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Restaurateur to create alliance for iconic eateries

Membership would be restricted to 100-year-old, family-run businesses

Richard Gonzmart, owner of the iconic 106-year-old Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, Fla., is looking to create an organization with a small, exclusive membership — restaurants that are at least 100 years old and are owned by members of the founding family.

Gonzmart, who runs the 1,700-seat restaurant, said by joining together with other places that can trace their heritage back a century, he hopes members could share resources, knowledge and tips on staying relevant in these tough economic times.

“We all have something in common,” said Gonzmart, whose Columbia Restaurant dates back to 1905. “We have survived the test of time.”

Gonzmart’s historical research yielded at least 14 other restaurants in the United States that fall into that family-run, century-old category. They span every corner and cuisine of the country, from Barbetta in New York and Antoine’s in New Orleans to Schuler’s Restaurant & Pub in central Michigan and Huber’s in Portland, Ore.

He said many of these grand old restaurants face similar issues.

For example, he said, when is the right time to open a more casual dining venue or tinker with the timeless menu to appeal to a new generation of guests? Should outside managers be hired if the next generation of the family is not ready to assume the reins? And what happens if the next generation wants too much control of the restaurant?

Gonzmart envisions the group forming partnerships with business colleges that have classes or programs on family-run businesses so owners in this exclusive fraternity can stay current with market trends. The group might want to hire someone for marketing purposes and hold an annual conference, he said.

“We can learn how to inspire the next generation. How do you stay with the trends, but not the fads? You don’t want to limit the next generation, but you also don’t them to destroy what was built by the past generations,” Gonzmart said.

“You have to understand what made us famous,” he said. “What if you have to hire [management] outside the family? How do you give them the respect and authority that’s needed without destroying the theme and brand?”

Multi-generational restaurants face identity, disagreement and leadership succession issues, said Ralph Maurer, visiting professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business.

“The identity of the family is wrapped up with identity of the restaurant. It’s more than just cash flow. There can be identity threats. It can get very emotional,” Maurer said.

Maurer also said multiple generations mean more stakeholders — and the potential for more disagreements. Plus, there can be tension over who will lead the restaurant in the next generation, he said.

Maurer said he leads roundtable discussions with family business members as kind of a therapy session to get family members on the same page.

Gonzmart’s thoughts resonated with Rick Blount, chief executive of fifth-generation Antoine’s in New Orleans. “It would be an interesting club. It’s hard to keep any type of business alive for three generations,” said Blount, whose restaurant dates back to 1840.

Blount said issues of building a more casual pub and fine-tuning the menu posed challenges through the years. “We were experimenting with the menu to address different market niches. We’re traditional fine dining with a high price point, but maybe it’s too high. We experimented with the traditional menu and offer other options to complement, like lunch specials,” Blount said.

Three Midwestern restaurants — The Berghoff in Chicago, Schuler’s in Marshall, Michigan and Mader’s in Milwaukee — said they were intrigued by Gonzmart’s 100-year-old restaurant alliance idea.

Balancing German classic customer favorites such as Weiner Schnitzel with contemporary food offerings is a challenge for Berghoff restaurant, said fourth generation Carlyn Berghoff, whose family’s restaurant opened in 1898. “That would be a topic valuable to discuss.”

“There are always generational issues,” added Keith Kehlbeck, a Schuler’s spokesman. For example, Kehlbeck said, current chairman and chief executive Hans Schuler added a pub in the 1970s so that customers can grab a beer and a burger in a more informal atmosphere.

The pub idea, however, did not go over well with Hans’ dad, Winston, who cracked, “You’re going to make us into a MacDonald’s,” Kehlbeck said.

It worked out, though — Schuler’s Restaurant & Pub continues to operate today. “We want to take the best of the past and keep it fresh and evolve it for new generations of diners,” Kehlbeck said. “One generation might be a little skeptical, but a new idea might take off.”

Victor Mader, owner of Mader’s in Milwaukee, said he’d like to hear more about Gonzmart’s club idea.

“It’s an interesting idea. A lot of people may share similar issues,” said Mader, a third-generation, 68-year-old whose German restaurant is known for its pork shank. “I’d enjoy talking to other people in the group. I normally don’t participate in too many groups, but this one I might be.”

Contact Alan Snel at [email protected].

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