June 2009 Issue
Her Father's Daughter
Robbin Evans reminisces about the man who made his name in restaurants.
Robbin Evans doesn’t need to see a menu. When it’s time to order lunch at the Mansfield restaurant that bears her father’s name, the choice is clear.
“Today, I’m forgetting about triglycerides and cholesterol,” the 63-year-old says with a laugh. “When I’m here, I’ve got to have the fried cornmeal mush and syrup — it shows me up as a real farmer’s daughter.”
Robbin isn’t the only one who finds the meals her dad made famous irresistible: Last year alone, more than 120 million patrons visited the 569 Bob Evans restaurants located in 18 states, stretching from Florida to New York to Oklahoma. Whether it’s the best-selling Rise & Shine breakfast of two eggs, sausage or bacon, home fries and two biscuits; the roast turkey dinner, complete with cranberry relish; the spinach salad drizzled with hot bacon dressing; or one of 80 or so other generously portioned entrees, one fact is certain: No one goes home hungry.
“Quality,” says Robbin, “was dad’s life. He was absolutely obsessive about it. It was reflected in everything he did.”
Her voice breaks as she describes her father, who died in June 2007 at age 89. Beginning with the small truck-stop he opened in 1946, Bob Evans would go on to build an empire of eateries that are indelibly connected to images of rolling pastures and country ambiance.
“Although he grew up amid the poverty of the Great Depression, dad was such a positive person,” Robbin says. “People called him a visionary, and I have to agree. He was always thinking of the future.”
And just as her father’s life inspired Robbin and her five siblings, so she believes it can lead others to greater heights: In 2005, she decided the time was right to begin writing his biography. The Worthington resident spent much of that summer at the family farm in Gallipolis preparing the manuscript: Always an early riser, Robbin recalls, Bob would put the coffee on at 5 a.m., and father and daughter would settle in for an hour and a half at the kitchen table talking about old times before the rest of the house stirred.
“We did that day after day after day,” Robbin says. “I never had so much fun.”
Published last fall, A Bountiful Heart: The Life of Bob Evans chronicles the restaurateur’s early years as the owner of a 12-stool diner, his meteoric rise to entrepreneur and his deep-seated commitment to helping others in his beloved Gallia County. Proceeds from the book benefit the Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education, co-founded by Bob Evans in 1993 to help students in kindergarten through high school achieve academic success and forge a path toward college.
“Education was everything to dad,” says Robbin, adding with pride that her father served as a member of the Ohio Board of Regents for 13 years. “He did all he could to help kids from southern Ohio attend college and see the world beyond their doorstep.”
Born in 1918 in Sugar Ridge, Evans spent his youth working in his parents’ grocery store in Gallipolis. His dream to study veterinary medicine at Ohio State University was cut short by debilitating migraines, which forced him to drop out during his freshman year.
But Evans remained resourceful. He took a job as a salesman in the family-owned meatpacking business and began dating high-school classmate Jewell Waters, whom he married in 1940. After serving in the Army during World War II, Evans opened the Steak House in Gallipolis, which catered to truckers in search of a hearty breakfast. On the heels of its success, Evans also built a sausage-making plant in Bidwell. As word spread that the seasoned pork he made with prime cuts of ham and tenderloin was the best around, orders came pouring in from other parts of the state, as well as from stores in West Virginia and Kentucky.
But, adds his daughter, there was more to Bob Evans than food: Although his vocation became a burgeoning success, Evans’ love of farming and conservation never waned.
“Dad’s consuming passion from the time of his earliest memory as a young boy was simply to be just a farmer ‘down on the farm,’ ” she explains in A Bountiful Heart. “When he opened the Steak House the year after the war ended, it was less with an eye toward making it big in the restaurant business than simply earning enough money to buy a farm on which he could raise his children.”
That goal became reality in 1954, when the Evans clan moved to a 1,000-acre farm in Rio Grande they called The Homestead and opened what would become the prototype for today’s Bob Evans restaurant chain. (This working farm now serves as a museum, which documents company history and hosts a variety of events, ranging from mountain bike races to fishing clinics and craft shows.)
“The Homestead,” Robbin says, “also served as a laboratory in which my father continually conducted experiments with the earth and with livestock. Dad was always worried about the future of the family farm, as he watched many of his friends’ children decide to seek out what they thought were greener pastures.”
Evans became a proponent of year-round grazing in Ohio, a process by which a farmer plants a variety of hardy grasses that will provide constant feed for cattle during each of the four seasons.
“This system,” Robbin says, “makes it possible for young farmers who cannot afford expensive machinery to save money and labor.”
For 30 years, Evans also awarded 10 youngsters participating in 4-H Clubs a quarter horse weanling to raise.
“When dad was in the saddle,” Robbin says, “he knew God was in his heaven and all was well with the world. He wanted kids to have that same experience.”
As she reflects on her father’s way of life, Robbin proudly recounts the most important lesson he passed on to her.
“Dad taught us that absolutely everyone you meet in this lifetime has something to share with you,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what their station in life is, everyone knows something that you do not. Dad felt that one should make time for everyone –– and he did.”
For more information about A Bountiful Heart: The Life of Bob Evans,