New Blood, Old Blood: Cafe Racers Jeff Ramsey and Kurt Geissel
New Blood, Old Blood: Cafe Racer's Jeff Ramsey and Kurt Geissel Brandon Lee

Seattle’s Jeff Ramsey has worn many hats throughout his career, his work experience ranging from the bar and restaurant industry, to the music and entertainment biz and the overlap of both. Most recently, Ramsey teamed up with Pike Place Market's beloved burlesque and cabaret theater, Can Can, to help redevelop the venue’s menu, service standards, and overall aesthetic.

But now Ramsey has set his sights on a new venture: Café Racer, the charming, much adored, and kitschy Ravenna-area café previously known as much for its indie rock shows and OBAMA room (aka Official Bad Art Museum of Art room), as it was for the devastating shooting that occurred a handful of years ago. Recently, owner Kurt Geissel closed the doors of Café Racer and put the business up for sale. Many in the city—including some longtime employees—thought the cafe was officially doomed, fated to go the way of so many other historic Seattle venues of old. But with Ramsey’s intervention, Café Racer may re-open and live on for years to come.

We caught up with Ramsey to see how he got involved with Café Racer’s rehabilitation, what his hopes are for the venue’s future, and how he first came to fall in love with the odd yet vital venue...

What was your first experience at Café Racer?

The first time I went there was when it was just a coffee shop. I don’t think Kurt even had a beer and wine license then. It was during the day; I lived a couple blocks up on Ravenna Avenue. I came in just to get a coffee to-go but I dug the charm immediately. I work from home so I started coming down and bringing my laptop and working in the backroom there just to be around the vibe. At the time, Kurt wasn’t doing any real entertainment. So later I started an art night there with music, spoken word and indie films one Saturday a month. It was really cool. That’s how I got to know Kurt.

What did you think when you heard Café Racer was closing and why did you decide to get involved?

In terms of getting involved, my first thought was, “No, it can’t go out of business.” I didn’t know the place had been for sale since May, it wasn’t on my radar. Then I thought, “Just as a living memorial, I think Café Racer is important.” There was an intense, tragic, international news story that came out of that place and having it close would feel profoundly sad to me.

Also, as time moves on, the Ravenna neighborhood will continue to sterilize and gentrify—so having that pocket of art and subculture and culture is important. I reached out to Kurt, met his real-estate guy, and Kurt and I had a face-to-face. He’s a guy that works from the heart and I really connect to that. Soon after, we had an investor say he was really interested in doing this with us. Now, it’s a matter of ironing out the details and securing the funds. It’s go time. I’d love to have the place reopen in the new year. It’s been closed since the middle of October. But there’s still beer in the fridge and food in the freezer.

What does your relationship and partnership with Kurt look like?

I really love Kurt. He’s a great guy and his heart is always in the right place. He’s self-admittedly not a businessman. He’s more of a guy with lots of love. I have plenty of that too, but I’m also a businessman.

He’s going to stay on as part owner and I’m going to be the majority owner, along with an investor. But nothing is going to change dramatically. The place needs some paint, Spackle, some deep cleaning love and menu development. I don’t intend on giving it this massive facelift. I’m leaving the graffiti in the bathrooms; it’s still going to be Café Racer.

What changes do you envision for the space?

Upgrade the food and quality of service—all the stuff I did for Can Can. That’s my thing, making sure your experience is first rate. There is no reason why Café Racer can’t be a bustling place for happy hour, late night snacks, and brunch on the weekends. When you come in to spend your hard-earned $20-$30, you’re going to have this great experience. This warm, neighborhood fun, quirky experience, but the food is going to be great and the service is going to be great and you’re going to love going there. That’s what I stand for, that’s what I love.

What’s one way in which you plan to enact this upgrade?
 
We’re going to be working with Sanctuary Art Center—it’s a homeless youth arts program started in a church basement. Troy Carter is the executive director there. He has developed a screen-printing shop where kids come in and learn how to work as part of team, train and developing new skills. So, Troy and I met and it’s something that could work.

Tell me about the pitch you’re making to potential investors...

When I heard about Café Racer closing, I felt it emotionally. So my pitch to investors is going to be along those same lines. I felt it in my gut when my wife forwarded me Kurt’s Facebook post saying that Café Racer was closing. I had a visceral reaction. So, anyone investing is going to know me and understand this.

Café Racer is a living memorial in a city that is rapidly losing, in my opinion, much of the artistic culture and subculture that was thriving in Seattle back in the mid-'90s. It’s understandable because often these kinds of businesses live on the margin—if the rent is too high or if you have a bad month, it can put you out of business.

So I looked at the Roosevelt and Ravenna neighborhoods—years ago there were all these little venues with lots of music happening but that is now literally fading away. You have the Jet City Improv Theater, the Blue Moon Tavern, but that’s about it. The light rail is coming in and you can see new housing coming up—apartments, apodments. I feel like a place like Café Racer is critical. A successful neighborhood has that alternative culture—that beat culture, whatever you want to call it. And if it’s gone, I don’t think it’s coming back.

I looked at Kurt’s numbers—I wasn’t going to move forward if I couldn’t figure out how to make money. I spent weeks looking at the numbers, the neighborhood, the competition. If we’re going to do it, I need it to be financially viable. Not just as a living memorial, not just as a hub for art and culture, but also a viable business that has longevity.

What parts of the business were particularly attractive to you?

Entertainment. There’s really not much happening in that area at all. Café Racer has a great little stage. And the victims of the shooting were beloved by the Vaudeville community here—the Moisture Fest, Fremont Solstice Parade—so I’d like to see that art form developed more, too. When I put it out there that I was going to do this, so many people contacted me. Volunteers have been coming out of the woodwork. There’s a lot of passion to keep this place around—it wasn’t just me.