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Restaurant mogul Gonzmart is a man of myriad ideas

Richard Gonzmart nearly missed the start of his own charity 5K run.

The fourth-generation Columbia Restaurant patriarch last autumn was hosting a half-dozen big-city mayors at his newest restaurant, Ulele, and the mayors were late, making dinner late, making him late to leave for his “Richard’s Run for Life” in Ybor City.

Finally leaving the group, Gonzmart and his wife Melanie raced their SUV into Ybor City, where they promptly ran into police who were already blocking traffic for the runners.

“The police stopped me and I had to tell them it was actually my race and I had to get to the starting line to announce the start,” Gonzmart said. After the run, Gonzmart looked out at the crowd of thousands of runners eating food he had sent from Ulele and Columbia, and said “Maybe the race is getting too big for here. We might have to move it.”

There, in a nutshell, is Gonzmart: One part restaurant developer, one part gracious host to the powerful, one part charity superpower, one part runner himself and many parts insomniac, and a broadly loved, big-hearted cheerleader of Tampa, always looking ahead.

Besides running the fleet of seven Columbia restaurants, building Ulele and resurrecting the Goody Goody burger brand, Gonzmart, 61, has grown acutely aware of how short life can be, and he now faces one of his toughest challenges ever — picking who will take over the Columbia when he’s gone.

Not that he’s retiring soon.

“I don’t know what I’d do with myself all day if I retired,” Gonzmart said, throwing his hands in the air while sitting at a table in the original bar space of the Columbia in Ybor CIty. “I’d go crazy just sitting around the house.”

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Widely praised by both high-level politicians and ground-level co-workers, Gonzmart often gives soaring speeches about the history and potential of Tampa. Many people have joked that he could run for mayor. But if his public face is pure exuberance, it pales in comparison to his private side.

In person, Gonzmart is a dynamo, erupting with ideas and stories of life lessons he’s learned the hard way. He jumps from topic to topic without warning, at one moment talking about his next restaurant idea, “I wanna do an Italian restaurant in Ybor City,” and the next moment talking about his beloved high school football coach “Wild Bill” Minahan. Next, he may talk about lessons from his grandfather.

He may then switch to talking about breeding German Shepherds, or running a triathlon, or the latest guitar he bought at auction. “I’m definitely ADHD,” he says with a laugh. In a blink, he’s talking about finding a source in Spain for authentic orange marmalade.

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If there’s one facet of Gonzmart’s life that remains constant, it’s his belief in signs from above. He believes in divine intervention, and not just in a casual way as if karma might be at work, or maybe luck.

One day in 2013, Gonzmart was walking past the Ulele spring by the Hillsborough River where he was trying to build a restaurant in a desolate park.

Gonzmart’s advisors told him he was crazy to try renovating the crumbling Waterworks building into a restaurant, but he loved the location, just blocks from where he was born.

He asked God for a sign. Then, he got one. Looking down at the water, a manatee quietly surfaced for a breath. It seemed to look right at him. “I’ve never seen a Manatee there before or after that moment,” he said. Forget the critics. He would build the restaurant.

During planning, he couldn’t find a manager to run the project. He wanted long-time restaurant manager Keith Sedita, but Sedita wasn’t available. Then, during a morning jog, Gonzmart stopped on the North Boulevard bridge and wondered what to do. “I asked God to send me someone with integrity, a good person,” he said. A few days later, Sedita sent him a message. Sedita now runs Ulele, and the property is packed with customers, the toast of Tampa, and a sign that Tampa Heights is on the upswing.

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Then a dire sign came his way.

Gonzmart had been working for years with local boosters of funding for prostate cancer research, and facing the uphill battle. Men simply didn’t like talking about the disease, even though one in seven may contract it, and the cures are quite effective.

“I asked God, please send me a messenger,” Gonzmart said, “someone who can get through to people.”

He sure got one.

In November, 2013, the day of Gonzmart’s own cancer fund-raising run, Gonzmart himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He would be the messenger. His disease is now in remission, (“I’m as good as ever!”) and Gonzmart’s Father’s Day run to raise awareness and funds for research draws hundreds of runners.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the diagnosis only drove Gonzmart to excel even more. “I think it reminded him, as it would remind any of us, about our own frailty,” Buckhorn said. “That we are given a limited time on this Earth and the expectation is that we make the most of it.”

Buckhorn said Gonzmart is unlike any other business leader or developer in Tampa.

“When Richard gets involved in a project, he puts his heart and soul into it,” Buckhorn said. “It’s not just a bottom line transaction, not just a new concept, but something coming out of his family. The city’s history and burden of the legacy of being a Gonzmart is something that he embraces, and he is really passionate about passing it along to his kids and grandkids.”

