Bob Evans, founder and retired president of the restaurant chain that bears his name, hasn’t forgotten the people and place in southern Ohio that gave him his start—and he hasn’t stopped repaying them.
“People helped me, and I feel an obligation to give something back,” he says, sitting down to a meal at the Bob Evans’ restaurant in Rio Grande, Ohio (pop. 1,036), one of 440 such eateries in 20 states.
Evans, 82, lives only a few miles from that restaurant and the 12-stool diner that gave him his start in 1948. He purchased the diner for nothing down and $500 every six months.
“We served a lot of breakfasts, but we couldn’t get any decent sausage,” Evans recalls. “So I decided to start making my own from hogs raised right on our farm, using all the best parts, including the hams and tenderloins.”
The product was so popular that Evans decided to go into the sausage business and eventually opened a restaurant on the farm to serve all of his customers. Then he opened another restaurant—and another, and another.
The 1,100-acre farm is now a tourist attraction, open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Thousands visit each year to camp, canoe, ride horses, and attend events such as a quilt exhibit and bluegrass music jamboree. Evans sold the property to the parent company, Bob Evans Farms Inc., in 1963, but his family continued to live there until 1971. Now, he and his wife live on another farm five miles away.
Since retiring in 1986, Evans has applied all the energy and good will that made his restaurant chain a success to help other people in southeastern Ohio. He supports a program that encourages high school students to attend college and has introduced local cattle ranchers to what he calls more efficient grazing methods. He’s also a lifetime 4-H booster.
“I’m busy all the time,” he says.
Born in Sugar Ridge, Ohio, in 1918, Evans has spent most of his life in Gallia County. He and Jewell, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 60 years, raised their six children on a farm in Rio Grande—the same farm where Evans began making sausage for his first diner.
Evans, known for his country drawl and trademark Stetson hat, is somewhat of a celebrity in Gallia County. Local organizations solicit his help with fund-raisers, offering the opportunity to have “Breakfast With Bob Evans” for a donation, says Karen Dempsey, a weaver and caretaker at Bob Evans Farms.
“Only two things I don’t do,” Evans says, with a laugh. “I don’t ask people for money, and I don’t judge a queen contest. There can’t be more than one queen, and everybody else wants to burn your barn down.”
For all his sense of humor, Evans is quite serious about improving conditions for Ohio’s most impoverished people. “You go down through the hills here, see poor . . . kids sitting on the front porch, their fathers on welfare. The only thing that will break that welfare thing down is education.”
Ten years ago, as a member of the Ohio Board of Regents, Evans challenged presidents of area colleges to enroll more students from 29 southeastern Ohio counties. Three years later, 10 colleges and universities in the region founded the Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education (OACHE) in Portsmouth. The center encourages students to finish high school, pursue higher education, and helps them get scholarships. College-attendance rates at participating high schools have soared, in some cases to 80 or 90 percent of graduates—well above the national average.
“Bob is absolutely convinced that the best way to fight poverty is through education,” says Wayne F. White, executive director of the OACHE. “It’s wonderful to see the excitement when students hear Bob Evans himself say that in his day ‘hard work, a pick, and a shovel would get you there, but now hard work alone won’t do the job.'”
Evans’ other big focus is saving the family farm by promoting a grazing technique he learned about in New Zealand. The technique allows cattle to stay on pasture year-round, feeding on a nourishing diet of fescue, cereal rye, and turnips, instead of costly hay.
“They love the turnips. It costs just 19 cents a day to feed a 1,000-pound cow in the winter time,” Evans says. “We can raise cattle here cheaper than anywhere in the U.S.”