“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

14 Comments

Filed under popular restaurants, restaurant decor

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

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. LarryAt27N

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

  5. BoFuller

    Does anyone know what the Madeira Beach address was?

  6. 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!

  7. 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

  8. 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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