Ben's Tribute To
The Kapok Tree Restaurant
A Brief History
Beginnings - The scene is rural post-Civil War Florida - the 1870's. Tampa's population is under 5,000 and Clear Water Harbor is home to about 18 families. Nurseryman Robert Hoyt settles inland of Cooper's Point on the western side of Old Tampa Bay. He builds a home and plants citrus groves near a new rail line that feeds produce from Pinellas Peninsula north through central Florida. He runs "Seven Oaks Post Office", shipping citrus and pecan trees worldwide. In his greenhouse he raises two seedling kapok trees brought from India. He eventually plants one across from his house at the future location of the Kapok Tree Inn.

The tree itself was a popular attraction in 1940's and 1950's

Maryland Roots - Kapok Tree founder Richard B. Baumgardner is born in Frederick, Maryland in 1908. After Richard graduates from high school, his mother converts their historic family house into a restaurant, opening the Peter Pan Inn in 1926. Richard becomes a singer and band leader, appearing in movies and on radio as Dick "Hot-Cha" Gardner. He takes over running the Peter Pan Inn upon the death of his mother in 1946. In the 1950's, Richard and wife Ethel¹ raise two boys and a girl. With the Peter Pan Inn closed during winter months, the family spends its vacations in Clearwater. Richard eventually buys the Hoyt orange grove and its already-famous kapok tree. He and friend Jim Jones decide to build a restaurant there. Like the Peter Pan Inn, the Florida restaurant will offer country dinners in an elegant setting.
¹ Exact history of Richard's marriages is not clear - can you help?

Richard with (first wife?) Josephine
Richard B. Baumgardner
Founder, Kapok Tree Inns
Early Years - The 200-seat Kapok Tree Inn opens in 1958, with Richard's designs executed by Jim Jones. It offers a choice of fried chicken, broiled steak, or baked ham, all served amidst fabulous antiques and tropical palms. Owner-operator Richard Baumgardner personally greets his arriving guests. Relying only on word-of-mouth advertising, the restaurant becomes a sensation. Dining rooms are added to increase seating, and shrimp is soon added to the menu. By the mid-1960's, the New York Times and Holiday magazine name Baumgardner one of the world's top ten restaurant operators. In 1964 Richard remarries, making a Kapok Tree waitress named June his new wife. In 1970, Kapok Tree Inns Corporation announces it will go public, and Richard suffers a stroke but survives.

Part of the Kapok Tree Inn's original 200-seat dining room

Expansion - In the 1970's, Kapok Tree Inns, Corp. embarks on an ambitious expansion program. In 1971, they open a suit-and-tie restaurant across the street from the Kapok Tree and name it "Baumgardner's".  A second Kapok Tree Inn opens in Madeira Beach in 1972, a third in Fort Lauderdale in 1974, and a fourth in Daytona Beach in 1978. Seats are added almost annually at the one Maryland and five Florida restaurants. In 1976, the Clearwater Kapok Tree Inn is named one of the 100 best restaurants in the United States by Sales and Marketing Management magazine. With both sales and profits still rising, founder Richard B. Baumgardner dies in October of 1976, leaving 75% of his estate to his wife June, who takes over as CEO and chairman.

Peter Pan Inn
Urbana, Maryland

Clearwater, Florida

Kapok Tree Inn
Madeira Beach, Florida

Kapok Tree Inn
Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Kapok Tree Inn
Daytona Beach, Florida

Squabbles - The next year, unhappy with the terms of their father's will, the Baumgardner children sue their step-mother for control of Kapok Tree Inns.  Mrs. Baumgardner and the corporation counter-sue, charging the children with illegally shopping for stockholder proxy votes. In 1978, June Baumgardner wins the battle for control of the corporation, but sells her stock to new chairman and CEO Steven Weil. In the next 12 months, Kapok Tree Inns, Corp. fires Weil, and the Securities and Exchange Commission charges him with fraud, stating that Weil, "by a series of
misrepresentations and omissions", induced Mrs. Baumgardner to transfer control of the Kapok company to him. In early 1980 the Baumgardner family calls off its feud, and June Baumgardner buys all her step-children's Kapok Tree stock to become the major stockholder.
Survival - In 1981, Sales & Marketing Management magazine names the Clearwater Kapok Tree Inn among the top 100 restaurants in the U.S. for business dining. But the six sprawling Kapok Tree and Peter Pan restaurants are old and outdated. In 1983 two investors buy the restaurant chain in hopes of reviving it. Three years later, they close the Peter Pan Inn in Maryland after 60 years of operation. In 1987 they try something new, breaking ground on a retirement home next to the Clearwater Kapok Tree. They rename the corporation Hampton Healthcare, Inc. Less than a year later the company files Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The Fort Lauderdale and Madeira Beach restaurants close in September 1988. Still, in December 1988 the Chicago Sun-Times reports the Clearwater Kapok Tree Inn is the number 15 restaurant in dollar sales with sales of $10 million. As late as March 1991, Restaurants & Institutions magazine reports sales at the Clearwater Kapok Tree increased 12% in 1990.
Endings - The Clearwater Kapok Tree closes its doors on May 14, 1991, and an era comes to an end. The public is never told exactly what went wrong. The facility remains vacant for the next two years. In 1993, Elliott Rubinson purchases the Kapok property and converts it to a Thoroughbred Music store. Sam Ash Music acquires Thoroughbred in 1999. In March 2002, June Baumgardner dies at the age of 71. Today the former Kapok Tree property is home to three distinct businesses that, together, maintain the buildings and gardens.


© Copyright 2008 by Ben Mancine