By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Bob Evans and his wife, Jewell, used to invite people to "come on down and visit us on the farm'' in early television commercials for their namesake restaurants and sausage links.
The invitation is still open.
But visitors to the Rio Grande farm in southeastern Ohio will find much more than the six-table Sausage Shop that the Evanses built in 1962 to accommodate the hordes of visitors who took them up on their offer.
Today, the Bob Evans Farm features a Bob Evans Restaurant, general store, craft barn and new Homestead Museum, which opened this month and serves as a corporate museum and historical center.
The museum opening, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of Bob Evans Farms Inc., also serves as a testament to the Bob Evans Farms' business platform and its strength in the industry.
Although the business wasn't incorporated until 1963, Evans, now 85, began making sausages in the 1940s because he couldn't find a good quality alternative to serve customers at his 24-hour diner, the Steak House, in nearby Gallipolis.
Evans, with two or three pigs, 40 pounds of black pepper, 50 pounds of sage and other ingredients, began experimenting with different blends of pork and seasonings for the hungry truck drivers who were his main customers at the Steak House. Jewell served as the taste-tester.
"Jewell has better taste buds than anyone I know,'' Evans used to say.
BOB EVANS FARMS
1946 - Bob Evans Farms Inc. got its start when founder Bob Evans began making sausage on his southeastern Ohio farm in Rio Grande to serve at a 24-hour diner, the Steak House, he owned in nearby Gallipolis.
1953 - Bob Evans along with five friends and family members formed the privately held Bob Evans Farms Inc.
1956 - Bob Evans Farms trademarked the name "Bob Evans Farms Sausage'' and aired the first TV commercial for the sausage brand in Dayton, Ohio. Also, Emerson Evans became chairman and chief executive, while Bob Evans chose to remain president of the company.
1968 - Bob Evans Farms headquarters moved from Gallipolis to Columbus to be more accessible to freeways and a major airport.
1971 - Dan Evans, Emerson Evans' son and Bob Evans' first cousin, takes control of the company as chairman and CEO after the eldest Evans retires.
1974 - The first Bob Evans restaurant outside Ohio opens in Florence.
1986 - Founder and president Bob Evans retires.
1987 - Bob Evans Farms acquires Owens Country Sausage, based in Richardson, Texas.
2001 - Dan Evans retires; ceding control of the company to current CEO Stewart Owens of the family owned Owens Country Sausage.
Source: Bob Evans Farms Inc.
Business grew as the truck drivers spread the word about the savory sausages, leading Evans to open two more Steak House locations - another in Ohio and one in West Virginia - and form the original Bob Evans Farms Inc. It started as a privately held company with only nine shareholders, mostly friends and family.
In 1968, the Bob Evans Farms headquarters moved from Gallipolis to Columbus to be more accessible to freeways and a major airport.
Not just sausage anymore
Through the years, the business has evolved from mainly a sausage-making operation, serving more than 1,400 grocery stores and restaurants, to primarily a restaurant business with operations in 22 states and more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
That was the goal of former chief executive Dan Evans, Bob's first cousin who ran the company for 30 years before retiring in 2001.
The retired CEO, who is on the board but says he "tries not to get in anyone's hair,'' attributes the growth of Bob Evans Farms to good food and good people, and says he's most proud that the company has grown without sacrificing the integrity of either.
"The key to our success has been hiring good people to work with our customers and providing high-quality food at reasonable prices,'' he said. "That hasn't changed.''
Dan Evans took over the company in 1971 from his father, Emerson Evans, who was the company's first CEO.
While Bob Evans - who was unavailable for interviews - founded the company and made the sausage, he had little taste for the business side of the operation and never assumed a position higher than president in the corporate hierarchy, Dan Evans said.
The current CEO, Stewart Owens, was Dan Evans' handpicked successor. He is a member of the Owens family that founded Owens Country Sausage in Richardson, Texas, which Bob Evans Farms acquired in 1987.
While the restaurant business accounts for about 80 percent of Bob Evans' revenues, the food products division is still an important part of the business and has been expanded to include many more items than sausages.
With five food production facilities, one distribution center and 14 sales divisions, Bob Evans retail food products - including biscuits, mashed potatoes and frozen entrees - are delivered to more than 15,000 grocery stores in 30 states.
And food products remain the key to Bob Evans Farms' growth strategy.
36 new ones to open
The company plans to open 36 restaurants this year, mostly in the Midwest - including Ohio, which has the most Bob Evans restaurants - and on the East Coast, Dan Evans said. About 80 percent of the new restaurant openings will be in markets where the company already does business and the other 20 percent in new markets, he said.
"What's been real successful for us is to open up a territory for food products and then open up with restaurants,'' Dan Evans said. "You can tell in about two or three years if it's a profitable market, and then open up with the restaurants.''
He said the company is looking at Denver and Minneapolis as possible markets in which to expand their food products, which could precede future openings of the distinctive Bob Evans restaurants with the red-and-white board-and-batten exterior with the keyhole cutout at the top.
The exterior design of Bob Evans restaurants has been modified somewhat in recent years to include more brick and other features to give it a more contemporary look, although the traditional red-and-white color and keyhole cutout remain.
The menus also have been upgraded to offer more casual dining fare in addition to breakfast foods.
It's all part of the company's strategy to attract younger diners to augment its core base of seniors and families, Dan Evans said.
"We do a lot of business at our restaurants in the morning and between 5 (p.m.) and 8 (p.m.) because that's when most older people eat,'' he said. "But the evening business is the end of the business that we're trying to expand. We're open until 10 (p.m.), and we're trying to reach young people who might eat with us at that time before they go out to a nightclub later.''
To get the word out about the changes, the company continues to spend generously on TV commercials.
Bob Evans Farms was one of the early pioneers of television advertising, launching its first sausage commercial in the late 1950s in Dayton, Ohio, when the TV industry was still in its infancy.
"We spend about $35 million on television commercials, and we try to pick hours and times to fit with the market we're going after.''
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