Passion Project Lights a Spark in Struggling District of Tampa
When Ulele opens in Tampa Heights, one of the downtown districts of Tampa, Florida, next week, it will ignite a spark the neighborhood hasn’t seen in decades.
At least, that’s the hope of Richard Gonzmart, whose restaurant is a passion project a decade in the making. Serving Native-inspired foods, Ulele will open in the refurbished 1903 water pump station that sits about 400 yards north of Tampa's downtown, in an otherwise abandoned, past-its-prime neighborhood.
While many restaurant owners talk of firing up their communities, Gonzmart's $5 million eatery, which opens Aug. 26, has taken the ambition a step further: It spurred Tampa's city council and Mayor Bob Buckhorn to reinvest in the area, rolling out a $7 million, five-acre park next to Ulele as part of the renaissance.
"It's more than just a restaurant," says Gonzmart, the fourth-generation owner and president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, which has seven Columbia restaurant and cafés in Florida. "I want it to be an icon, something people will think turned the tables for the positive in Tampa Heights."
Within walking distance of Ulele is a high school for last-chance teenagers who have been thrown out of other schools. Approximately 85 percent of the young women there are mothers, Gonzmart says. He plans to extend the school's hospitality program by offering internships at Columbia restaurants. His other efforts to improve the community include providing the kitchen for a nearby church that is being converted into a youth center, and partnering with an organization that helps teenagers with autism. Gonzmart says some of his best employees have been young people with autism.
Empowering these groups of people, Gonzmart is reinvesting in the community; by making these positive changes, he says in the long term, there will be more to visit in Tampa Heights beyond Ulele.
"It'll be, initially, a destination restaurant," explains Michael Kilgore, chief marketing officer for the Columbia Restaurant Group. "It's only 400 yards from downtown, so we're not isolated, but it's just not a place that people go. But they will come here and we think we'll help lead the revitalization of this area. Houses will go in, businesses will go in, other restaurants will go in."
Already, the aforementioned refurbished park, which had a ribbon-cutting Aug. 13, is adding color to Tampa Heights. It has a dog park, outdoor arena for concerts, a playground, a gazebo, and a docking area. A grant, also inspired by Gonzmart's $5 million investment, has already restored the spring of the Hillsborough River that lies adjacent to the property. About two months ago, within days of having the spring cleansed, manatees came splashing in. They usually flow through from January through April, avoiding the warm months, yet they popped out in mid-summer, Gonzmart says, voice soft and full of awe.
From 1903 to 2014
The brick warehouse Ulele now occupies acted as Tampa's third pumping station, operating from 1903 through the 1920s. Tampa Heights developed around the station, acting as the first subdivision in Tampa, Kilgore says. "It was sort of a prestigious place to live for a while," he explains, "although it's undergone some hard times, over the last 30 or 40 years."
Gonzmart grew up within blocks of the pumping station, which has also acted as a public TV station and housed the bomb squad over the years. The hospital Gonzmart was born in is three blocks from the property, and the house he grew up in is just a half-mile from there. He has fond memories of coming to see the little streams and minnows with his grandfather.
Like all regions, Tampa Heights experienced its economic peaks and valleys. "The beautiful homes fell into disrepair and suffered,” Gonzmart says. “The (Ulele) building was in terrible shape. It was only a quarter mile to the north of the performing arts center. I had the vision that if I did this deal with the city, development would take place."
Tampa's mayor Bob Buckhorn put out a request for proposal a few years back that Gonzmart ultimately won through an open bidding process. Refurbishment of the restaurant began two years ago. Part of Gonzmart's $5 million investment went to preserving the historical integrity of the building. He'd entertained a vision for years to create an eatery honoring Native Americans, the land they lived on, the food they ate.
"It disturbs me that what I thought were peaceful people [were treated so poorly] when the Europeans came in," Gonzmart says. "I wanted to remember these people, especially Ulele; the spring is named after her."
In 1528, the story goes, a Native American princess named Ulele saved a 17-year-old Spanish sailor, Juan Ortiz, from being put to death by her father. If the story sounds familiar, that's because it's eerily reminiscent of the John Smith-Pocahontas story, though Ulele's adventure took place about 80 years before that one. It's unclear whether the Ulele story is true, Kilgore admits, "but it's a story that's been floated around these parts for a long time."
A Brand New Concept
The food Ulele serves draws inspiration from meals the Native Americans would've eaten—though Kilgore is quick to clarify the cuisine is Native-inspired, not necessarily the exact foods they ate. "It's not like we're going to be serving maize," he says, laughing. "It's certainly more modern than that."
Oysters are a focal point of the menu, with offerings from Charbroiled Oysters to Oyster Cabbage Boats. Several varieties of fish decorate the menu from grouper to snapper. Appetizers include Lobster Claw Cocktail and Alligator Hush Puppies, while sides and desserts are equally imaginative, such as the Jalapeño Corn Beer Quick Bread and Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream.
As is the trend, every ingredient and dish at Ulele is fresh; the only item stored in the freezer is the handmade ice cream, a specialty that's been passed down in Gonzmart's family, from the time his great-grandfather, who founded Columbia Restaurant Group and had a son who made his own ice cream. Beef at Ulele is sourced within Florida, from the Strickland Ranch in Myakka City, while oysters are reeled in from the Gulf Coast.
Ulele has its own brewery within the property—beer-making is another family talent, as Gonzmart's great-grandfather also worked for a brewery in the early 1900s—and the restaurant will serve five different kinds of craft beer. Part of the property is a beer garden, situated directly in front of the Ulele Spring Brewery, that has its own seating. Beer will flow from tank to tap with no kegs involved.
In the spirit of full circle, Strickland Ranch will use the spent grains from the brewery to feed the cattle that Ulele will end up serving its guests. The wine program, meanwhile, sticks to the roots of the brand; Ulele will only serve American domestic wines from family-owned vineyards.
Inside, the tabletops were constructed from wood taken from a 100-year-old barn in North Florida, and built by a local company about three miles from the restaurant. A local steel artist, Dominique Martinez of Rustic Steel Creations, fashioned cradles for the wine bottles mirror anchor chains, a nod toward the nautical history of the Tampa area. Countertops in the kitchen are embedded with arrowheads and shells, while a community sink has LED lights that illuminate it from below, a design of local artist Jeff Downing.
Gonzmart also commissioned a bust of princess Ulele, while a life-size representation of her will go in front of the restaurant. The rest of the restaurant is filled with art Gonzmart collected as he marinated on the restaurant concept for more than a decade.
When Ulele opens Tuesday, Gonzmart’s dream will finally be realized. He speaks passionately, his voice softening, when thinking about all the possibilities that Ulele will afford Tampa Heights, and Tampa as a whole, in years to come. For him, in a way, the restaurant begins the process of converting Tampa Heights into the bustling, amiable neighborhood he grew up in.
“As a child, I remember going to see these little streams and little minnows; my grandpa would take me there. It was vivid, vivid memories,” Gonzmart says.
“This is an opportunity to recreate in this park, and in our property, somewhere that for generations to come—I hope it will be my legacy—where my children will bring my grandchildren, and my grandchildren will bring their grandchildren to talk about their grandpa and how he brought them there to play and see the fish and feed the fish. I've been feeding them at 8 in the morning every day, so that they'll get used to coming up and not swimming away under the lily pads when people come.”
By Sonya Chudgar