TAMPA — As he looked into the murky brown of the Hillsborough River, praying for a sign that his new dream restaurant wouldn’t flop, Richard Gonzmart’s reassurance came with a snout and whiskers.
Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group and ever-passionate civic booster, is on a quest to build a Florida-centric restaurant called Ulele just north of downtown Tampa. He promises it will use Florida-raised beef, tomatoes from a family farm in Parrish and table-tops fashioned from an old North Florida barn.
But some people wonder if he’s simply gone off his rocker.
There are few businesses in that part of Tampa Heights, trusted advisers told him. Parking’s a concern, as is the large nearby homeless population, which theoretically might worry patrons.
But as he looked down at the river, a manatee was hanging below the water and had its head inside a pipe running from a nearby spring. Suddenly, it popped its head out of the pipe and looked at Gonzmart.
He had his sign.
“I said, ‘Thank you, Lord. I’m there,” Gonzmart beamed, as he delighted an audience at the Chester H. Ferguson Law Center just north of Tampa.
Gonzmart spoke Tuesday morning to the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which heard an update about Ulele and about the city’s reconstruction of the adjacent Water Works Park. When it opens in July, the park should provide an enticing backdrop for Gonzmart’s restaurant, with a boardwalk overlooking the river, limited boat docks, large playground and a splash water feature and other elements, a city official said.
Gonzmart, for now, refuses to say when Ulele will open. He doesn’t want to disappoint, so he’s trying not to rush things.
He’s been at it since January 2012, when Columbia Restaurant Group won a city competition to renovate the old Water Works building — a potable water pumping station located next to a spring. At the time, it was thought the restaurant could open by the end of 2012.
The company planned a unique restaurant, named after a young Native American woman named Ulele and featuring Gulf-caught fish and other local-origin foods. He won’t disclose the menu, but he hinted Tuesday that he’s experimenting with wrapping something in tobacco leaves to mimic a Native American tradition.
However, it’s been anything but an easy ride.
First, skeptics didn’t understand Ulele’s location north of downtown, in a neck of the city closer to homeless missions than gourmet restaurants. Gonzmart’s brother and his own wife were concerned.
“Why would you want to do that?” Gonzmart said, quoting his wife.
When he showed the site to a member of Tampa’s restaurant royalty, former OSI Restaurant Partners senior executive Paul Avery, Avery quipped that, “It’s really going to be a destination restaurant.”
Sure enough, on Tuesday an audience member at the Tampa Downtown Partnership briefing asked about the surrounding area’s homeless population. Won’t they scare away moms from going to Water Works Park?
Gonzmart tried to assuage those fears by saying the city and police will try to keep anyone from sleeping in the park when it opens.
Next, problems surfaced with renovating the Water Works building that dates to the early 1900s. That includes the discovery of tunnels below the building that had to be removed. An original cost estimate of $1.4 million for the restaurant has ballooned to $5 million, Gonzmart said.
Still, he’s undaunted and insists it will be a gem of a restaurant. He pointed to one other answer to a prayer: his hiring of Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar co-founder Keith Sedita to be his managing partner. Sedita was looking for a new opportunity and asked Gonzmart to endorse him on his LinkedIn account. Gonzmart had bigger ideas and hired him.
“My dad told me if you ever had an opportunity to build a restaurant on the water, do it,” Gonzmart said.