“Hot Cha” and the Kapok Tree

What kind of career might the son of a junk dealer father and a mother who owned a restaurant end up with?

If he was Richard Baumgardner he would run restaurants raucously decorated with gilded and spray-painted objets d’art — wonderfully kitschy palatial junque bought by the ton in Europe (70 tons of statues in 1966). When his warehouse ran low on statues and urns, he would make plastic replicas with rubber molds.

His customers would find it all enchantingly “different.”

But first, he’d take a detour into the entertainment world as a jazz-era musician and bandleader known as Dick “Hot Cha” Gardner. As an introduction to his restaurant career in 1936, Dick inaugurated the Hot Cha Supper Club in conjunction with his mother Grace’s tea room, the Peter Pan Inn in rural Urbana MD. After she died in the 1940s, Dick took over the Peter Pan and transformed it into a let’s-drive-to-the-country mega-attraction for Washington DC families. In 1958, retired from bandleading, Dick opened his first Kapok Tree Inn in Clearwater FL, on the site of a tree planted in the 1880s.

It’s hard to know how to classify his restaurants. They fall into two of my classifications: 1) the high-volume restaurant, and 2) the curiosity-shop restaurant filled with quaint stuff.

The decor at the Clearwater Kapok Tree was a mix of light fixtures from Paris, chandeliers gathered from the DC Italian Embassy and old theaters in Baltimore and New York City, paneling from a De Medici compound replicated in plastic, and on and on.

Yet for all their madcap faux elegance, Dick’s restaurants followed a rigid formula designed for maximizing profits and minimizing costs. Magically, it worked. Despite ticket windows where customers were required to prepay their dinner tab, a teen-age staff, long waits for tables (in the bar), sticky sweet rum drinks, and limited menus with pedestrian cuisine, customers absolutely adored these zany buses-welcome eateries.

For years diners had just four dinner choices: fried chicken, ham, deep fried shrimp, and steak. When customers sat down at their tables, servers collected their receipts, knowing immediately by the prices what they had ordered. A complete meal included a typical 1950s melange of appetizers which never varied year in and year out, whether in Maryland or Florida — cottage cheese, (sweet) pickled vegetables, muffins, and apple butter. Sides were roast potatoes, peas in mushroom sauce, beets, and hush puppies. Ice cream for dessert and seconds on everything but the entrees. Boxes were provided for leftovers and the complimentary tall cocktail glasses. Few left empty-handed.

The Kapok Tree Inns prospered with the Pinellas County boom of the early 1970s. By 1978, two years after Dick died, there were three Kapok Tree Inns, in Clearwater, Madeira Beach, and Daytona Beach. The first remained the largest, seating at least 1,700. On really busy days upwards of 5,000 meals were served there.

Controlling interest in the Kapok Tree corporation, which also included the Peter Pan Inn and a couple of Baumgardner’s Restaurants in Florida, passed to Dick’s widow, a former waitress at the original Clearwater restaurant, who had largely been running the operation since he had a stroke in 1970. A year after his death, she told a reporter that hers was the most profitable publicly-held restaurant chain in the nation. The Daytona Beach Kapok Tree closed  in 1981, and the Clearwater restaurant closed ten years later.

I wonder what happened to all the wacky furnishings?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under popular restaurants, restaurant decor

22 responses to ““Hot Cha” and the Kapok Tree

  1. jill

    My parents retired from Wyoming to Dunedin FL area. In late 70’s and into 80’s my father would treat us to dinner at the Clearwater Kapok Tree Inn. I remember walking through all the fountains and vines but they didn’t work anymore. The furnishings and light fixtures were awesome but still I just loved the monstrous kapok tree in the front yard. They sold little kapok tree starters for house plant/yards and told where the trees were from. I remember buying a starter seedling. We also went home with big hurricane glasses but none were kept this long😳. The last 2 times we stopped it was a music store with awesome musical instruments but was quite the wrong use for the fabulously decorated building. Seems the light fixtures were still there and they did let us snoop a bit and reminence.

  2. douglas hunt

    I just read this story…I had to google Peter Pan inn and Kapok Tree Inn, as I was cleaning out a cabinet above my wall oven, and found 5 of the hurricane glasses.
    3 have larger bases with a filigree design around the Peter Pan logo with two of those still wearing their hand blown in Mexico stickers, while 2 have slightly smaller bases and a different peter Pan logo [no filigree surround]
    I have absolutely no recollection of how I came to have these glasses unless it was at a high school friends wedding in Md.

  3. tom chiricos

    My grandfather was a Greek Chef at the Kapok Tree in Clearwater in the 60’s and 70’s. Christos Kaloudis. He formerly had his own restaurant in Myrtle Beach, SC until the business was ruined by Hurricane Hazel in 1954 then he moved to Tampa.I remember an old photograph of him with Maryann from Gilligans Island. Many movie stars and famous people ate there.

