cream to the Columbia. Maybe Ulele will now sell its ice cream to Columbia, Gonzmart says.

"We're going back to beer, back to ice cream and back to people who worked with my parents and grandparents," he says.

Designing Multicultural Cuisine

Executive Chef Eric Lackey is creating a menu that will feature dishes inspired by Native American and multicultural cuisine. Details are not released yet. Gonzmart mentions blue crab and mullet as possible items. Meats, fish and produce will come from family-owned, independent farms and businesses; and, wines from the United States including California and Oregon.

There is an oyster bar and open kitchen with a 10-foot citrus wood burning grill encircled by granite top counters with embedded heating elements, designed in consultation with SSA. "There'll be a lot of action taking place," says Gonzmart.

A German-style beer garden, a roof top bar and an outdoor patio are taking shape. Giant colored industrial gears adorn the restaurant's entry door, courtesy of Tampa Heights-based welding artist Dominique Martinez of Rustic Steel Creations.

The restaurant's eclectic decor will include stained glass, artwork by Peruvian Victor Delfin, a canoe, and a collection of 1961 baseball memorabilia autographed by the champion 1961 New York Yankees' team including Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.

"It's not a sports bar but that's just what I feel like doing," says Gonzmart. "My Mom and Dad would be proud to have them here."

He keeps coming round to family and Tampa Heights.

He hopes to hire as many people as possible from the neighborhood to work at Ulele. He is forging a relationship with D.W. Waters Career Center, a middle and high school in Tampa Heights and its hospitality program.

Last year Gonzmart and the Columbia Restaurant Group donated a full commercial kitchen that is installed at the future Tampa Heights Youth and Community Center in a renovated historical church at Palm Avenue and Lamar Street. Volunteers with the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association have devoted weekend labor for nearly four years, and an opening date is coming soon.

"We hope it's giving young people in this area a future," Gonzmart says. "You've got to have somebody that cares. It's important to me. Family is what made this country great."

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.