This Year in Jerusalem
Ali Ramlawi carries on the family heritage
by Sally Mitani
From the June, 2015 issue
"People say, 'It must have been really hard,' and I say, 'Running a restaurant is a lot harder than building one. If you can run a restaurant, you can build one,'" says Ali Ramlawi, about his relocated Jerusalem Garden.
Ali's father, Ribhi Ramlawi, opened a six-seat lunch counter on Fifth Ave. in 1987, after Kroger laid him off from his butchering job. It later expanded by adding twenty-five seats in the back. The new Jerusalem Garden, in Seva's old spot around the corner on E. Liberty, seats nearly 100.
"In the first week, our takeout business was the same as the old location, and our dine-in has gone up exponentially," Ramlawi says. "It's good to know we made the right investment."
The investment isn't just money: he says he's been working 100 hours a week. "We've had growing pains. I have to staff up," which isn't as simple as it sounds. "People who don't know the business love to give advice, and God bless them, I know it's well meant. They say 'You gotta hire more people, you gotta delegate.' But nine out of ten successful restaurants, they're successful because the owner is working. Only the owner cares as much."
The new space is filled with allusions to the old Jerusalem Garden and to Ramlawi's family's heritage. Nearly filling the back wall is Mary Thiefels' mural of a pre-1948 Jerusalem street scene that she painted from a Ramlawi family photograph. "My father was from Jerusalem, born in 1934. He and his family had to leave. They were part of the original 750,000 refugees. You've probably heard the story, that a lot of them kept their house keys. They thought it would be temporary. Now it's been sixty, seventy years, and the problem has only magnified." The street scene is tranquil: "People think that part of the world has always been in turmoil, but Muslims, Jews, Christians, everyone all lived together." Another smaller painting on the east wall is of
his father. "Mary did that one too," giving it to him as a gift in 2003. It shows Ribhi "peeling garlic. He liked to sit in the corner of the restaurant and do it, almost as a meditative exercise. He liked to cook. Both my parents liked to entertain." His father died suddenly in 1993, and his mother, Aisha, died last year.
Ramlawi was pleased to find he could rip out most of Seva's interior walls--"it was all cubicles and nooks"--and start with a blank slate. "Sitting at the counter has been a big part of Jerusalem Garden's identity," so a long counter fills one side, where diners can see a lot of the cooking--"grilling, plating, finishing"--though he has a spacious prep kitchen in the back for "the chopping, the grinding, the butchering."
His sister Nan, who also works in the business, says the old Jerusalem Garden neon sign will soon be hung inside. Hanging outside is a simpler, cryptic stained-glass projecting sign bearing just the restaurant's initials. It was made by Detroit artist and customer Aku Lahti who, Ramlawi says, "comes in every Saturday. We had to come up with a clever way to read it from both sides," and they realized that, properly stylized, the letters JG read the same from either direction.
For now, JG's menu is exactly the same, though some changes may come in the fall. Ramlawi is also trying to decide what to do with two other spaces. The basement, former home of Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, needs a sprinkler system, but, after that's installed, he'll be looking for partners and a liquor license for some sort of nighttime venture (Jerusalem Garden upstairs will always remain alcohol free): "Something that culturally enriches, a place for artists to perform, musicians to play. Live music is a challenge," he says, because most people don't want to pay a cover charge, but you can't pay musicians adequately by passing the hat. "Anyway, that's where my heart is. I don't want another place where you just sling drinks."
He's also extended his lease on the Fifth Ave. space for another year "to see if I can come up with a completely different thing--a gourmet donut shop, a pop-up events place. Who knows? But I can't do it myself. I need another operator to come in."
Ramlawi is a deep thinker on history, civics, and downtown economics, and almost any question is a trip wire for a larger discussion. The DDA--"spending money like drunk sailors"--has been a target of his ire since construction on the underground Library Lane parking structure nearly killed Jerusalem Garden and the Earthen Jar next door. He's not anti-tax or anti-government, however (in fact, in the far future, he can see himself running for city council). Instead of giving tax breaks to reel in big industries, he wants the city to collect more property taxes and use the money to subsidize the small retail businesses it claims to love so much. Asked how he feels about Reza Rahmani (see page 37 he says: "I'm pro-business. You've got to applaud the guy. He's looking for a safe investment. He's not looking for double-digit returns. Now if I had his money, I'd be investing in Detroit. I'd be a little more aggressive. Ann Arbor is a mature market."
Jerusalem Garden, 314 E. Liberty, 995-5660. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. jerusalemgarden.net
[Originally published in June, 2015.]
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