Growing up in the Columbia Restaurant and serving a Tampa mob boss

TAMPA — Richard Gonzmart is a legendary restaurateur from a family of legendary restaurateurs.

He is the fourth-generation co-owner of the iconic Columbia Restaurant along with his brother, Casey Gonzmart Sr. The renowned Ybor City establishment was founded in 1905 by their great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., and is the oldest restaurant in Florida.

Richard Gonzmart has expanded the family business, opening seven Columbia outlets and seven other restaurants, including Ulele along the Riverwalk and the revived Goody-Goody Burgers in Hyde Park Village.

He recently stepped down from the Hillsborough County Tourist Development Council after 29 years on the board, saying he’s cutting down his day-to-day obligations to spend more time with his wife of nearly 49 years, Melanie. Daughter Andrea Gonzmart Williams, 43, is taking on a greater role in the family business.

Gonzmart, 69, spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about growing up in the original Columbia Restaurant where a frequent diner was the late Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. This is the first part of a two-part conversation. The second part is set to run June 5.

• • •

What do you remember about your grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Jr.?

I was, I think, 8 years old when my grandfather passed away. But at 3½ years old, I would go to eat on Fridays at the Columbia. My mom (Adela Hernandez Gonzmart), because we’re Catholic, had to eat seafood. She was a wonderful cook but she wouldn’t cook fish.And I walked into the kitchen, wandering around. I was comfortable, I knew the waiters. When I walked in the cooler I saw the whole red snapper, the trout, the grouper, the pompano, even live soft shell crabs, with their heads and eyes looking at me, and I turned around and was scared and ran out.

The Columbia Restaurant located on Seventh Avenue E in Ybor City on Jan. 10, 2020.
The Columbia Restaurant located on Seventh Avenue E in Ybor City on Jan. 10, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

My grandfather said, “What’s wrong with you, kid?” (I said:) The fish were going to bite me. And he took me in, and that was my first lesson. He told me how to tell if the fish were fresh by looking into their eyes for clarity. And the gills should be a dark moist red. And then on the flesh, he said, when you come in, I want you to press the flesh; it should be firm.

(He told me:) ”And every Friday when you come, I want you to report the fish were fresh.” Listen, at 3½ years old, I thought I was a big boy. Although we built a new kitchen in 2001, that door still remains. Every day I walk by I remember that. My earliest memory. My first education.

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• • •

What else did you learn from him?

I can remember my grandfather saying that the Spanish bean soup was too salty. The chef said he could remedy it and my grandfather, arguing, said ‘No, make it again.’ What I took from that was: You’re only as good as your last meal.

• • •

What’s your favorite dish at the Columbia?

Depends on the day and the moment and the occasion. I like the palomilla steak. And the palomilla steak wasn’t on the menu nor was the ropa vieja because it was peasant food. But what happens is people don’t think that any longer so I put it on the menu. I like boliche, roast eye round beef stuffed with chorizo. It brings back memories. When I eat meals I think of special moments. So that’s what I like. I love chicken and yellow rice. It’s my go-to many times. I like it with what I call the RG 1953 salad. It’s a 1905 salad with just lettuce and tomato and the dressing. I love the way the flavor of the garlic and vinegar and oil mixes when I eat it.

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• • •

Did you work in the restaurant growing up?

My first job was when I was 12 years old as a dishwasher. My dad didn’t want me to do that. He wanted me to work in front, doing something that was not of interest to me — clean the bottom of chairs. I quit three times that day. My brother was my supervisor. He was 17.

But I wanted to wash dishes. I loved cooking; I learned to cook at the age of 6, and I started washing dishes and then started working on the line at lunch time with some legendary chefs. It’s important to understand that the (dishwasher) operates the most expensive piece of equipment, responsible for the sanitation of every eating utensil and plate and glass that customers are going to touch.

Richard Gonzmart in the dining room of the Columbia Restaurant in 2019.
Richard Gonzmart in the dining room of the Columbia Restaurant in 2019.

In the loss and waste of it, we’ll go through $15,000 worth of glass and flatware a month there … we lose and break $15,000 to $20,000 in a month. Busboys were stacking them on a tray, putting so much that they can’t carry. You’ll see me walking around taking pictures. It’s just not safe.

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• • •

There was a story about a Columbia employee spilling a cup of coffee on the lap of Tampa mafia boss, Santo Trafficante Jr. What happened?

That was Ferdie Pacheco that dropped a cup of coffee on him, and he was scared to death. (Pacheco, who died in 2017, became famous as an author, artist and ringside physician for heavyweight boxing great Muhammad Ali.)

(Trafficante) was actually a kind man. He’d come in, I knew him as a young boy. Everybody respected him. He was a frequent diner at lunch and dinner, and his daughter told me that the Columbia was his favorite restaurant.

• • •

Tell another story about Trafficante.

There was one time, I guess I was 19 years old. He came in. I was working the front door and lunch was very, very slow in those days at the Columbia. And he came in and said, “Richard, I need a quiet table to talk business. I don’t want anybody near me.” “Yes sir, Mr. Trafficante.”

Santo Trafficante Jr. as he leaves the federal building following his arraignment on racketeering charges on June 4, 1981.
Santo Trafficante Jr. as he leaves the federal building following his arraignment on racketeering charges on June 4, 1981.

I sat him at table 104. A few minutes later a gentleman comes in by himself. I seat him at table 62, and he waited a little while and said, you know, I really don’t like that table; I want to read the paper. So he goes into the skylight (Patio Room) at a table directly across from Santo Trafficante. He was with a gentleman named Henry Diecidue. And the guy opens a newspaper.

He’s just sitting there. And not 15 minutes later, Santo comes up to me and said, “I told you I didn’t want anybody sitting next to me. That’s the FBI and I can’t talk business.” Holy moly!

Correction: Casimiro Hernandez Sr. is the great-grandfather of Richard Gonzmart. A previous version of this story was incorrect on this point.