Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Alabama Traditions at Rama Jama's

In the South, the summer seems to drag along, but in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the anticipation of the upcoming football season makes the summer months feel even longer. Fans sit at their homes and long to have the fall months arrive, but until then fans only have their stories to subdue their thirst for football. Luckily, Rama Jama’s Restaurant is in a prime location for fans who want to relive games and stories of the past. The restaurant sits under the eaves of the South End Zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium. During the college football season more than 90,000 people fill the stadium with raucous cheering and applause, when there is a game held here. At the end of a victorious affair, the cheer of “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, Give ‘em Hell Alabama” echoes throughout the entire campus. Being my personal favorite cheer, I am happy to see that it was chosen as the name for this establishment. I have been to Rama Jama’s on numerous occasions, and each time was wonderful. During my visit today, however, I am determined to understand what is so special about this small restaurant.

I arrive at the restaurant during the middle of the lunch rush and decide that I should take some time outside the actual building before sprinting inside for my food. At first glance, Rama Jama’s is not the most aesthetically pleasing building. It is dwarfed by the stadium that stands next to it. White exterior walls cover up the wear that the elements have caused over the years. On the west side of the building, a wall borders the parking lot. I learn later that this wall used to have a large picture of the stadium on it, but now the twelve national championship years rest there along with a few quotes from some of the more notable guests. According to Verne Lunquist and Tracy Wolfson, both CBS sports analysts, Rama Jama’s has the Best Cheeseburger in the SEC. Names such as Tyler Watts, former UA quarterback, and Shannon Camper, Miss Alabama 2004, grace the wall with more praise of this quaint restaurant.

On the way to the east parking lot, I pass some sweet smelling gardenia bushes that have sprung to full bloom in front of the building. Just past these bushes, there is a small courtyard. Customers do not often use the courtyard, but I have seen an employee sit out there while enjoying their lunch. It is a nice courtyard with wrought iron tables and chairs. A fountain in the center of the courtyard suggests that at one time the courtyard received many people at its tables, but now the waterless fountain is a testament to the heat of the Alabama summer, keeping everyone inside. Backing up from the courtyard, I notice the large neon letters that spell out Rama Jama’s for all to see. Despite the current traffic situation, with construction taking place to renovate the South End Zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium, there used to be a good bit of traffic around Rama Jama’s. Bryant Drive is one of the most commonly used streets on campus, so the neon letters on top of the building are sure to draw attention from drivers as they cruise by. When traffic resumes its normal path, after the renovation is complete, more people will surely drive by Rama Jama’s and stop on an impulse. When they do, I know that they will be amazed at how well Rama Jama’s encapsulates the pride in both the culture and the football program at The University of Alabama.

Many people come back to Rama Jama's and refer to it as a tradition. They have gone to Rama Jama’s on every gameday of their lives, and they would not have it any other way. The amount of people around Rama Jama is directly related to Bryant-Denny Stadium. In 1998, the stadium opened a new upper deck which increased seating capacity to 83,818 people. In 2006, Bryant-Denny Stadium once again opened more seats to the public, and the administrators at The University are intending to do it again in the Fall of 2010 when the South End Zone Expansion is finished. In a twelve year span, the stadium has increased seating by roughly 31,000 seats (Bryant).

My thoughts about the renovations that have been undertaken on Bryant-Denny Stadium lead to a more puzzling question. Where is all the money for this construction coming from? Many economists are questioning why Alabama is renovating their stadium in such poor economic times. However, there are some people that think Alabama is impervious to economic downfall because the football fans are so passionate. In an article published by the Birmingham News, Ray Melick says, “But Fulks also believes that Alabama is one program that can expect a consistent return. Athletics Director Mal Moore said the school has a waiting list of 10,000 people who don’t have any season tickets, plus another list of 3,000 who have season tickets but want more. And of the 36 proposed sky boxes, 25 have already been ‘pledged’ at a cost of a $500,000 pledge per box” (Melick). The one thing that Rama Jama’s can depend on in these dire times is Alabama Football. No matter what happens, Alabama will sell out its football games, and there will be an abundance of fans walking on campus during home football weekends. According to Melick, The University of Alabama is one of the few schools in the nation that can continue to spend millions of dollars on renovations, as they are doing today, because Alabama fans will continue to buy tickets.

