March 20, 2023

Editor's Page

A Side of Success

Vickie Chachere | 2/1/2023

Sixty years ago, a 15-year-old boy named George Guito was headed down the path to trouble when he asked for a job at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. César Gonzmart, then the third generation of his family to lead the iconic restaurant, hired George as a busboy and later sent him to school to become a butcher — along the way making him part of the family and a de facto brother to sons Richard and Casey.

George’s skill and work ethic led him up the ladder, and all these decades later he still serves as general manager of the original Columbia Restaurant. His story seems unlikely anywhere but the 117-year-old Columbia, where the multigeneration success story is laden with lessons of hard work, determination and turning challenges into opportunities.

Richard Gonzmart, now the fourth of five generations of “caretakers” of the Columbia, is a man who likes to pull on the threads of history and weave them into something new every chance he gets. He rekindles old restaurant brands with sentimental backstories and reclaims historic structures to become acclaimed gathering spots. His most recent restaurant, Casa Santo Stefano, brought the century-old Ferlita Macaroni Factory back to life after it was nearly demolished due to disrepair. The menu is based on recipes from the hardscrabble Sicilian immigrants who settled in Tampa, their family photos hanging proudly among exquisite art pieces from the old country as city power brokers dine under their gaze.

In this realm, nothing is done until it comes full circle. “There are no coincidences,” Gonzmart says. “I am a person of great faith.”

It’s against this backdrop that Gonzmart had planned on building a culinary school in east Tampa in a $2-million project that included a bakery, an ice cream production area and a catering service. His vision was to provide training for young people in the neighborhood looking for opportunities in the city’s booming food scene. But the plan was upended by another tragic chapter of local history.

Gonzmart didn’t know when he bought land where the school was to be built in 2015 that it was part of one of Tampa’s lost African American cemeteries. His plans came to a sudden halt with the discovery of the Zion Cemetery, which had been removed from city maps. Not long after, a friend invited him to tour the AMIkids Tampa program located less than two miles from the original Columbia Restaurant.

AMIkids Executive Director Karla Lawton, Richard Gonzmart and Carlos Valdes

The AMIkids campus serves as a diversion program for kids who are showing the early signs of trouble — skipping school, fighting and other disruptive behavior — and works to keep them on track to earn a high school diploma or a GED. Gonzmart was impressed by the success of the intervention program and began thinking of how his and other businesses could help give young people a new direction in life. Gonzmart committed to opening the doors of his restaurants to give the students insights into the hospitality industry.

Since then, the students have had opportunities to dine in the restaurants, learn the finer points of table manners and food traditions, and tour behind the scenes to see the variety of careers that come together to make a successful restaurant operation. For many students, walking through the doors of one of the Gonzmart’s restaurants is a first-in-alifetime experience.

In coming months, AMIkids Tampa will expand its vocational education options to include culinary training in a kitchen trailer donated and equipped by Gonzmart, learning the skills needed for apprenticeships in the industry. An executive chef will guide the program as the students forge paths to culinary school, the skilled trades or business school. “We don’t need dishwashers; we need people to come in and realize they can get a good job and rise up the ranks,” Gonzmart says. Carlos Valdes, the AMIkids’ Operations Specialist who is leading the program, says the organization has a successful apprenticeship program in the construction industry and hopes to replicate its success in the culinary arena. “Culinary is revered now. It’s a much more esteemed way to make a living. Working in a kitchen is a mini tribe; there’s a hierarchy. You see the end result of your work,” Valdes adds.

Something else transformative happens to the students when they walk through the doors of the historic Columbia, dressed in their best clothes and shoes, practicing their etiquette and imagining their futures in a place where celebrities have dined. (Guito once shared with an interviewer his memories of President John Kennedy visiting the week before Dallas.) “They feel empowered,” Valdes says. “When they come to school the next day, they ask: ‘Can I dress up again?’ They start to see life differently.” And if they have any questions where this path might lead, they have George, who intends to work a little longer, to help show them the way.

Find me on Twitter, @VickieCFLTrend, and LinkedIn.

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