It’s a Saturday night at Ramsi’s Cafe, and the kitchen is virtually silent. It is a quiet ballet only the employees know. There is no yelling – only quiet whispers and silent nods communicating which food is ready to go out. By contrast, outside in the dining room there is utter chaos. Belly dancers jingle small bells attached to their garments while customers talk loudly, munching on the restaurant’s savory fare.
Despite its long waits on weekends and the sheer volume the Bardstown Road establishment serves, owner and founder Ramsi Kamar measures his success by the variety of people who sit at his tables.
“The restaurant was never measured by money,” Kamar says. “I always wanted to have a small business where the customer looked like all America. I lived in Jerusalem, which is so diverse. Anytime you walk out of the house, you see people speaking different languages.”
In the early ‘80s, at age 18, Kamar left the Jerusalem home in which his family had lived for over 400 years. After receiving an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Iowa State, he came to do his master’s at University of Kentucky. Looking to make a little money while going to school, Kamar leased the space on Bardstown Road in 1994 and opened Ramsi’s Cafe on the World.
The restaurant was so successful that Kamar kept expanding it. Eventually, he let his goal of teaching college slide, and concentrated on the restaurant instead. Today, the popular restaurant commonly referred to as simply “Ramsi’s” is a place where birthdays are celebrated, couples dine out, and out-of-towners seek to enjoy.
“I live here (upstairs), so when people come here, you are coming into my home,” Kamar says. “Hospitality is very tribal where I come from in the Middle East. Nomadic tribes are very hospitable when you come up to them. They will kill their last animal to feed you.”
When Ramsi first opened the restaurant, customers were literally walking into his home. He didn’t have anything to put on the walls, so he took his collection of relics from his apartment and put them in the restaurant. Today, decor from Africa, Brazil, Israel, Jamaica and European countries adorn the walls of the restaurant. Kamar says every time he travels, he brings something handcrafted back with him.
Since opening the restaurant, Kamar has purchased the building and continued to renovate and improve its look. The bar and entrance to the restaurant were relocated after Kamar bought the adjoining building and expanded into it. Currently, Kamar is working to get rid of the drop ceiling in the bar and library areas of the restaurant.
In addition to the ongoing renovation, Kamar works in the kitchen with up to 25 other employees. He is also in charge of ordering all of the food, and each week purchases 1,200 pounds of chicken and 150 cases of produce. With that volume of food, the restaurant requires a lot of man power. On a typical weekend night, the kitchen staff puts in 160 hours of prep work alone – that’s 160 hours of simply cutting, dicing and making hummus.
Kamar strives to have something on the menu for everyone. He insists that if you can eat at McDonald’s, you can eat at Ramsi’s – that there will be something that fits into your budget. Kamar says the menu just kind of evolved from its initial 15 items – anytime people came in and wanted something the restaurant didn’t have, Kamar felt obligated to create that item. Today, Ramsi’s has over 70 items on the menu.
“We try to plan for if you decide to bring your grandma over here, or your kids or your French friend,” Kamar says. “We make everything from scratch.”
The diversity of Ramsi’s customers is reflected in its employees. Kamar has over 100 people on the payroll, who “come from all walks of life,” and says he gives everyone a chance and trains people who know nothing about kitchens to be line cooks. There are no managers at Ramsi’s. Each person, even if they are supervising, works in a job – including Kamar himself. This keeps everyone in touch and lowers the cost to the customer.
Amy Riggs, an employee of Ramsi’s for eight years, says, “You can really grow here and turn this into a career. Ramsi looks at each person for their individual personality and what they can bring to the table. All of us are so different. I think that’s one of the reasons why the restaurant is so impressive.”
Riggs began as a bus girl, then became a host, and then a server. Now, she is a bartender who is often asked by others where she was trained. And, like every other employee at Ramsi’s, Riggs is not held to a dress code.
“I can’t stand forcing people to do something,” Kamar says. “I think people perform the best when they have freedom. Freedom is not judging others. Ramsi’s Cafe is my life. For everybody else it is a means for the employees to enjoy this life.”
Kamar works constantly in his restaurant. He can be at work in seconds because he lives in an apartment above the restaurant with his wife and three children. Kamar says he loves the Highlands neighborhood because it is a community. He can walk to ValuMarket a few times a day for much needed supplies, and his young kids attend school nearby.
“I came here (to the United States) with the intention to teach college one day,” says Kamar. “But I wouldn’t trade this for the world. I’ve always been a lucky person. Every time I made a mistake I ended up in my destination.”
Ramsi’s Cafe on the World, at 1293 Bardstown Road, is now serving a Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. that is sure to please both vegetarians and meat lovers alike. For details, visit www.ramsiscafe.com or call (502) 451-0700.