In the early 2000s, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s corporate staff was gathered together for a celebratory dinner at The Columbia Restaurant, a local favorite in Tampa, Florida’s historic district, Ybor City. The family sports pub was capping off a great year, and the CEO was about to pay up for a bet he made with the development team: because the brand opened 50 stores that year, he was having his head shaved in one of the restaurant’s event spaces. This surely warranted a party, but there was something else worth celebrating: The Columbia Restaurant just had its 100-year anniversary.
The Columbia Restaurant is one of the longest operating restaurants in the country and claims the title of Florida’s oldest. Spending an evening at the restaurant helps explain why; the concept offers an elegant dining experience that feels timeless. But still, 100 years is incredibly impressive for any location. Forget the challenges of adapting to industry trends, The Columbia Restaurant endured all the trials of the 20th century and then some. But to those familiar with Tampa’s history, the most impressive part might be how the restaurant survived the boom and bust of Ybor City.
In the late 1800s, Tampa began to earn its nickname, the Cigar City, due to the factories set up in Ybor. By the early 20th century, Tampa had become a cigar rolling mecca, and Ybor City was a bustling community of immigrants and factory workers. This is when The Columbia Restaurant first entered the scene as a café and saloon on Seventh Avenue for nearby cigar rollers.
But soon, the Great Depression, cigarettes and improved machine-made cigars would drastically impact the local economy centered on premium, hand-rolled cigars. The neighborhood became dilapidated over several decades as jobs and residents disappeared.
All the while, The Columbia Restaurant remained, serving as somewhat of a beacon of prosperity in the distressed neighborhood.
The Columbia’s story highlights how restaurants all too often suffer from factors that are out of their control, and how smart decisions can become pain points if a brand is around long enough. In the early 1900s, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place for a restaurant in Tampa than Ybor City. But few would have told you to open there in the 1960s, when the area was an urban renewal project. Then, consultants probably would have told you to set up shop in the suburbs.
When Americans started fleeing cities for the suburbs, restaurants in urban areas began to see their customer bases dwindle. For example, this demographic shift is considered a contributing factor to White Tower Hamburger’s demise, which began soon after the brand hit its peak in the 1950s. The White Castle knock off had a presence throughout large cities that were starting to lose residents; during the 1950s, populations in key markets such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh started shrinking.
It’s not hard to imagine a world in which Chick-fil-A would have suffered a somewhat similar fate, as the brand, founded in 1967, initially grew by riding the popularity of mall food courts, not opening its first free-standing location until 1986. Had the brand continued to be over-reliant on food courts for its new unit development, it’s hard to imagine they’d be performing as well as they are now, during the ‘retail apocalypse’. For instance, Granite City Food and Brewery filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and called out declining mall traffic as a factor for weak sales at its locations near malls.
Pizza Hut has also served as another example of how time necessitates change. For several decades, Pizza Hut operated as a brand with two popular store formats: large locations, featuring table service and those infamous red roofs, as well as small, delivery-focused units. But over time, the industry shifted more and more to off-premise occasions. Pizza Hut’s larger units became a problem: fewer people were dining out, and rarely were these locations well-positioned to handle substantial delivery business. Eventually, the brand started closing these larger units to replace them with smaller, more profitable delivery focused units.
More broadly, many concepts, and full-service restaurant especially, struggled with the rise of takeout and delivery usage as units weren’t built for off-premise success. Brands that expanded to hundreds of locations through dine-in business were suddenly having to rework unit layouts to account for this drastic shift in consumer behavior. For example, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, a casual-dining restaurant from Texas, introduced a new prototype in 2017 that included space dedicated to takeout orders.
As brands age, good locations can become bad ones, and sound decisions can become sources of frustration. It’s the story of unintended consequences and unanticipated trends. In some cases, restaurants are limited in their ability to respond. But this isn’t always the case. As chains age, it’s worthwhile to frequently ask, why are we doing this, as decisions based on the current business environment will have a lifespan. The earlier that lifespan is recognized, the better.
For The Columbia, this meant understanding that the brand could no longer be a local spot for neighbors and factory workers. Rather, The Columbia needed to become a destination that would bring people into Ybor City. This would eventually lead to Tampa’s first air-conditioned dining room, the addition of the Siboney Room and a jazz room - the types of draws that would appeal to a corporate team looking to celebrate more so than a cigar roller looking for a quick bite.
Likewise, it’s important to look ahead and ensure that a brand’s current model will continue to work. The Columbia had to face this challenge early in its history, as prohibition threatened to future of the small café and saloon. However, founder Casimiro Hernandez Sr decided to combine his restaurant with the neighboring location, La Fonda, to double the size of The Columbia Restaurant. Without this move, the brand might not have made it to its 20th birthday, let alone 100th.
To learn more about the history of The Columbia Restaurant and how the brand managed to survive as Ybor City struggled, please listen to our corresponding podcast episode, where Tyler speaks to Richard Gonzmart, the 4th generation leader of the Columbia Restaurant. Or, check out our highlight video covering the history of Ybor City and The Columbia Restaurant.