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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Cindy Montalto, 55, sits on a bar stool at a counter covered with papers while Lacy, her collie, snoozes on the floor, not stressing as much as her owner. Cindy’s reading glasses, tangled in her short blonde hair, should be on her face to crunch numbers, but they remain atop her head. She doesn’t want to look. Today is bill-paying day. This month’s utilities cost $3,500.

“And that’s with going around turning off all the circuit breakers,” Cindy said.

Tranquil music and constant interruption alternate as more people bustle in and out of a kitchen that’s struggling to be an office.

“The music keeps my blood pressure down,” said Cindy, who’s been the innkeeper of The Magnolia Plantation, a bed and breakfast in downtown Gainesville, for the past 20 years. The house will celebrate its 125th birthday in May.

The door opens yet again, letting in an attack of cool air.

“It’s a 5,400-square-foot home, and all I get is a space heater,” said Joe, Cindy’s business partner and husband of almost 33 years. The couple lives on the inn’s third floor, which also functions as Joe’s office for his engineering company.

Keeping the heat down and the lights off is one of Cindy’s tricks to keep the inn running smoothly. Joe’s cousin, Pat McCants, lives next door in Camellia Rose, one of several other bed and breakfast homes filling the historic district. She said the couple has been running the inn for so long that they make it look effortless. 

“Nothing seems to ruffle their feathers,” McCants said. “They’re so nonchalant about everything.”

Cindy is even nonchalant about the utilities bill, which pays to power the main mansion and nine surrounding cottages at the plantation.

Even with 20 years of experience, the Montaltos need to hire help to keep things flowing  and to keep themselves sane. Blair Mullins,  the inn’s manager for about three years, prepares breakfast every morning that lives up to the expectations of a bed and breakfast.

“We switch it up because, one, the guests get bored, and two, we get bored,” Mullins said, leaning over a griddle of apple fritter French toast and country ham. Southwest quiche is in the oven. But Mullins isn’t the main entertainer.

“The guests want to see the innkeeper, not the manager,” Mullins said. “If you’re an introvert, you’re not gonna be an innkeeper. Don’t try it.”

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Introverts, the Montaltos are not. However, things haven’t always run smoothly for the pair. Cindy, a former real-estate paralegal, and Joe, a civil engineer, didn’t always dream of opening an inn. The idea formed Maine in 1984.

The couple began thinking of cities in Florida that would be more welcoming to a bed and breakfast than Orlando, where they owned their first home. While Vero Beach was Joe’s hometown and the site of the Montalto’s wedding on March 19, 1977, Gainesville had more history to them. Joe, a graduate from UF, and Cindy, who was in the process of converting to Catholicism during their first wedding, remarried seven months later at Gainesville’s St. Augustine Church. Gainesville just felt right, Cindy said.

In April 1990, the couple sought out Thad Crowe, Gainesville’s historic district representative, to assist them in finding a home.

“As we drove up, Joe thought it was perfect and beautiful,” Cindy said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t live in that thing,’” recalling her horror of seeing a dilapidated couch on the home’s second-floor porch.

After deciding to buy the house, the Montaltos took out a loan from the city, which came with a 120-day time limit to finish the house’s restorations.

The Magnolia Plantation opened May 3, 1991, just in time for UF’s graduation rush. Now, two decades later, Cindy doesn’t have as many meltdowns as in the beginning.

“There’s more happy than, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she said.

She recalled an anonymous letter placed inside the plantation’s mailbox that reassured her that this was her dream. Inside was a $500 gift card with a note saying, “From a grateful guest for a life-changing experience.”

“It was what I needed to keep at it,” she said.

Since opening weekend, Cindy’s enthusiasm to make each guest’s visit perfect hasn’t waned, and her number of guests has grown. She must be doing something right, as they keep coming back for more.

“I get so much repeat business, it’s ridiculous,” she says.

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