One of the many considerations for dine-in restaurants right now is how they will draw in customers once dining rooms start to reopen. Of course, there is no rule of thumb for operators responding to a global pandemic, but restaurants have been asking some variation of this question for decades. And one concept that has asked this question more than others is The Columbia Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Florida.
The Columbia was founded in the early 1900s in Ybor City, which at the time was a thriving neighborhood in Tampa, FL with a booming cigar industry. The cafe and saloon soon found its initial niche as a local spot for Ybor City residents and factory workers.
But then came prohibition, the Great Depression, the collapse of Ybor’s cigar industry, urban renewal and the construction of a highway that tore apart Ybor. And that was just The Columbia’s first 60 years.
Earlier this year, we spoke to Richard Gonzmart, a fourth-generation member of the family behind The Columbia, about the brand’s lasting success. And one notable lesson stands out at this time: many of The Columbia’s greatest innovations came as a response to significant challenges.
To survive prohibition, The Columbia combined with a neighboring concept to double its size
Following the Great Depression, it built Tampa's first air-conditioned dining room
As urban renewal dislocated Ybor City residents, The Columbia added the Siboney Room to draw in guests
When Tampa residents were afraid to go to Ybor, fearing crime, The Columbia added a jazz room and televised a show from its restaurant
And when the country was suffering through the Great Recession, The Columbia upgraded its classic Cuban sandwich to feature higher quality ingredients
Looking through the brand’s history, you’ll see it has been in a nearly constant but gradual state of evolution for the past 115 years, with new innovations routinely answering the all-important question, how will we get people into our restaurant now?
As restaurants consider what the future of dining out looks like, much emphasis is appropriately being placed on cleanliness and safety. But while consumers will certainly expect greater food safety policies – any many will be mandated by governments – it is hard to imagine that these will be the same sort of customer draw as Tampa’s first air-conditioned dining room in the 1930s. Because that air-conditioned dining room wasn’t just a response to how attitudes changed during the Great Depression, it was giving consumers the type of experience and hospitality they needed after enduring economic hardship. It was a place to celebrate life, according to Gonzmart.
Plenty of restaurants will install Plexiglas dividers, offer hand sanitizer and enforce social distancing, among other measures, to make customers feel comfortable while dining out. But while these will be elements of the future restaurant experience, it’s hard to see them being the future of hospitality. And it will ultimately be the entrepreneurial operators that give consumers a reason to visit – and perhaps a place to celebrate life and community after enduring a global pandemic - that define the post-coronavirus dine-in restaurant.
You can learn more about The Columbia Restaurant by checking out our story and podcast "Est. 1903", as well as our highlight video, "The Columbia's Home in Ybor City".