Columbia Restaurant, Florida Hospitality Industry Mourns Loss of George Guito After 62 Years of Service, Profound Impact on Industry

We’re sad to share the news that George Guito, the general manager of the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City and employee for nearly 62 years, passed away late this afternoon after a series of illnesses. He was 76.

George was more than a general manager. To Columbia’s third generation owners Cesar Gonzmart and Adela Hernandez Gonzmart, he was akin to their third son. To Columbia’s fourth generation, Richard Gonzmart and Casey Gonzmart, Sr., George was as close as another brother. To fifth generation’s Andrea Gonzmart Williams and Casey Gonzmart, Jr., he was “Uncle George.”

And to the staff of the Columbia, he was a constant, dependable man of few words. An ever-present force, he did whatever it took to keep the restaurant running smoothly, whether it was hanging the enormous chandelier in the Don Quixote dining room, cutting meat for hours as a young butcher, checking deliveries at the back door for accuracy or plumbing the fountain in the Patio.

“We have lost the last of the greats who spent his entire teen and adult life at the Columbia.”  Richard Gonzmart said Sunday evening.

Said Casey Gonzmart, Sr., “George, my friend, my adopted brother, ONE OF A KIND, Loyal and Devoted to The Columbia and Our Family like no other. God Bless You. May you rest in peace.”

Andrea Gonzmart Williams: “I cannot imagine the Columbia without him. It’s like a piece of my childhood is gone. He’s one of the last few people who truly knew my grandparents. He had more stories than anyone else. He could connect the dots when others couldn’t. I’m very much at a loss for words.”

Casey Gonzmart, Jr.: “We lost a true legend today! George’s memory will live on as long as anyone else who came before him! Rest well, ‘Uncle’ George! Don’t worry. We will take great care of the place as you had for over 61 years!”


A member of the Columbia Hall of Fame, George’s name is etched in the sidewalk in front of the Columbia in Ybor City, next to the names of the family members who have owned and operated the landmark since 1905.

The sidewalk tile, just a few steps away from the entrance of Florida’s oldest restaurant, reads, “GEORGE GUITO, DEVOTED SINCE 1962 TO THE COLUMBIA.”

Born and reared in Tampa, George got a job at the Columbia at age 15 — his official hire date May 20, 1962.  He came from a poor and hard-working family; his father worked as a cigar maker by day and a janitor by night. His mother cleaned in a hospital.

After finding himself in some trouble, George came to the Columbia referred by a friend. Cesar thought George too young to be scrubbing floors, but the teen insisted he needed the work and asked for a chance. George was as old as Cesar’s son, Casey. Over the years, he became as close to the family as one of its own. The manager could pay George only $35 a week, but he graciously accepted. It was $15 more than his mother’s wage. He worked six days a week at a brisk pace — the large, busy Columbia was quite a chore to clean.

In the book “The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine,” George remembered his youthful fascination with Cesar and the Columbia. “Every day, Mr. Gonzmart would come and tell me how was I doing, and that’s the way I became friendly with him. I was really amazed with coming into a place this size and beautiful as it is. Besides that, the gentleman that’s in charge of the whole operation, he’s performing here nightly [on violin], and he’s going through the tables. It was really amazing.”

The young man had never met someone so respected and connected. George marveled at the celebrities of the day passing through: Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Carol Burnett “We’ve had kings here. We’ve had queens here. People coming here from all parts of the world.”

What impressed George most was the free meals for employees. To a 15-year-old who had gone hungry, having access to the ingredients of the cooking line was a godsend.

“I said, ‘Man!’ I was really amazed.”

George clearly saw Cesar as the center of everything. “It was all Mr. Gonzmart.” There was no general manager or chief of operations. His two assistants bore the title of maître d.’ He arrived to work at about noon each day and left after midnight, after his two concert sets and a late dinner.

Some thought Cesar could be demanding but George saw a dedicated businessman, a devoted artist, and a caring person. “Once you got to know Mr. Gonzmart, if you would take care of his place, he would do anything for you, help you out in any way. People that were working here, he was always asking them about the family and if they needed something.”

He often sat hungry locals down in the café and told the waiters he’d pay the bill. He gave countless loans, knowing they would go unpaid.

George became a busboy before long and worked odd jobs at the restaurant. Cesar returned his loyalty and found a way to reward George and the restaurant. He sent George to butcher school and paid the bills. “I think the name of the school was Tampa Butchering Professional Meat Cutting Association.” George became a certified butcher and worked with the Columbia’s meat and poultry. No longer a troubled Ybor boy, he gained a respectable career and brighter future.

He became part of the restaurant family in other ways. George soon got to know the Gonzmart-Hernandez clan well. Casey and Richard became his new brothers, and the family gathered every Sunday at the Gonzmart home.

Carmen Hernandez, Casimiro’s wife, did not drive. When George scratched together $35 to buy a 1950 Plymouth, management often enlisted him to drive Carmen home from the restaurant.

George Guito: “I would take her home and she would give me five dollars Back then, five dollars was a lot of money. Then she would tell me, ‘Oh, come in and have something to drink and eat something.’ They were really nice people.” He spent every Christmas with the Gonzmarts. When George got married, Cesar paid for the wedding reception at the Columbia. He then offered George the use of his credit card and El Dorado Cadillac, telling him to take them to Miami for his honeymoon.


George never forgot a lesson Cesar taught him, “I tried to talk intelligent to most of these people. Mr. Gonzmart always used to say, ‘If you talk intelligently, you sound intelligent. If you talk dumb, you sound dumb.’”

Back in the kitchen, George worked with Chef Vincenzo “Sarapico” Perez. He enjoyed his job, cutting beef tenderloins into filets, carving and trimming rib eyes, sirloins, and round steak. The Columbia’s menu was huge at the time, ballooning to more than twenty-five pages. That variety of dishes required many different cuts of meat.

George also remembered the earthy recipes and fresh seafood. Blue crabs were cheap and plentiful. The kitchen simmered tripe, ox tails and pig feet, red beans and rice. A Cuban dish called congri filled patrons with black beans, rice, and pork. Sarapico left after an illness, and George assumed more control in the kitchen. He became a jack-of-all-trades at the restaurant. George can cook dishes that no one else can remember, such as those named above. He is, in many ways, the Columbia’s collective memory.

“I know the kitchen inside and out. I can do anything that has to be done. I can cook. I can order the stuff. I can do basically anything.” In George Guito, Cesar gained a hard worker as loyal as a son. The Columbia’s struggle to stay afloat called upon all of George’s loyalty and know-how, and he delivered.

In the 1960s, before Columbia Sarasota had a dependable source of Hispanic ingredients, George Guito delivered to St. Armands Circle from Tampa countless times. In the days before the Sunshine Skyway bridge, George drove by way of Gibsonton and Rubonia. “They would get in this truck,” Casey says, “and go down U.S. 41, which wasn’t that developed in those days, and supply the restaurant as if it were an outpost somewhere out west. If you took the donkey trail and it was in the winter season, you probably took forever to come and go.” Workers at the Sarasota restaurant spent many an hour waiting for the daily truck to arrive. The tenuous supply line kept the restaurant alive.”

Beyond the esteem of the family and co-workers, George received special recognition in 2019 during Visit Tampa Bay’s annual meeting with an award presented by Richard Gonzmart.

“Tourism is up, but it’s the people in our industry who make it happen,” Richard told the audience. “There is one individual who has been truly special. On behalf of my family, I’m proud to honor an employee, a gentleman who is my brother, Mr. George Guito.”