YBOR CITY — Every Friday, lunch begins and ends the same way.
“I’m Bob Clark, president of Tampa Steel Erecting Co. I am in the iron and steel business; my sister irons, and me and my brother steal,” cracks the host to his 14 guests gathered around the round table.
After Spanish bean soup, 1905 salads, Cuban sandwiches, cafe con leche and more, Columbia Restaurant waiter Armando Gonzalez snaps a picture of the group of eight women and seven men for immortality — or at least for desktops across Tampa Bay.
It has been another Friday, another Bob Clark luncheon, another chance to change one’s future. Clark has been hosting these networking luncheons for more than 14 years.
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With his trademark handle-bar moustache and sharp wit, Clark leaves a lasting impression. He started hosting the luncheons in the late 1990s at the now-closed Seabreeze Restaurant because he “wanted to find a better job and husband for a friend,” said Clark, 77, who grew up in Tampa and graduated from Hillsborough High School.
He moved the luncheons to the Columbia in November 2001 after the Seabreeze closed because it was close to his family business. It also has Gonzalez, who was Clark’s favorite waiter at Spanish Park Restaurant, which also closed. Gonzalez serves as waiter and photographer for the Columbia gatherings.
When Clark started the lunches, he also served on a Tampa Chamber of Commerce committee and wanted more people to know what the chamber and city had to offer. “Lunch is all about promoting each other and the city of Tampa,’’ Clark said. “We help each other with charitable events, business ideas, political ideas and more.”
Dana Ludwig of Brown & Brown Insurance has attended his lunches since she worked on that chamber committee with Clark in the late 1990s.
“It is a wonderful opportunity to get to know community leaders, have a roundtable discussion and keep up on current events,” Ludwig said. “I’ve been able to make some really close friends. He’s such a good person and asks nothing in return.”
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Clark has a rotating list of invitees and adds new ones regularly. Those who stand him up fall to the bottom of the list.
He makes no apologies: Attractive women are a staple of the gatherings.
“People ask how to get invited. I say, ‘Be an attractive female or have amounted to something or indicate that you will amount to something in Tampa, Florida,’ ’’ Clark said.
Guests typically include university presidents, bank executives, CEOs, elected officials, attorneys, nonprofit executives, community volunteers and others.
Clark sponsors the Miss Tampa Scholarship Pageant each year, and the reigning Miss Tampa attends the luncheons.
On weeks Clark has to be out of town on a Friday, he moves the lunch to Thursday. He tells guests to bring 14 business cards to share and he always picks up the check, which was about $100 when the lunches started. Now, it is usually about $350. Everyone gets a picture from the lunch, too.
Clark, who stopped drinking 25 years, ago, said, “I missed Christmas in 1990 and had to quit drinking. So the cost of a meal once a week does not hurt my expense account.”
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Kari Goetz, director of marketing at Tampa International Airport, has attended the lunches for more than 11 years and says her “entire life is built around Bob Clark.”
She said it was through the lunches she met the dean of the University of South Florida College of Business, was offered an adjunct job and eventually a fellowship to get her master’s degree.
After obtaining the advanced degree, she met airport director Joe Lopano at one of the lunches and was hired at the airport.
Clark, who earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech University and a master’s in business administration from the University of South Florida, even grilled Goetz then-boyfriend, now husband, over lunch before giving his approval.
Goetz keeps 78 pictures from the weekly lunches she has attended in her desk and stays in contact with many people she has met.
“It’s all because of the crazy man who wears Mickey Mouse ties and has a handle-bar mustache,” she said.