My focus on the South End Zone renovation is abruptly broken as some Rama Jama’s customers walk out of the door. Two older gentlemen dressed in slacks and button-down shirts with ties laugh and joke with each other as they exit the building. I think that it is time to venture inside the building and satisfy my grumbling stomach.

“Order Up!” These are the first words I can hear clearly once I enter the restaurant, and they have typically been associated with diners throughout the country. The smells of fresh hamburgers and french fries, among other tantalizing foods, are the most vivid memories for most people when thinking about diners that they have eaten in. My memory, too, was drawn to the smells of a short-order kitchen when thinking of that climatic phrase bellowing from the kitchen, but Rama Jama’s is much more than a “hamburger joint,” as my mother calls it. Every time that I walk in the front door of Rama Jama’s, my eyes are immediately drawn to the walls and to the people seated in the booths. I do not stare at the people so much as I stare at the memorabilia surrounding their heads and feet. I will come back to the walls in a minute, but for now I must travel to the opposite end of the building and order because the aromas floating in the air are too much for me to handle on an empty stomach.

The menu at Rama Jama’s consists of three large chalkboards that hang just above the cash registers. Despite the rising costs in society, I have never seen the prices on these menus change. If they had, I may not have noticed because I was focused more on the food that I was ordering. One unique thing about Rama Jama’s menu that most restaurants do not have is that Rama Jama’s serves breakfast all day. The restaurant is open from 6 am – 6 pm, and they serve their entire menu throughout the day. One of their specialties is the Touchdown Burger Platter. This mountain of food is served with a large cheeseburger, an order of hashbrowns or fries, and an egg, cooked to order. I have had the Touchdown Burger Platter on previous visits, but I am presently concerned with Verne Lundquist and Tracy Wolfson’s analyses. (Two of the CBS sports broadcasters that eat here often; I understand both of them like Rama Jama’s cheeseburger.) Today, I have decided to order that infamous cheeseburger. I stand in line and peruse some of the poems posted on the glass doors behind me, and of course they are about Alabama Football. What else? I am next in line and step up to the cash register. I speak to the ladies behind the counter as if we are friends. The same ladies are there every day, and it makes me feel at home because I know what to expect; I am comfortable. She smiles, says hello, and I begin to salivate and feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs as I fumble through my order. Large Cheeseburger, French fries, a glass of water and a chocolate milkshake. Even though it is June, mine is a meal fit for a fall Saturday before or after a football game. I receive my cup of water and fill it in anticipation of using it quite liberally. Next to the water pitcher, there hangs an autographed picture of Tracy Wolfson saying that Rama Jama’s has the best cheeseburger in the SEC. I honestly did not know that she had done more than mention her thoughts on the restaurant to someone, but here was my proof that she had been here. I grab a seat along the windows so that I do not have to turn around in order to see everything hanging on the walls.

The walls are literally covered from top to bottom with memorabilia. Pictures of famous people from all over line the walls, and most of them are signed. Bobby Bowden and Tommy Bowden, coaches from the Atlantic Coast Conference, both have pictures with their signatures on them hanging. A few of the other items on the walls: old tickets, old programs, old schedules, newspaper articles talking about Alabama Football, old helmets, shakers, stadium seats, old band uniforms, bumper stickers, and even a Brasfield & Gorrie construction helmet with the words “Coleman Coliseum” written on the side to denote it was from the coliseum renovations that took place no more than two years ago. I am astounded by the amount of history that lines the walls in this small restaurant. The patrons of Rama Jama’s are so enamored with The University of Alabama that they provide all of the memorabilia hanging. What a statement for both Rama Jama’s and the university! All of the fans that donated articles to be put on display gave both of their time and possessions for the glory of a restaurant. Why would they do such a thing? Only one answer is feasible: Alabama fans are very passionate about Alabama Football. The fact that Rama Jama’s is immortalizing the fans’ possessions in a place where everyone can see them makes the fan even more excited about coming back to Rama Jama’s so that they can walk through a gallery of Alabama artifacts. I am just starting to look at the opposing wall’s artifacts when my food arrives. Just in time; thank you Lord!

