Joe and Cindy Montalto have overcome many challenges since opening Magnolia Plantation in 1991, and their work has resulted in today’s Bed and Breakfast District.
Gainesville’s Bed and Breakfast District fits neatly into an area just east of downtown. It’s quiet, and the multiple inns, with a total of about 100 rooms, provide a tranquil respite for travelers.
Such was not the case in 1990, when Orlando residents Cindy and Joe Montalto came to town as they were scouring the state for a house in which to establish a B&B.
With a lot of hard work and tremendous community support, Joe and Cindy restored the building and launched their business.
While Cindy manages the business on a day-to-day basis, Joe has additional responsibilities, running his civil engineering business from his office on the building’s third floor.
Joe’s father, Joe Montalto, Sr., a landscape architect in Joe’s hometown of Vero Beach, is also a member of the team. He designed and helps maintain the elaborate gardens on the property.
As time went on, the Montaltos purchased six additional homes and cottages around them, and they now can accommodate a total of 41 guests.
Some guests are here on vacation, and some are attending football games, graduation and other special events. But many of the guests are here on business, sometimes for several months.
Over the years, their friends and relatives have joined in the renaissance of the area by buying homes and establishing additional B&Bs.
The Business Report talked with the Montaltos about their journey.
How did you become interested in operating a B&B?
Joe: We stayed at our first B&B back in the early 1980s. I had no clue about old houses or historic structures. Cindy is from Cleveland and lived in some old neighborhoods. I’m from Vero Beach, and there wasn’t much old down there.
Cindy planned a vacation for us in New England, and we stayed at our first B&B, the 32-room Cleftstone Manor in Bar Harbor, Maine. It’s a gorgeous area, and it was pretty spectacular.
In 1984, we bought a colonial revival cottage that was built in 1938 in the Cherokee Historic District in downtown Orlando. Over the years, we decorated the house to replicate
Cindy discovered the AAA Reservation Service in Winter Park, and we started using it to book guests in our little guest wing in 1989.
I was working as a transportation division manager for Lochrane Engineering in downtown Orlando, and Cindy was working as a real estate paralegal downtown.
One evening, when I got home from work, Cindy informed me that we had to move out for the next two weeks because she had booked us out of our bedroom. Our guest wing was already booked with two business travelers.
This poor guy who she booked into our bedroom had been in a hotel for a couple of weeks. He was miserable, and she felt sorry for him, so she gave him our bedroom.
Fortunately, some of our friends were moving to Charlotte, N.C., and their home was empty. We blew up our air mattress and slept on it while our house was filled with Cindy’s guests. Rather than get upset about this, I said to her, “I guess you’re really serious about this B&B business.”
We started looking for a home to make into a B&B in Orlando. We found a house a few blocks away from ours that had been for sale for two years. We made an appointment with a real estate agent for 6:30 p.m. to put it under contract.
At 6 p.m., we got a call from the agent who said another agent had just presented a contract, and the owners had accepted it.
Rather than getting too bummed out, we decided that we weren’t supposed to create our B&B in Orlando. We looked all around the state, and we hadn’t found exactly what we wanted.
We decided to come over to Gainesville, and we saw a Victorian house listed in the paper for sale. It was owned by a college professor.
As we were going through the house, one of the tenants was asking us all kinds of questions. We thought she was just curious about our plans for the house. A few days after we toured the house, we talked to the professor about making an offer, he said, “I’m sorry, but River Phoenix is going to buy the house. His girlfriend called him, and she doesn’t want to move.”
Then Thad Crowe, who was the city’s historic preservation officer, told us about this house. Jean and Terry Marshall, an ophthalmologist, bought it in 1985 for $120,000.
Mike Wineger, who was their contractor, was restoring it. Within the year that they bought it, Mike got melanoma and died. They were broken-hearted and lost interest in the house.
