With a nod to the classic “What’s My Line” panel game show from the 1950s and 1960s, our subject:
- Graduated from Montgomery’s Sidney Lanier High School in 1970
- Played junior college basketball for Alabama Christian College, now known as Faulkner University
- Sorted packages for UPS
- Peddled pots and pans to schoolteachers
- Sold insurance (“I was never a real good salesman, but I liked the idea of trying to sell,” he says.)
- Founded the Houndstooth bar on Tuscaloosa’s “Strip” in 1988 (and sold it in 1993)
- With two other investors, opened Café New Orleans in Birmingham’s Brookwood Village, then shut it down 67 days later
- Conceived, named, and opened in 1996 the iconic Rama Jama’s across the street from Bryant-Denny Stadium
So, who is our mystery man?
The last clue should give it away. Without question, I’m referring to the always-smiling, industrious, and ageless Gary Lewis. (I still can’t believe he’s 71 years old.)
For more than two decades, rarely would anyone walk into Rama Jama’s without seeing Gary by the grill scrambling eggs, frying bacon, or flipping burgers. Or you’d find him scurrying about, delivering orders or refilling customers’ coffee cups. Or maybe, just maybe, you’d catch him yacking it up at a table of good ol’ boys, talking about Crimson Tide sports, or the weather, or—God forbid—who’s going to one day replace Nick Saban.
Look up “workaholic” in the dictionary, and Gary’s mugshot is there. From Rama Jama’s opening day on Sept. 14, 1996, to when Gary sold the restaurant to Michael Hebron in July 2017, I dare say that no one in Tuscaloosa put in more hours per week. From 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 21 years. You do the math. (And even on Sundays—his “day off”—he’d catch up on paperwork and make a couple of trips to Sam’s to buy supplies.)
Furthermore, during Gary’s ownership of Rama Jama’s he never took a vacation, and—get this—despite the deafening roars on game days from across the street, he never attended an Alabama football game.
“A couple of times, though, I did walk over and take a peek,” he says.
Gary’s path to conceive, name, and open Rama Jama’s was anything but easy. After a tough five or so years of owning and managing the Houndstooth, followed by his disastrous investment in Café New Orleans (where he lost all his money from the sale of the Houndstooth), Gary found his way back to Tuscaloosa.
“I happened to be in town one day,” he says, “and rode by this place and saw a ‘For Rent’ sign on the door. It was a closed-down Fast & Easy convenience store. Prior to that, it had been a corner gas station locally owned by the Armstrong family. So, I called the number and the next thing you know, I had a rental agreement with the Armstrongs.”
Despite Gary’s limited experience in the restaurant business, he knew exactly what he wanted. “I wanted to keep our menu simple,” he says. “Hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, onion rings, and milk shakes. And I thought serving breakfast would be a good draw for the older folks and to carry us when school was out.
“And of course, I wanted it to be all Alabama. I wanted the walls and the ceiling to be covered in Alabama stuff. When I sold the Houndstooth, I left every single photo and piece of memorabilia there. So, I had to start over.”
Converting a gas station into a restaurant was no easy task, especially a structure of that age. Fuel tanks had to be unearthed and disposed, walls torn out and rebuilt, flooring taken up and installed, and a complete kitchen constructed. For around three months, Gary oversaw the transformation.
Perhaps more important than getting the building ready for opening, though, was the task of naming the new business. After all, finding a brand name that sticks with customers for a lifetime is paramount.
The Rama Jama’s name? Mission accomplished.
“My wife and I were in Birmingham having dinner with another couple,” Gary recalls. “I mentioned to them trying to come up with a catchy name for my new restaurant right next to Bryant-Denny Stadium. I wanted the name to be associated somehow with the University of Alabama. At the exact same time, the wife of the other couple and I said, ‘What about calling it Rammer Jammer’s?’ We weren’t even thinking about how it would be spelled.”
At that point, an institution was birthed, although with a slightly different variation of the name. (The name “Rammer Jammer” originally came from the UA student-led humor and literary magazine published between 1924 and 1956. Filled with jokes, cartoons, satiric stories, and photos, the publication’s contributors through the years included Harper Lee, Gay Talese, and Mary Harmon Black, the future Mrs. Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. From this magazine came the popular cheer “Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer, give ‘em hell Alabama.”)
“I didn’t call it Rammer Jammer’s because I didn’t want to infringe on anyone’s copyright,” Gary says. “So, we shortened it to Rama Jama’s. When I decided on that name, I knew it would give me a lot of exposure over at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It’s not so bad when there’s a hundred thousand people across the street yelling your name.”
Rama Jama’s—with its iconic neon sign displayed high above the front door—officially opened for business on Saturday, Sept. 14, 1996, coinciding with Alabama’s first home football game. What a disaster it was.
“Chaos, nothing but chaos,” Gary recalls of that first day. “I knew there would be a lot of people coming in, but it was a major mistake opening on a home football game day. We offered our full menu and plates made to order, such as omelets and over-easy eggs. We had one grill, one countertop deep fat fryer, and a toaster.
“People had to wait more than an hour for their food,” he recalls. “They were quite upset with me. I learned so many valuable lessons that day.”
Did he ever. From that point, he slashed the game day breakfast menu to just the basics. For the lunch menu, only hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, onion rings, and soft drinks were offered. Even his famous milkshakes took a back seat on game days.
“I figured that game day would take care of itself once I figured out how to do it.”
Over the next 20 or so years, Gary sure “figured it out.” As Rama Jama’s’ popularity grew, Gary kept up with the demand. A couple years after opening, he built the 1950s diner-style front room, adding space for approximately 50 more customers. (“The gas tanks used to be right here,” says Gary, pointing to an area on the painted red floor.) Several times, he added kitchen equipment to keep up with not only his in-store demand, but his popular outside catering business.
