Columbia Restaurant owner eyeing Olympians building
Tuesday, August 6th 2013 1:18 am
Art of the Olympians building in Fort MyersArt of the Olympians building in Fort Myers

Its closure was just announced and already people are lining up to get their hands on the site of the Art of the Olympians museum in downtown Fort Myers.

Among those most interested? The owners of the Columbia Restaurant Group. But how likely is it to happen? Today, we traveled to the original restaurant in Tampa to get a taste of what could come.

In Tampa, the Columbia Restaurant features fifteen dining rooms and 1,700 seats. They also have other locations throughout Florida.

"Started by my great-grandfather, 1905, small corner caf," said Columbia Restaurant President and CEO Richard Gonzmart.

A small street corner cafe in Tampa has grown to an entire block. Step inside, and you'll find the family restaurant has maintained its charm. They serve up Spanish flavors, the servers wear tuxedoes and history lines the wall.

"We want to bring our flavor, taste, commitment from our family to Fort Myers," Gonzmart said.

They say owning a restaurant is all about location. The original Columbia Restaurant has been thriving in the Ybor City district of Tampa for more than 100 years. The owner says he sees potential in downtown Fort Myers.

"When I saw the plans of what's underway, it had me encouraged. With the development of a hotel along there convention centerit's a major draw," he said.

A fourth generation owner, Gonzmart says he's considered a Fort Myers location for years, but the city's River District plans and new availability of the city-owned Art of the Olympians site are too much to pass up. Gonzmart already has a vision for what he calls an ideal location.

"First floor would be beautiful, looking over the river, boat traffic going by. I could just see a customer having a 1905-style glass of sangria," he said.

A place to draw locals and vacationers, like Karen and Richard Gallagher from New Jersey. They liked the Sarasota restaurant so much they came to the original.

"Everything about it is perfect," Richard said.

And they say they'd definitely dine at a River District Columbia.

"We just love it. I know we would go from Marco up to Fort Myers. It really seems like a natural thing to be down there," Karen said.

It's no done deal. There are challenges of converting a museum into a restaurant. Gonzmart plans to tour the property with architect and contractor in next ten days to determine what that would take. But he says he already has a head start.

"It looks like a Columbia Restaurant. It has that Mediterranean feel. All I'll have to do is put up the Columbia Restaurant sign," he said.

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