On Easter Sunday 1990 we came up here, and we brought my mother and father with us because we felt, “Here are two sane people who will talk us out of doing something stupid.”
We pulled up to the house, and I saw this incredible Second Empire Victorian house. Cindy looked at it and saw something totally different.
Cindy: I thought, “Oh, no. A couch was sitting on the roof of the porch. The shutters were falling off the house. There was dog poop in the hallway.”
Joe’s mom and I saw that there was a window seat on the first floor. She said, “Look, they’re gardeners.” I looked at the plants and saw that they were pot plants.
That same day we made an offer to buy the house with Mom and Dad’s blessing. We had just opened a line of credit on our home in Orlando, and we wrote a $10,000 check on our line of credit.
The Marshalls told their lawyer, “Figure out what we owe on it. We want to walk away from the closing with no money. We don’t want to make a profit on it. We want them to do this.”
The house that they paid $120,000 for in 1985, they sold to us for $80,000.
How did things go from there?
Cindy: When we came up here, we couldn’t find a bank in this town that would loan us a penny on the house. We went to the city’s economic development officer in Gainesville, and he figured out a way for the city of Gainesville to use HUD money to make us a temporary loan.
Joe: The city was using HUD money that it had committed to another project that was due to start in 120 days, which was April 15. We came into town not knowing anybody, but Jane Myers, who was the real estate agent the Marshalls used, was good friends with Keiffer and Sandy Caulkins.
Keiffer had done a lot of restoration work, and he helped us put a team together that was composed of unique people that had the skills we needed to work on an old house.
We were 90 percent completed in the 120 days, but still none of the banks in town would mess with us. The city’s economic development officer connected us with an SBA lender in Pensacola, who gave us a loan.
Cindy: We opened on graduation weekend 1991 and we were completely booked. That last week, we literally worked around the clock.
I can remember standing in front of the oven with a baking pan of cookies and realizing I had no idea how to turn the oven on. I was so tired because we hadn’t slept in three days.
Fortunately, our friends from Orlando, Rick and Jean Chance, had moved into a house across the street. Rick and Jean came over, and he said, “Go to bed, we’ll take care of the cookies.”
How did it happen that Lochrane Engineering agreed to have you set up an office in Gainesville?
Joe: I actually turned in my resignation, and Tom Lochrane said, “My father told me that many people pass in and out of your life. Some people you let go, and some people you keep.”
He agreed to pay me my full salary and made me a principal of the firm. He bought me a car and a car telephone and told me to go open an office.
That was a very good venture. I was with the firm for another 15 years. I left 10 years ago to start my own business, which is located back where I started from when I came to Gainesville, on the third floor of our house.
How was business after graduation?
Cindy: We still had about $10,000 left over from our loan, so we got through May and June.
We didn’t know what summers in Gainesville were like. In mid-July, I was looking at our checkbook, and I realized I didn’t have enough money to pay the electric bill, let alone the mortgage. I said to Joe, “Maybe our mission in this whole thing was just to restore the house, and now maybe we’re supposed to sell it.”
Joe said, “No, our mission in this whole thing was to open a B&B inn. Restoring the house was a sidekick.”
He went out to get the mail, and he came back in and handed me an envelope. He said, “How can you not believe in our dream when people believe in it more than you.”
Somebody had come to our mailbox and stuck an envelope in it with a $500 American Express money order made payable to Joe and Cindy Montalto. The remitter was “From a grateful guest for a life-changing experience.”
About 14 people had stayed with us by then, and I had no idea who it was. It wasn’t all the money that we needed, but it was what we needed emotionally.
A week later, as we were coming into church, someone who we had met during this project handed us an envelope. She said, “Don’t open this until after church.”
All through church, we were staring at this envelope wondering what was in it.
Joe: Inside the envelope was a $5,000 check and a note saying, “I know you guys are hurting right now, and I know you need this. I’m hoping this helps you get through. Gainesville really needs you.”
How have you done financially?