Even Gary’s “bird-nest” office on top of the building was added to give him room to work and, at times, served as a convenient hide-away. “My old office was right by the kitchen,” he says. “Lettuce and tomatoes kept falling on my head, so I decided it was time to build a new office. There wasn’t any room to build outward, so I went upward.”
Thanks to Gary’s leadership and work ethic, Rama Jama’s became a legendary Tuscaloosa go-to spot, not only on football game days, but for the myriad of construction personnel working in or around Bryant-Denny Stadium. Major stadium expansions in 1998 (east upper deck), 2006 (north upper deck), 2010 (south upper deck), and 2020 (renovations to the west side U1 and U2 levels and the east side U1 level) brought hundreds of workers daily to Rama Jama’s.
“During the 1998 east side expansion,” Gary says, “every morning at 9 o’clock during the workers’ break time, I’d load up my little Mazda RX-7, drive over there, and sell egg sandwiches and biscuits out of my hatchback. I looked like a traveling wagon salesman. And of course, they’d come over here and eat on their lunch breaks or after they got off work.”
Just as popular as Rama Jama’s food are the countless items of memorabilia adorning the interior. No doubt, each one has a story to tell.
“In my business model,” Gary says, “I tried to include the history of Alabama athletics and not just the modern era. I found that people really enjoy looking at the older stuff.”
At first, Gary had to pursue the items. As the restaurant became more popular, folks started dropping things by. Today, just about anything and everything about Alabama football (and other sports) is there, including signed footballs, vintage photos, posters, ticket stubs, game program covers, newspaper articles, pennants, flags, jerseys, signs, and who knows what else.
There’s even a photo of Gary and his look-alike, Coach Nick Saban. Or is Gary Nick Saban’s look-alike?
“I’ve always said it doesn’t hurt to look like the coach whose team plays across the street from us,” Gary says. “So, I played it to the fullest.” (On an outside display board, Terry Saban calls Rama Jama’s “an institution.”)
Throughout Gary’s run with Rama Jama’s, he hosted many media celebrities. In 2011, Alabama alumnus Joe Scarborough did his “Morning Joe” show live from there. Todd Blackledge once consumed the SEC Championship Breakfast (three eggs, smoked ham, grits, hashbrowns, and two biscuits) for his “Taste of the Town” segment on ESPN. Verne Lundquist and Tracy Wolfson were Friday afternoon regulars for a CBS game, while Laura Rutledge made Rama Jama’s her go-to spot when in town for an SEC Network broadcast. And in one of the booths, Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron posed for a November 2013 Sports Illustrated cover photo.
Despite the insane number of hours he was putting into the business every week, around 2010 Gary had an inkling to begin opening on Sundays.
“Tuscaloosa needed some more Sunday lunch opportunities,” he says. “So, I decided to open on Sundays. I put signs on the doors several weeks out to inform everyone. Then Bill McDonald came along and prayed me out of it.”
Bill McDonald? The long-time football athletic trainer and director of UA’s sports medicine? Yes, that Bill McDonald.
“As soon as Bill saw the sign, he told me flat-out he didn’t like the idea,” Gary recalls. “He said he was going to pray that I wouldn’t do it, but if I did, he said he’d pray that it would be a bust.”
Chalk one up for Bill McDonald and the Lord. After being open for only four Sundays, Gary abandoned the idea, but only because of an unforeseen reason. Perhaps a Divine reason.
“We were swamped with business,” Gary says, “so that wasn’t the issue. But since Saturdays were our busiest days, we didn’t have time to prep the food Saturday night to be ready to open on Sunday. We offered the full menu, but just couldn’t handle the crowds with such little preparation. We lasted four Sundays.
“Thanks to Bill, I found out first-hand the power of prayer,” the grinning Gary says.
Sometime in 2015, after almost 20 years in the business, those 80- to 90-hour work weeks had finally caught up with Gary. He knew in his heart it was time to hang it up.
“I was tired of the long days,” says Gary, who on a typical game day would serve upwards of 4,000 customers. “I just got disheartened with it. I didn’t feel I was giving it the attention it needed. I just knew it was time to sell the business.”
Once Rama Jama’s was officially on the market, Gary entertained offers from several prospective buyers. “But nobody wanted to pay what it was worth,” he says.
A couple years later, in early summer of 2017, Michael Hebron, a former New York golf pro whose daughter was a UA student at the time, dropped by for breakfast.
“I was back on the grill slingin’ eggs one Saturday morning and one of the cashiers came to me and said, ‘Mr. Lewis, there’s someone here who wants to talk to you about your business.’
“I said, ‘I’m busy right now and don’t really have time to talk to anyone.’
“Some time went by, and the cashier came back again and said, ‘Mr. Lewis, this guy really wants to talk with you.’
“So, I said alright. I took my apron off and went out to see him. He was sitting with his father. I told him how much I wanted for it. He looked at his father, his father shook his head, and off we went.”
After a few weeks of negotiations, the parties came to a final agreement. In late July of 2017, Michael Hebron took over ownership of Rama Jama’s.
“Michael asked me to stay on, and I did for five years,” says Gary, who officially retired in 2022. “During that time I was able to cut back my hours, but I still worked every day. And even today, I may help during busy times, but as an hourly employee.”
For Gary, though, the million-dollar question, is this: Now that he’s fully retired, will he finally attend an Alabama football game?
“I had an opportunity to go to a game this past season,” he says. “But I turned it down. And as I was sitting on my couch watching the game on television, I said to myself, ‘This sure is comfortable.’”
Enjoy it, Gary. You’ve earned it.
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