Tracy Wolfson and Verne Lundquist were not joking or lying in their analyses of this cheeseburger. It is wonderfully cooked, sits on a fresh bun, and is covered with the condiments that I asked for: mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. This burger is not for the faint of heart. It is larger than any burger I could order at a fast food restaurant, and it tastes twice as good. After two bites, I had to try the fries, and they did not disappoint: crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and seasoned to perfection. I have learned in my visits to Rama Jama’s that I should sit close to the water pitcher because of my frequent trips to refill my glass throughout the meal. I am almost done with my burger and fries when my milkshake arrives with impeccable timing. I finish the burger and start on the milkshake. I have had many milkshakes in my twenty-two years on this planet, but I think that Rama Jama’s serves the best shake that I have ever had. In my ecstasy over the milkshake, I happen to catch the ceiling in my view.

Some of the ceiling tiles in the restaurant have been painted crimson with white lettering. They are inscribed with the national title years from 1925 until the most recent national title in 1992. I cannot believe that I missed this observation while I was looking around earlier, but I got a bit caught up in some of the pictures around the room. One picture that was of particular interest to me is a photo taken from a press-box camera during the coin flip of the 2005 Alabama vs. Tennessee game. I like it because that was my first year at Alabama as a student, and that was my very first Tennessee game. Alabama won 6-3 in dramatic fashion with a late field goal. The picture, however, features the captains of both teams and Condoleeza Rice, former Secretary of State and apparent Alabama Football fan. There is not much more significant about that picture except that Condoleeza Rice must love football if she is honored with flipping the coin at this game because the Tennessee game is always a big game to every Alabama fan. Moving from the ceiling tiles back to the walls, I cannot help but notice the grizzled visage that is seen in more pictures than any other. Paul Bryant is everywhere. Still considered to be one of the best college football coaches of all time, Coach Bryant’s legacy defines the Alabama Football traditions for the most part, and Rama Jama’s is fully aware of his stature as an enormous icon to Alabama fans everywhere.

As an Alabama fan, I am no stranger to Paul “Bear” Bryant’s pictures and stories, but these pictures are more interesting than the ones that I have seen before. Instead of intimidating eyes hidden under the bill of a houndstooth hat, Coach Bryant is shown with the people that most supported him; his fans. He is shown hugging them, talking to them, and in one picture is shown with a young child who is wearing an Alabama jersey. The fact that he is shown with his fans is not very surprising, but the pictures all have writing on them. One of the pictures has a handwritten caption that reads, “Two weeks before retirement.” Coach Bryant retired from coaching football at the end of the 1982 season. When asked what he would do with his retirement, he was quoted as saying, “I’ll probably croak in a week.” Coach Bryant died 28 days later on January 26, 1983. The pictures of Coach Bryant in Rama Jama’s are pictures of his last days not only as the head football coach, but of his life.

Coach Bryant’s legacy was etched on the campus of the university. In his book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, a must read for any Alabama fan, Warren St. John describes Coach Bryant’s death:

Thousands of Alabamians lined the forty-five-mile stretch of interstate between the university campus in Tuscaloosa and the cemetery in Birmingham. Bryant’s hearse and the three-mile procession of cars and buses behind took farewell laps around Bryant- Denny Stadium on campus in Tuscaloosa and Legion Field in Birmingham before heading to the cemetery, where I stood with ten thousand other mourners. Each Alabama win had served as a kind of temporal hash mark on the green turf of my youth, and after Bryant died I felt that field had turned brown. (St. John 5)

The enormous crowd that gathered to pay their respects to Coach Bryant is a true testament to the effect that he had on the entire community of Alabama. I know that Rama Jama’s collection would not be complete without Paul “Bear” Bryant’s image. In fact, I think that there is warrant enough to cover all of the walls in Rama Jama’s with Coach Bryant’s picture so that the patrons will have no question when they ponder why Alabama fans are so passionate about their football. Paul “Bear” Bryant coached for twenty-five years at The University of Alabama and he is responsible for six of the twelve national championships, thirteen of the twenty-one SEC championships, and fifteen of the fifty-five bowl game appearances. Clearly, his effect on the cultures and traditions at The University are immense.

I move away from Coach Bryant’s pictures and my thoughts come back to the present. As I continue with the glorious experience that I am having with my chocolate milkshake, I walk into the side dining room. It is a room with about seven tables. The first thing that catches my eye is the large mural on the front wall of the room. It is, of course, a mural of past football moments with Gene Stallings the most definitive figure. Coach Stallings is the last coach to win a national title at The University, so it seems fitting to me that he is at the middle of such a large mural. I have to sit down and study this mural and determine what this room had that the other room did not. There is a large painting on the ceiling alongside a United States Postal Service uniform that is the “Bear Bryant Issue Uniform.” Towards the door, I notice a Crimson-White newsstand and close to that, there is a gumball machine that reminds me of small-town Alabama storefronts growing up.