Joe: The first football season is when we started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We built this inn on Steve Spurrier’s tenure.
We’re grateful to still be here after 22 years, but this is a very low margin business because of the operating and maintenance expense of a 100-year-old structure. The major value in doing something like this is the value of the real estate when you sell it.
We’ve restored and sustained an old building, and the two of us wouldn’t want to live alone in a 5,400-square-foot home. Something like this is meant to be shared.
You need another source of income to run a B&B. When the inn is down, my income covers it.
Cindy, what are the things you do in your workday?
In the morning, I come down and put breakfast in the oven, I run back upstairs while breakfast is cooking and strip beds.
I throw laundry in the washer and I run back downstairs and cut up fruit. Then I run back upstairs and put towels in the rooms.
I answer the phone and check e-mails. It’s kind of a whirlwind.
How do you approach cooking?
Cindy: I spend a lot of time cooking. I usually try to get as much prep work as I can the day before, so that I’m not up at three in the morning preparing everything.
I read cookbooks like people read novels. After 20 some years, I have things I can just do in my sleep.
How much help do you have?
Cindy: I have a housekeeper, Kim Offenbach. If she ever left me, I would probably slit my wrists. I supplement her with other help as I need it.
How did things develop over time?
Joe: For the first 10 years, we were in a very hostile environment. It wasn’t conducive to a B&B. People were out until 4 in the morning having parties on their front lawns.
I spent a lot of time from 1 to 4 a.m. waiting for the police to show up to bust up student partiers. I went over there at first to try to reason with them, but I found out that I wasn’t getting through in talking to drugged-up, drunken students and telling them that I was trying to make a living.
The police had their hands tied, so the city commission changed the noise ordinance so that if the noise was clearly audible from 200 feet, they could do something about it.
These people finally left the neighborhood, and families started moving back in. The Sweetwater Inn opened two years after we did.
In 1999, we talked our friends Monta and Peggy Burt, whose daughter, Megan, worked for us as a college student, into buying the old house next door. In a weak moment, while they were having breakfast at our dining room table, I talked them into buying it.
I took him over there after breakfast to see the house, and Monta said, “Who would be so foolish to buy this house?” Two months later, he was looking at himself in the mirror and we now have the Laurel Oak Inn next door.
We had invited my cousins, Pat and Tom, to come visit us for 15 years. They finally came seven years ago, and it cost them dearly. They bought the corner house, which they restored into the Camellia Rose Inn.
Rick and Jean Chance, our friends from Orlando who moved here soon after we did own about five houses across the street from us.
We’ve built a neighborhood here.
What makes you appealing to guests?
Joe: Business travelers are attracted to us because when you go to a hotel, you basically have a hotel room. You’re not in a garden-like setting like this. Most hotels are located where it’s not that great to walk.
This is an ideal location for guests because there are 30 restaurants within a five-to 10-minute walk. When we got here in 1990, there were very few restaurants downtown.
The connection between the B&Bs and downtown has been a really good thing. We stabilized a neighborhood that was a liability to downtown. The downtown provides our guests all the entertainment and places to eat.
Among the four inns here, we can accommodate more than 100 guests. We did the branding with the banners. We’re the Bed and Breakfast District.
The city undergrounded the utilities a few years back, and they put in the streetlights.
How does it feel to look back on your accomplishments?
Cindy: We didn’t realize the effect that we were having on the neighborhood. Sometimes I look at the book about Gainesville that has photos of our home that we have the hallway and say, “That’s my house,” but mostly it’s just getting through each day.
We found something bigger than us. Joe and I are the kind of people who always need a project. When things are going smoothly, we get bored, and we start looking for other things to do. We actually have something bigger than us.
Joe: It started out as restoring an old house and operating a bed and breakfast, but it quickly became more about restoring an old neighborhood. Our purpose in life wasn’t to open a bed and breakfast. It was to catalyze the redevelopment of this neighborhood.