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Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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Columbia Restaurant rolls back prices 107 years

TAMPA - The city's iconic Spanish restaurant rolled back its prices Sunday to where they were 107 years ago, when the Columbia Restaurant was founded. Despite serving legions of hungry people, though, the Columbia doesn't make much of a profit on 1905 Day – but that's OK with Richard Gonzmart, whose family has owned the historic Ybor City restaurant since it opened, along with the other five locations across the state. By noon, hungry patrons lined up outside the original Columbia on Seventh Avenue – down the street and around the corner, where the line stretched for at least two full blocks. "I got here at 7:15," said Gonzmart, standing off to the side of the filled center dining room, just after the place opened at noon. "There were 40-some people in line then. I couldn't believe it."
Nodding to the people waiting to be fed, Gonzmart said serving them was his pleasure. "It's a way for us to say thanks," he said, especially when a lagging economy has sliced restaurant visits out of a lot of people's family budgets. "It's not all about the money. "We've been here for 107 years. You've got to do something to say 'thank you.'" Many here seemed more interested in the once-a-year experience, though, than the cheap eats. "It's a happening," said Jim Rodger, who came early with his wife, Sandra, from Ruskin to get near the front of the line. "It's an event. You come here, and you get to stand in line with all these other people." Judy Richardson of Plant City has been to every 1905 Day since 1995. "It's tradition," she said. Richardson comes with an entourage that seems to grow every year, though the group numbered only four on Sunday. "It's a small bunch this year," she said as she marched her dining companions through the front door. Earl and Liz Muntz drove about 70 miles from Longwood, arriving to stand in line at 10:30 a.m. "Someone in line said they had been here since 6:15," he said. The Muntzes discovered 1905 Day last year – they just stumbled on it. "It was a fluke," Earl Muntz said. Waiters in white shirts, vests and jackets served up some of the eatery's signature dishes for 1905 prices. The discount prices were offered in all six Columbia restaurants – in Ybor City, Sarasota, Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Celebration and St. Augustine. "We don't make any money today," said Jim Garris, manager of the Columbia in Ybor City. "The most expensive item is the sangria, and that's at cost." Most of the entrees cost less than $3 today, and if you factor in the labor costs, the restaurant doesn't make any profit, despite drawing so many people. "It's a big labor day, and we have to have everyone here," Garris said. The signature 1905 Salad was $1.95, compared to its everyday price of $9.95. A pitcher of sangria, made from the Columbia's own recipe, on Sunday cost $4.95, usually the price of a single glass. Normally, pitchers sell for $17.95. Glasses of sangria were going for 95 cents Sunday. Flan was 50 cents – a tenth of its normal menu price. It's the only day of the year the Columbia does not accept reservations first come, first served. The 107th birthday of the Columbia easily makes it the oldest restaurant in the nation that's been continually open and owned by the same family. The 1905 Day has been a tradition since the Columbia's 75th anniversary. The 1905 Day extends the tradition of the Columbia, founded in Ybor City by Gonzmart's great-grandfather, Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez. "See that kid over there?" Gonzmart said, pointing to a boy sitting at the end of a long table with his family. "He may remember this for the rest of his life," Gonzmart said. "He may one day bring his kids here."

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