Ulele, Tampa

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Ulele, Tampa

Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee) celebrates the vibrant fusion of ingredients from Florida waters and land once home to many Native Americans, including the young princess Ulele. Expect intricately flavored, visually appealing dishes prepared on the 10' diameter barbacoa grill. On Tampa's Riverwalk.

We added this restaurant to our Best in Class list due to the restaurant's attention to detail, innovative use of seafood, and overall flavor. 

OUR INSPIRATION (on Ulele's page)

BY RICHARD GONZMART

Ulele is a native-inspired restaurant and brewery, using fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and other proteins from Florida when they are available, just as my ancestors did.

Open since August 2014, Ulele  sits on the banks of the Hillsborough River next to the Ulele Spring. It is adjacent to the Water Works Park, which has been transformed into a family-friendly park thanks to our Tampa Mayor and City Council.

For the rest, we use food harvested and raised in the United States, preferably from family-owned and independent companies. Our organic food is not genetically modified, and has no hormones and antibiotics. The wines we sell are from family owned wineries in the United States, as well as several private-label selections from family vintners in Spain (a nod to early Spanish explorers who came ashore in Tampa’s waters).

We serve craft beers, available only at Ulele, made on-site at Ulele Spring Brewery by Brewmaster Tim Shackton.

Part of The Columbia Restaurant Group, the eatery and park has reenergized and built renewed pride in Tampa Heights. It is just four blocks away from where my grandparents, mother and brother lived on 7th and Central Avenue. It is 300 yards from where I was born at St. Joseph's Hospital.

We have come home.

***

This reminds me of my family's start in the restaurant industry, making beer in 1903.

My great-grandfather Casimiro Hernandez Sr. courageously left his home in Cuba with four young children, and very little money, because he saw opportunity in the U.S.

His dreams led him to the small town of Ybor City, which was becoming known as a world leader in cigar manufacturing. He took a job with the Florida Brewery based there.
Through dedication and hard work, he became general manager of the brewery. In those pre-Prohibition days, breweries would open small saloons to sell their products. That's how the Saloon Columbia was born on Dec. 17, 1903.

Casimiro Sr. dreamed of owning his own business, and he bought the Saloon in 1905, changing the name to the Columbia Café. The Café served cigar workers walking to and from work stopping for a coffee, beer or a small bite to eat.

In 1919, Casimiro Sr. passed away just as Prohibition was beginning. His oldest son, my grandfather, Casimiro Jr. inherited large debts and a business that had to reinvent itself since a large part of the Cafe's income came from the sale of beer and liquor, now illegal.

He merged with a small "Fonda" (dining room) next door to increase the ability to sell more food.

Tough times were ahead. One day the restaurant only sold $12. He told his best friend and employee Gregorio Martinez that he might be forced to close the cafe. The next day Gregorio offered Casimiro Jr. his life savings of about $500. He told my grandfather that too many families depended on him, those that worked for him and the families that he fed, even though they did not have the money to pay.

Through that generous act of faith, the Columbia remained open. During the Great Depression in 1934, a local banker who knew Casimiro Jr. as a man of integrity and a hard worker, loaned him $35,000 – on a handshake – to build Tampa's first air conditioned dining room, the "Don Quixote" Court room.

Casimiro Sr. and Jr. were very much Don Quixote dreamers, much like the title character of the novel. But through vision, hard work and a sense of community, sometimes dreams do come true – even if there are hardships along the way.

The Columbia went on to gain national acclaim and recognition with the help of Chef Francisco Pijuan and others. Two years later as the Depression was coming to an end, Casimiro Jr. built the Patio dining room, complete with a retracting skylight so patrons could enjoy and dine in the fresh air and under the stars.
In 1951, after years on the road, my parents returned to Ybor City to help my grandfather, who had suffered a heart attack that year. My father, Cesar, also believed he was Don Quixote.

Always dreaming grand ideas, he convinced Casimiro Jr. to build a 300-seat showroom, the Siboney Supper Club, in 1958 to showcase leading Latin American performers. It took awhile to succeed because Ybor City would struggle though the shuttering of many of the cigar factories as well as federal Urban Renewal projects in the 1960s that would rob Ybor businesses of their nearby workers and customers.

Cesar kept dreaming and looking for new opportunities. His vision took him to Sarasota in 1959, to a struggling, mostly vacant St. Armands Circle. It took years for the investment to pay off, but when it did, the dividends allowed the family to expand to St. Augustine in 1983 and then to other destinations in Florida.

***

My Don Quixote dream has been in my mind for over five years and on June 26, 2013, the journey finally began with the groundbreaking ceremony of Ulele.

I hope this will be my legacy, much like those of the previous generations of our family businesses left their marks on our company.

We opened Ulele thanks to so many: The Beck Group's Mark House and Beck's Architects Joe Harrington and Jeet Singh, our attorney Jeff Shannon, our CFO Dennis Fedorovich and COO Curt Gaither who make everything possible for our family, our Corporate Chef Jerry Bayona who restored the Columbia quality of our recipes and food preparation, along with all the men and women who are all part of our family business. Without them nothing is possible.

Keith Sedita, our vice president for new business, was key in the development of this dream, along with Ulele's Chef Eric Lackey and Brewmaster Tim Shackton.

I guess I take after both my grandfather and father. As with them, a lot of Don Quixote lives within me. Their history is frequently on my mind. It echoes in many of the choices we make in our business even as we create new memories and new history.

From the 1940s to '60s, the Columbia used ice cream from the Tropical Ice Cream Company, founded by Casimiro Sr.'s. third son, Gustavo.

Now Ulele makes organic ice cream, bringing back the famous coconut ice cream that was once made by a member of our family. It will be served in a halved coconut shell.

Think of it as fresh history.

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September 2020
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