Casimiro, Jr. and Carmen Hernandez
Casimiro Jr., one of four sons of Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., assumed leadership of the restaurant in 1929 following his father’s death and bought out the shares of his brothers Lorenzo, Gustavo and Evelio.
Casimiro Sr., left a massive debt of $78,000 — more than $1.3 million in
today’s currency. To make matters worse, the stock market crashed a few months later, sending the nation into an economic tailspin. The Columbia floundered into the 1930s, surrounded by an Ybor City in steep decline. Over the next three decades, the hand-rolled cigar industry steadily disappeared.
During the low point of the Great Depression, only eight patrons visited the restaurant one day, and they spent only $12.42. Casimiro looked out the window at somber Seventh Avenue, nervously picking his eyebrows. “If you saw him picking at his eyebrows, he was mad,” his grandson Richard Gonzmart said. “When he did that you knew, stay away.”
Casimiro walked to the hardware store to buy nails. Upon his return, he convened a meeting of his employees and placed the nails on the table. “Another twelve dollar day,” he announced, “and I nail up the damned joint.” His waiter, Gregorio Martinez, or El Rey, quietly left and withdrew his life savings of $50 from the bank. “Don’t close the place,” he said upon his return. Casimiro refused the money and never publicly wavered again in the face of adversity.
Casimiro Jr. aspired to take the Columbia beyond its humble beginnings and envisioned an elegant dining room with music and dancing, the likes of which were unheard of in this part of the country at the time.
During the height of the Great Depression, he took a chance by building the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa, complete with an elevated dance floor.
Not even the Depression could dampen Casimiro’s generous instincts. When he learned that a local teacher, Leva Dopp Grebenstein, would not eat her lunch each day because her students had nothing to eat, Casimiro intervened. He insisted on sending soup and bread for the remainder of the school year. Mrs. Grebenstein had a long-standing connection to the Columbia: her father ran the Seminole Saloon across the street in the early days. Both families must have rejoiced when the news arrived from Tallahassee. On May 8, 1933, the Florida Legislature followed a national trend and voted to legalize alcohol.
With Prohibition repealed, Casimiro recovered his primary source of revenue, though he never gave it up entirely.
A humble and hard-working man, Casimiro did not seek the limelight. His picture rarely appeared in the newspapers and never appeared in any ads. Casimiro remained quiet and rather stoic. Casimiro Jr. and his wife, Carmen had one child, Adela Hernandez.