I throw my milkshake cup away in the trash can, but only after trying so hard to get the last bit with the straw that I started to get light-headed. As I gaze around the room and head back into the main room to get some more water, I see a familiar face headed my way in the form of Mr. Gary Lewis. He is the owner of Rama Jama’s Restaurant, and every time I see him, he is smiling and wearing his red apron; this day is no different. I ask him for an interview, and he kindly obliges my indulgence.

When I tell Gary about my project, he nods in agreement and continues to give resounding “OKs” in response to my explanation of why I am interviewing him. I finish my explanation and receive an unexpected question, “Why do you want to interview me?” Gary and I exchange a few quick pleasantries about how I think the food is wonderful, but I want to interview him and learn more about everything that he has on the walls of his restaurant, “OK,” he responds. I hint that his restaurant is probably one of my favorite places to eat in Tuscaloosa and I really enjoy the atmosphere, and he jumps in quickly in agreement: “And that’s the key, you know. You know you can go anywhere to eat, and we try to make it a place where you enjoy and we give some good personal service and hang out with our customers.”

My comments about the memorabilia on the wall provoke him even further to give his reason for having his walls so crowded with random stuff, which to the non-Alabama fan would be junk.

“As we’re talking, that’s pretty much why I’ve done it the way I’ve done it, and I try to add something new every week. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I try to add something new every week. A lot of people, over the years, have given me things to put in here. Sort of like, maybe something that when they got older, they could come back and see. Because everybody that gives me something, I tell them up front, that this item you’ve given me will always be here as long as I own this place. Depending on if I live to be a hundred or not and they’re thirty or forty and they come back. And I always try to get them to sign it. Sort of like that “CRIMSON” Ohio plate up there [points to Ohio license plate inscribed CRIMSON], it was signed. Somebody saw that the other day and said that they have a “CRIMSON” plate that they want to give me. I hung that one up the other day, and I don’t really remember where I put it. It has been really fun putting it together. I guess you could probably say that I’m shirt-tailing the University of Alabama, which is fine. I’ve been doing it a long time. We try to be a small part of the university, but we’re not a part of the university. So, yeah, we’re a privately owned business, and we’ve got the university theme, obviously right next door to Bryant-Denny Stadium – it would be crazy to have anything other than what I do have here.”

Mr. Gary’s involvement on campus is evident when standing around the cash register. He has “Thank You” letters from former football coaches thanking him for his support of the team, and for his catering services. There is even a letter from current Head Coach Nick Saban thanking Mr. Gary for his support of the football program. Gary Lewis has done and is doing a lot for the university community, but I learned his reputation as an upstanding businessman did not begin with Rama Jama’s:
“I opened this place on September 14, 1996. I am the original owner of the Houndstooth Sports Bar. I started that July 14, 1988. And I stayed in business down there for 5 years before I sold that business. Then I moved off to Birmingham and got into the restaurant business over there and came back here after I lost all the money up there that I made on selling the Houndstooth. I saw that this little place was vacant and decided that if I wanted to be in the restaurant business, I would just keep it simple sell hamburgers and hotdogs next to the stadium and just do it myself. . . . I put in a very long hard day. I get here at 5 a.m. and leave at 7 p.m.”

We make a few jokes about him going to work before I get home from my nightly adventures, but quickly fall back to the main topic of football; more directly the players, coaches, and other “famous people” that he has had the opportunity to meet.

“I’ve had an opportunity to meet a lot of “famous people” you know. I’ve met a lot of sports people. The CBS sports team. Every time that we have a game on CBS, they eat here with me every Friday. Verne Lundquist, Tracy Wolfson, and Gary Danielson, and before him it was Todd Blackledge. He always comes in. I’ve met Joe Theissman, Joe Namath, all the football players, all the current players and players from the last 15 years. Shaun Alexander, great guy, his famous meal that he always ate with us while he was playing was two grilled chicken sandwiches, plain. That’s what he ate. Brodie Croyle always had bologna sandwiches. That was his thing.” I am astounded to hear him list the people that he has met. Joe Namath, Shaun Alexander, and Joe Theismann are all wonderful football players, and people that I have wanted to meet for as long as I can remember. And these famous football players came to Rama Jama’s to eat! That is amazing. I could be sitting right where one of these guys sat when they came to eat here. I am a little taken back, but I do not think there’s too much mystery as to what their reasons for coming here were. The food is great, and the atmosphere at Rama Jama’s is amazing. I can imagine Shaun Alexander sitting in the booth next to me eating his two plain chicken sandwiches and watching the latest showing of Sportscenter.

