- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Even on a lesser game day, the line of folks ravenous for shakes, omelets, chili dogs, cheeseburgers, fries or pies stays three-deep for several hours at Rama Jama’s, from breakfast through lunch and right up to mid-afternoon kickoff.

Seats are at a premium, even after the Charleston Southern lambasting begins, so those who had burgers bagged to go lean against brick fences or stroll through nearby vendor stalls, slurping up before entering Bryant-Denny Stadium, just across the street.

So there’s no problem with the business, said owner Gary Lewis. He just wants to let someone else work 14-hour days.

“I set myself a challenge, a year ago this month, to work the grill alone in the afternoons,” which, except for Saturday home-game days, are Rama Jama’s quietest times. “And now you see what I’m doing,” he said, laughing.

Rumors started flying last week, on social media and elsewhere, when word leaked that Lewis was looking to sell the business. Fears arose the almost 20-year-old breakfast-lunch-after-game diner - often said to be in the shadow of Bryant-Denny, but only for breakfast: it sits at the southwest corner of the stadium - would be shutting its doors.

Business revved up even more. Well-wishers Lewis hadn’t seen in years stopped by. Some former students got in touch, saying they were raising money to save Rama Jama’s: promises of $1,500 here, $2,000 there. Saturday after the game, as the alcohol flowed, emotions ran high.

” ‘Oh man, don’t leave us!’,” Lewis repeated, laughing.

On the Monday after what may be his last home game, the lunch rush isn’t nearly as chaotic, but still there’s a steady flow from the time he opens the doors at 6 until mid-afternoon.

He’s not looking to sell because business is slow. Lewis would like to slow down himself, take a break from 14-hour days, from no vacations, from experiencing Tide football only vicariously. Since Sept. 14, 1996, when he opened the morning of a Vanderbilt game, Tide fan Lewis has guessed at touchdowns by crowd noises roaring across the street like a cresting wave, PA announcements blaring moments afterward, loud and crisp as if you were almost there.

Even if you didn’t know Lewis was also the first owner of The Houndstooth, team devotion shines through. The dominant color scheme at the corner of, fittingly, Paul W. Bryant Drive and Wallace Wade Avenue, is crimson, red and white, with a splash more crimson: Hot light from the neon Rama Jama’s sign, reflected on the Coca-Cola and Borden’s displays; exterior brick sometimes left crimson, sometimes painted white. Miniature red roses curl around the lamppost out front, where the patio’s central fountain cradles a baby elephant.

Inside is a more eccentrically accumulated Bryant Museum, a diner with red vinyl seats atop a red-and-white checkerboard floor, virtually every inch of wall and ceiling space plastered with imagery and paraphernalia: helmets, shoes, footballs, tickets, stadium seats, seat cushions, caps and hats, pom-poms, newspaper pages, game programs, magazine covers, autographed photos, license plates (TGRHNT, ROOLLL, 2B 1ST, YEATIDE and YEA centered over the name of the state), and crimson ceiling tiles commemorating national championships.

The shoulder pads of Nico Johnson, No. 35, worn with three national champion teams, in 2009, 2011 and 2012, hang over one long table, while the white shoe with which Jamie Christensen kicked three game-winning field goals in 2005 sits high up, adjacent to the door to the restrooms. There are typed, framed letters from “Bear” Bryant - though all generations are represented, Rama Jama’s is heavy with the Bear, as it should be - and oddities such as Heinz 57 ketchup bottles with labels for the Tide’s national championships.

“It’s really been cool, being a big fan of Alabama football, and getting to work right here, for all these years, in the shadow of Bryant-Denny Stadium,” Lewis said.

The Montgomery native was born with Crimson blood.

“My daddy was a Bama fan, and his daddy was a Bama fan, and his daddy was a Bama fan,” Lewis said. “So I kinda had it instilled in me early, listening to games on the porch.”

On game days his usual staff of eight to 10 doubles or triples - “I’d quadruple it if I had the space to expand” - and while the hours are long, so is the payoff: Customers served goes from several hundred to several thousand.

“Without game days, we’d make a living. With ‘em, we make a pretty good living,” he said.

Perhaps because even on a quiet Monday he’s continually drawn back to the grill - “I’ve got ‘em backed up” - he hasn’t put much time into thinking about what comes next. He doesn’t hunt or fish, he said. Who has time for hobbies?

Except one in crimson, maybe.

“I haven’t been to a game in 20 years. … I’ve been across the street from all of ‘em,” he said. “That’s on my list.”


Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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