Flagler Forward: The symbiotic relationship between two iconic St. Augustine institutions and their history of mutual growth

Grand Opening invitation, St. Augustine Columbia
April 3, 2024
By Anna Boone
The Columbia Restaurant in St. Augustine is more than a popular dining establishment. For locals, it’s a historic landmark, and for Flagler College, it’s been a pivotal community partner in elevating the opportunities available through the Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) Program.
Portrait photograph of Casimiro Hernandez Sr.

The acclaimed restaurant first took root in Tampa’s Ybor City as a simple “soup, coffee, and sandwich shop.” Originally opened in 1903 as the “Saloon Columbia” by Spanish-Cuban immigrant, Casimiro Hernandez Sr. (pictured to the right | Digital Commons @USF), the Columbia has since seen expansive success as an iconic Florida restaurant group. 

“The St. Augustine Columbia is being created because the original restaurant’s history fits so smoothly with that of St. Augustine itself,” Columbia’s third generation “caretaker” Cesar Gonzmart said ahead of the June 1983 opening of the family’s third franchise. “That’s why the exterior of the complex will be ‘Old St. Augustine itself,’ and the interior right out of ‘Old Spain.’” 

Fourth generation “caretaker” of the 1905 Family of Restaurants, Richard Gonzmart, who was the St. Augustine location’s first general manager, said the family-owned franchise has long prioritized giving back to the communities that support them.  

“He provided food to people and families who had nothing to eat, with no intention of ever collecting,” Gonzmart said, referring to his wife’s grandfather Casimiro Hernandez Jr., son of the original Columbia owner who operated the then small family business during the Great Depression.  

Richard Gonzmart

This spirit of goodwill and altruism for the community has carried into Richard Gonzmart’s engagement with Flagler College as leader of the family business. In 2017, he established The Gonzmart Family Annual Scholarship and in 2022 he established The Gonzmart Family Endowed Scholarship, both crafted for Flagler Hospitality and Tourism Management students.  

But he noted that his philosophy of philanthropy doesn’t stop at financial support. 

“It’s not just sometimes giving money,” he said. “It’s giving time.” 

Gonzmart worked with the Director of Flagler’s HTM Program, Dave Rivera, in setting the criteria for student scholarship recipients. The chosen recipients are invited to The Columbia Restaurant in St. Augustine where they meet with Gonzmart or one of his team members to learn more about the franchise’s marked success in their industry of interest.  

“It’s a chance for Mr. Gonzmart to connect with and inspire the next generation of hospitality leaders,” Rivera said. 

Cesar Gonzmart's Bust Watches Over the Columbia Restaurant

"Cesar Gonzmart's Bust Watches Over the Columbia Restaurant" (1999). Digital Commons @USF Columbia Restaurant & Gonzmart Family Photographs. Image 413.

Looking back to where the relationship began, it was Tampa businessman Hugh Culverhouse, a former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and trustee for the Flagler Foundation, who got the gears turning for this joint venture. One night, he took a seat at the Ybor City Columbia Restaurant with a goal of bringing the Tampa-staple to Henry Flagler’s budding St. Augustine. 

“A destination restaurant in the historic district was considered a necessity by the Flagler Foundation’s current trustees, who include Hugh Culverhouse,” a 1983 Nation’s Restaurant News feature reported, describing the motivation for the Columbia’s $5 million founding loan. 

Lawrence Lewis Jr. was a Flagler College founder and leading Trustee for the Henry T. Flagler Foundation. The foundation was a private fund established by his great uncle and “one of the nation’s great railroad magnates.” With a vested interest in the town’s prosperity, Lewis saw the value that a restaurant like the famed Ybor City Columbia Restaurant could bring to St. Augustine.  

“The Columbia will not change St. Augustine’s desirability showplace, except to enhance it,” Lewis said, according to an article titled, ‘Historic District Location Chosen for Joint Venture.’ “Any city would go bug-eyed at the prospect of having an attraction like this facility will be.” 

1982 St. Augustine Record clipping, "Ground Broken for Columbia.”

St. Augustine Architect, Craig Thorn’s plans for the 16,000-square-foot building were announced in November 1981. 

“Gonzmart and Lewis said it will be a $1.5 million project encompassing several structures, constructed in a style compatible with earlier St. Augustine architecture,” a reporter noted in a June 2, 1982, St. Augustine Record article headlined, “Ground Broken for Columbia.” 

After guiding the St. Augustine location through its infancy, Richard Gonzmart returned to Tampa in 1985 to help his aging father take the helm of the Columbia family business at-large. However, when Gonzmart heard about Flagler’s HTM Program, he said he knew he wanted to get involved. 

“I wanted to give a scholarship; I wanted to try and build on the program,” said Gonzmart, who studied hospitality as a college student.  

Despite the recency of this official philanthropic engagement, Gonzmart said he’s been interacting with the College since the St. Augustine location’s earliest days, relying on Flagler students to staff the restaurant.  

"I enjoyed the young staff we had, and some of them are still staying in touch with me,” he said.  

As its passionate general manager for the first two years, St. Augustine’s Columbia holds a special place in Gonzmart's heart.  

Despite the restaurant’s opening in the early 1980s, Gonzmart can trace its origin story back even further to when he was just six years old, visiting St. Augustine with his family as a stop on a road trip up to Canada.  

1983 Nation's restaurant news magazine feature

“I have a very keen memory of certain things that impacted me as a child, and I could almost tell you where it was,” Gonzmart said.   

It was 1960, just seven years after Cesar Gonzmart had taken over his wife’s family business from Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. His father-in-law had suffered a sudden heart attack leaving him unable to run the Columbia Restaurant; Cesar Gonzmart embraced the role in 1953.  

“My father stopped and asked a policeman, ‘Can you tell us where to go to have a really good Spanish lunch?’ and the officer kind of points and said, ‘About 188 miles that way, go to Tampa to the Columbia Restaurant’,” Gonzmart said.  

The interaction left Cesar Gonzmart proud, but wondering how, “the oldest city in the United States, founded by the Spanish,” didn’t have an authentic Spanish restaurant.  

Nearly six decades later, Gonzmart said the St. Augustine’s Columbia has gained enough allure and recognition that many often mistake it for the original site of their family business.  

“Some people think it's the original Columbia, and that’s okay with me,” Gonzmart said.  

His sentimental connection to the St. Augustine location is only deepened by the unique connection between The Columbia and Flagler College, created through a vibrant shared community as well as a buzzing hospitality and tourism industry

For Flagler College students, Gonzmart said the HTM internship possibilities are more abundant than usual. He believes this sets Flagler’s HTM Program apart from similar programs at larger or less aptly-located schools.  

At the foundation of his managerial philosophy, Gonzmart understands that every person in a restaurant operation, from the dishwasher to head chef, should be “recognized and respected.” This is a principle he feels can’t be taught through textbooks, only by example.  

Richard Gonzmart Makes a Massive 1905 Salad at the Columbia Restaurant

Richard Gonzmart cooking (1980) Digital Commons @USF

“I think you have to be immersed,” he said about students who want to enter the industry. Gonzmart said every day in the restaurant industry presents “some new challenge or some new twist that makes it interesting,” a dynamic environment he’s confident a Flagler HTM student could navigate confidently.  

When it comes to hiring for the 1905 Family of Restaurants, Gonzmart said a Flagler HTM graduate would be “on the top of his list.”