In the October 27, 2005, issue of Sports Illustrated On Campus, Rama Jama’s is referenced as the ninety-first “thing-to-do before you graduate”: “91. Let Rama Jama's, located just across the road from Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, serve you an SEC breakfast (three eggs, country ham, grits, biscuits) that'll sate a Bear-sized appetite” (102 More). Clearly, this small restaurant is making an impression on travelers from everywhere and not just relying on local patrons. I can sense that the building itself had not always been in its present condition, so I ask Gary if he can share a bit about the building itself, and he directs my attention to an old photo from the 1950’s that has a small building named Perdue Service Station.

“As you see our grill area back there, that is where they used to drive the cars in from the outside to work on, that was the garage. That is where the actual work on the vehicles was done. When I took it over, it was a fast and easy convenience store, so it had changed from that service station type of building. I think the counter was right there (points to wooden counter next to registers) where you checked out at. It was along that wall there, and along these walls here were the beverage coolers and so on and so forth.” My attention shifts to other parts of the building, and I become curious about the wing to my immediate right that looks unnatural. I had noticed when walking in that this part of the building looked different and while scanning over it, I located what looks to be a small office on top of the restaurant.

I ask whether or not the wing to my right was an addition that he made after taking over the building itself: “It was… It was... That was originally a patio so it was part of the original construction, but only as a patio. We probably made that a dining room about ten years ago. We were probably about three years into it when we enclosed that because we were needing more room for eating capacity.” And then my question turns to the structure on top of the building when I ask about what I think is an office: “There is. That’s where I do my thing. My office used to be in the back area, which you can’t see right now. I sat under the lettuce and tomatoes and potatoes while I was trying to do my work. And obviously by looking around, the only place that I could go was up so I put a little office on the top.”

With a thorough knowledge of the layout of Rama Jama’s, the interview shifts back to my favorite topic, football. Mr. Gary Lewis has been to many more Alabama football games than anyone I know, so I have to probe his memory about the most memorable one in his opinion. “The first year that we played Auburn up here. Yeah, that was phenomenal as far as we’re concerned. The Auburn team had their walk through right here (points to the streets outside the building). I’ve never seen or could understand how they got so many people in this one spot right here. It was just a sea of orange and blue. The band was there, the cheerleaders were there, and the Auburn buses with the coaches and football players – I went up on the roof and took some of my cooks with me and told them, “Y’all have got to see this.” – so we went up on the roof and it was just a sea of orange and blue. But that was a big game. Of course Tennessee is always a big game. I don’t care who we play, every game is always a big game.” As I nod to agree with his last statement, my thoughts cannot help but drift back to that Auburn game and try to imagine the streets being overrun with Auburn fans. It’s a scary thought, so I do not dwell on it too long before coming back to my senses.

With one more quick question, I ponder the future of the establishment. I am curious to see if there will be renovations made. “I don’t have any on the books right now, we’ve sort of run out of room. We’ve got a concession tent that we put up out here on gamedays. That’s one thing that we do. As far as renovation, I don’t have any immediate plans, no.”

Even though he is running out of room, Mr. Gary Lewis, is still adding new things every week, and his continuous effort to hang Alabama memorabilia is a tribute to the passion that he, and the fans who continue to provide him with items to hang, have for The University of Alabama.

Mr. Gary Lewis, entrepreneur, businessman, and gentleman, is doing quite well for himself as the owner of Rama Jama’s. I think that it should be a staple in every Alabama student’s career. Every student should eat there. If not for the food, then they must go to experience the atmosphere and the history that Rama Jama’s holds within its walls. Mr. Gary said that his restaurant is “riding the coattails of the university.” I honestly do not think that there is a better place or a better man to handle such a job. The food is great, but the atmosphere makes the visit to Rama Jama’s so much more worth the trip. If there is a way to bottle and sell Alabama’s cultures and traditions, I think Gary Lewis has found it. I cannot say it any better than Mr. Lewis, “You know you can go anywhere to eat . . .” and I think that everyone should go by Rama Jama’s and stay awhile. Mr. Gary Lewis will surely be there wearing his apron and his smile.

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