Vale Ralph Panebianco

10 May 2013

The University community was saddened to hear of the recent death of Ralph Panebianco, who ran the popular Ralph's Café on Camperdown Campus. Ralph was an integral part of life on campus and will be very much missed. Here is a profile of Ralph by Richard North published in the University newspaper UniNews in 2008.

To express your condolences, visit the Ralph's Cafe Facebook page.

Ralph Panebianco (centre) and his family.
Ralph Panebianco (centre) and his family.

Everyone who goes to Ralph's knows Ralph. He's generally the first person you see when you go in, holding court at his favourite table near the door, mobile phone and double espresso close at hand.

Even before you see him, you often hear him. "HAVE YOUR MONEY READY," he booms, "BEFORE YOU GET TO THE COUNTER." A colleague of nervous disposition was so alarmed by the booming voice on her first visit that she hasn't dared go back since.

Ralph's Café is one of the landmarks of Sydney Uni, up there with the Jacaranda and Manning Bar, and its boss is one of the largest larger-than-life figures on the campus. The café has been going for almost 25 years and brings a distinctive Italian flavour to a corner of the University. Except that Ralph isn't really Italian: he's of Italian descent, sure enough, but he was born and brought up in French-speaking Montreal. He's not really called Ralph either. His Sunday-best name is Raffaele.

The young Raffaele told his parents at 14 that he wanted to go into the food business and spent the next few years delivering groceries and running a neighbourhood deli in Montreal. When he was 18 the family moved to Sydney and Ralph picked up where he had left off, working in the fruit business at Bondi.

He had a succession of different jobs, but everything changed when he met a friend of the family whose parents owned a deli. It was a meeting made in restaurant heaven: they fell in love, married, went on honeymoon to Italy, and on their return opened a deli in Northbridge. Ralph and his wife Rose worked 14-hour days to get the business on its feet, cooking their own rissoles, pasta and meatloaf at home.

They bought the café at the Women's Sports Centre in 1984 from a customer, an architect who had run the business previously. In the early days it was a relatively small operation, but the growth of the University and a smart act of philanthropy changed things around.

"A Greek professor came to me one day and said the University had refused to put air conditioning into a lecture theatre in the Mills building," says Ralph. "So I said I would pay for it." The arts faculty showed its gratitude by giving the café some free publicity, and business suddenly jumped by 70 percent.

The lesson wasn't lost on him, and today Ralph is a major sponsor of University life. He gives financial support to sports teams - notably the Sydney Uni Flames - residential colleges, the Sydney Peace Foundation and individual faculties. "I even donated a dog de-sexing machine to Vet Science," he says proudly.

The café has grown into an all-embracing family business, with Ralph, 52, and Rose joined behind the counter by their three twentysomething children, Daniel, James and Rebecca. "I said to the kids that I wouldn't treat them like my children at work," says Ralph. "They're staff. In fact I treat them more strictly than the other staff." Perhaps it's no accident that there's a poster from The Godfather on the wall above the coffee machine.

Everybody in the family has a role, and everybody works hard for their rewards. Daniel makes the rolls and focaccias, Rebecca does the catering, James is the barista and Rose makes the pasta. There are no passengers on the Panebianco family ship. Rebecca and Daniel get in at 3.30am, Ralph at 5am, Rose at 6am, and James has the luxury of a 7am start - although he has to stay until 8pm to close up.

The family lives together, works together and plays together. "Every Friday night is family night," says Ralph. "We go out together to a different restaurant in Sydney every week to see what's on the menu and to experiment with food." Three years ago the whole family went on an eating tour of Italy, Canada and America. "I learnt a lot - the long focaccias we serve, that was an idea we saw in service stations in Italy."

Ralph describes himself as the "buyer and thinker" in the family team. One of his early jobs in Sydney was as a used car salesman - he claims he was sacked for being too compassionate to a hard-up customer - but he still has the wheeling and dealing skills. Suppliers are paid straight away to give him extra leverage, which is one of the reasons why he can still sell coffee at $2 a cup. At that price it's not surprising that the café sells between 1200 and 1400 coffees every day.

Food fashions have improved since the early days of the café. "We used to sell eight dozen meat pies every day in the 1980s and early 90s. Now we only sell six or eight, but we sell 300 wraps and 400 focaccias every day, and 40 kilos of pasta," he says.

He's also seen an improvement in his customers over 25 years. "The students now, they're so polite," he says. "They say 'thank-you' for everything; they find wallets full of money and hand them in. In all my time here I've only ever known one student steal anything: a meat pie, I could hear the wrapper rustling in his pocket. I said to him, 'If I'd known you wanted it that much I'd have given it to you'."

There were no such problems when Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the University and Ralph did the catering. The ebullient restaurateur admits he was deeply moved by the occasion - their meeting is recorded on a photo, with Ralph's hand on the shoulder of the beaming archbishop. He describes it simply as the highlight of his career.

Ralph's has adopted the slogan 'Food made with love' and the boss is undeniably a man who loves his food - and his work. "You've got to be passionate about what you do," he says. "For me now, it's not just a question of money, it's more about seeing people really love my food.

"The kids used to ask me why I sang on the way to work at 3.30 in the morning. Now they sing as well."

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