COLUMBUS, Ohio – Bob Evans, whose quest for quality sausage to serve the truckers who filled his 12-stool, 24-hour-a-day steakhouse in southeast Ohio led to the creation of a restaurant chain that bears his name, died Thursday, Bob Evans Farms Inc. announced. He was 89.
Evans complained that he could not get good sausage for the restaurant he started after World War II in Gallipolis in southeast Ohio.
Starting with $1,000, a couple of hogs, 40 pounds of black pepper, 50 pounds of sage and other secret ingredients, he opted to make his own, relying on the hog's best parts as opposed to the scraps commonly used in sausage. He began selling it at the restaurant and mom-and-pop stores, and peddled tubs of it out of the back of his pickup truck.
It marked the beginning of what is now a restaurant chain with sales of $1.6 billion in the fiscal year ended April 28 with 590 restaurants in 18 states. The company also operates 108 Mimi's Cafe casual restaurants in 19 states, mostly in the West. Its sausage and other products are sold in grocery stores.
"You might say the truck drivers did my research for me," he said. "They would tell me that this was the best sausage they ever had, and then buy 10-pound tubs to take home."
Evans formed Bob Evans Farms in 1953 with five friends and relatives. The chain emphasizes farm-fresh food, cleanliness and service in a homey atmosphere.
The red brick restaurants have white trim and the yellow "Bob Evans" name, reflecting Evans' handwriting, at the top of the building.
The original Bob Evans restaurant opened in 1962 at the farm near Gallipolis, about 80 miles southeast of Columbus, to serve the growing number of visitors who stopped by. The restaurant, called The Sausage Shop at first, started with 12 stools.
"People like to deal with farmers. They like to buy stuff from the farm. They think it's fresher," Evans said in a 2003 interview. "In their mind, it's better and they're willing to pay more for it."
Evans and his family appeared in the company's early advertising, with Evans frequently wearing a Stetson and a string tie.
"Bob is a creative guy, an idea man, a quality control specialist. That was really the role he played," said Stewart Owens, former chief executive of the company, which moved to Columbus in 1968.
"Bob Evans is an icon of southern Ohio," said Chris Boring, president of Boulevard Strategies, a Columbus-based company that follows the retail industry. "Family values are reflected at every aspect of the operation, from the menu to the decorations."
Evans did clash with the company after his retirement as president Dec. 31, 1986.
In the 2003 interview, he criticized the company over its failed Mexican concept restaurant in the 1990s — "That was a disaster" — and some acquisitions he says he wasn't consulted about.
In 2001, Evans came out in favor of a proposal to sell the company to beef up the stock price. Two years later, he was happier as the company's performance was more focused and the stock price had rebounded.
"They're doing a pretty good job," he said then. "They got rid of all those dogs."
Anyone who bought 1,000 shares of Bob Evans when the company went public in 1963 at $9 per share would have shares worth more than $2 million today.
Evans is survived by his wife, Jewell, and five of his six children.