  4. Carolyn Abraham

    I wish I could find more information about the Kapok Tree in Daytona Beach. I went to Spruce Creeks Jr. Sr. Prom there on April 25, 1981. I read that it was on Fentress Blvd but would love more history and facts on this particular location.

    • JP Leeds

      I was a security guard in 1984 at the Kapok Tree during its conversion to the main headquarters of the Root Company. I had to inform many a sad would-be-diner that the entire estate had been bought out by some multimillionaire (Chapman Root) who wanted it for his corporate HQ. They gutted the building and laid imported Mexican tile I remember.

    • MAE

      The Daytona Beach Kapok Tree closed in 1981, and the Clearwater restaurant closed ten years later. So far that’s the only info I could find on the Daytona Beach location. I lived in South FL and went to the Kapok Tree Inn in Davie (Broward County) FL. I still have glasses from the Kapok Tree, for their Planter’s Punch. I also have the original Punch recipe that was on the box in which the glass was placed to transport home!

  5. MAE

    In listing the locations of the Kapok Tree Inns, I did not see the location, in Broward County. There was a Kapok Tree Inn, located near Flamingo Gardens, in Davie, FL. It was our go to place, for taking company. The last time I remember dining there, was in the early 1980’s. I believe they had three dining rooms and they were awesomely beautiful, so were the grounds!! I still have several of their glasses. I cut out the “Famous Kapok Recipe” for their “Planters Punch,” from the box, in which they put their souvenir glasses and I still have that original recipe, today! Too bad such a wonderful place, is just a memory! There is nothing that compares to it, today!

  6. Trish

    Just found your blog and am enjoying it thoroughly! When I was a child in the early 70s we often drove to Florida to share a vacation with my grandparents, who went regularly to visit my grandfather’s stepfather in St. Petersburg Beach. I always hoped for dinner at the Kapok Tree, which seemed to me the most exquisitely beautiful place on earth. It seems odd now that the food was so simple- flaming desserts and Beef Wellington would have fit better with the over-the-top decor- but that made it popular with my grandparents’ generation. I still have a Kapok Tree glass they kept.

    • Hi Trish,
      We loved reading about your experience at our Kapok facility with your grandparents. So sweet. Would love to have you visit us again some day so we can give you a tour so you can reminisce…. Also, I would love to see a picture of the Kapok glass you mentioned that you still have because I am trying to put something together here at the Kapok with old memories of how it used to be as a restaurant.
      Hope to hear from you soon. Gloria@kapokspecialevents.com

  7. Anonymous

    I attended a wedding at Clearwater location in 1999-2000. Inside and out very much same as when i went there as a kid with my family. Sad to see Sam Ash music store there now but tree is still there and outdoor garden wall with statues i think

  8. Sue

    As a teen in the 70’s I was enchanted by the Kapok Tree Inn. Left enough of an impression that I recall it 40 years later. It was a place of fantasy. Wish it was still around.

    • Bo

      Yes, I loved going there with my parents many years ago. Also had been to The Peter Pan in MD. where I’m from years ago. It was the sister restaurant of the Kapok Tree. The building is a big music store now.

    • Hello Sue,
      Thought you would like to know that it is still around, however it is a Special Events Facility now but still has the beautiful old feel to it. Would love to have you come by and visit us and we can tour you around. What do you say? Maybe you can reminisce…
      Gloria 727-725-8733

      • Sherry Kuntzi

        We celebrated our 1st wedding anniversary there in July of 1971. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and awesomeness . We moved back to Illinois in 1974 after my husbands 4 years in USCG, St. Pete. We came back to visit in 1978 and was told it no longer existed, now to find out that it is still there, and the Kapok tree is still there too! Well now I’m coming back…. Hope we will be able to see the tree. I will never forget the size of that tree.

  9. LarryAt27N

    Funny how the author left out the Kapok Tree restaurant in Davie, Florida.

  10. BoFuller

    Does anyone know what the Madeira Beach address was?

  11. We had our senior prom at the Kapok Tree about 12 years ago. Many of the decorations were still there and the gardens looked the same. My sister got married there about 7 years ago. It is still a beautiful venue for events and receptions. How neat to see you mention it here!

  12. Gail Cothran

    My mother and father worked for Baumgardners in the late 60’s early 70’s in Clearwater. They made a salad dressing with olive oil and some spices that I love. I would love to have that recipe. Sincerely Gail Cothran

  13. David Kessler

    Does anyone know if there is a relationship between Gimbels Department store or Saks and Adams Cafe. Probably in NYC,?

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