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Gonzmart acknowledges his sporadic mind. His personal office overlooking Seventh Avenue is nearly an explosion of his imagination.

By one wall, there are two, sometimes three, triathlon bikes lined up next to a stack of custom bourbon and barbecue bottles. More than a dozen guitars stand in stacks around the office, many that he’s picked up at auctions and that are autographed by world famous musicians. The walls are covered with photos of his family and friends.

Gonzmart rarely sleeps through the night. His mind races too much. He often gets up before dawn for long runs around the neighborhood and ran four marathons last year.

Then, he changes clothes, and brings his two, pure-bred German Shepherds to work (Rusty and Rex,), where they curl around his feet under his desk. One windowsill is packed with trophies from dog shows.

Behind his desk there is a photo of his grandfather Casimiro Hernandez Jr. and his father Cesar Gonzmart. “They look down over me every day,” Gonzmart says.

Then, in a second, he’s talking about Goody Goody, the long-time Tampa burger joint Gonzmart is trying to bring back. Under his desk is a white plastic box, full of Goody Goody paraphernalia. “All the top-secret stuff is in here,” Gonzmart says, looking around his office, then adds with a laugh, “somewhere.”

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Where his ideas come from, sometimes he knows, other times he doesn’t.

He constantly looks for inspiration, even at the grocery store. “I love Publix,” he said, jumping topics yet again. “I looked down the soda aisle one time, and there were a dozen brands of bottled water. I thought, holy cow, and so we started bottling our own water. Now we sell thousands of bottles a month. I love Publix. You gotta always be looking around you.”

Though a conversation topic may only last a minute, Gonzmart says he considers “short-term” planning to cover 10 years, particularly for a company that’s already lasted 100.

Mark House, managing director of The Beck Group construction company, dealt with Gonzmart almost daily while building Ulele.

“He’s more of an artist at work than a classic kind of developer,” House said. “He may be traveling in Argentina and see a painting, or some other country and see some light fixtures. He’ll take a picture and send it to you saying ‘Can we incorporate this somehow?’” Never mind that the design of the project may be done long ago. It’s never done for Gonzmart. “He’s a perfectionist in some ways. A project has to come together the right way before it opens to the public. He’ll tell you, ‘You can only open once. You only have one first night.’ So it needs to be right, regardless of any time-line you thought.”

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Gonzmart can have a temper.

Partly that’s because he feels such a connection between his business and his personal life, he says. Recently, he found out a supplier of some accessories for the Columbia restaurant museum store was trying to bring in items made in China. Gonzmart went nuts. “This is a Spanish restaurant!” he says, recalling his reaction. “It will have things made in Spain! Not China!”

Recently, he’s worked to manage the outbursts. “Every time I lose my temper,” he says with a wry smile, “I have to make another $500 donation to charity.” So far, he thinks it’s working.

But for Gonzmart, business and human charity are intertwined. He supports causes, but feels the most meaningful events at the Columbia are when a family gathers to remember someone after a funeral. “That’s really important to me,” he said.

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As for which family member will take over after him, Gonzmart says he’s very much torn, and his voice drops an octave when talking about it. For now Richard and his brother Casey are the sole board members.

There is his daughter, Andrea, who has been with the restaurant company her whole life and is deeply involved in Tampa organizations. She is also director of operations for the Cha Cha Coconuts tropical bar and grill under the Columbia group.

There is also his brother’s son Casey Jr., who has been taking the lead on new projects like the Columbia site at Tampa International Airport. As for how he’ll decide, Gonzmart says he doesn’t know yet.

Gonzmart has been meeting with attorneys who specialize in trusts and estates, and on the floor of his office, he keeps a book entitled “Strategic Planning for the Family Business.”

Gonzmart says he can count on one hand the number of restaurants in the country that made it past four generations. That’s one reason he works hard to support family-owned businesses. He purposely buys some items from a family in Spain because they are on their fourth generation and struggling.

Coffee for the Columbia comes from the 4th generation Naviera Coffee Mills Inc. The Cuban bread for the Columbia comes from the 4th generation, La Segunda Central Bakery. “Richard has been like a second father to me,” said Copeland More, who is moving into a leadership role at the bakery and is taking lessons from Gonzmart on how to move into retail.

With all of this going on, Gonzmart is not slowing down.

House of the Beck Group says he marvels at Gonzmart’s energy and drive, particularly in comparison to other developers who have fixed time-lines, with fixed expectations.

“He feels like he has to accomplish these things,” House said. “It’s part of his legacy, and he loves every day of living, and he’s ready for his next idea — not just to think and plan — but saying, ‘Let’s go out and do these things and not spend a lot of time just talking about them.’”

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