Bob Evans, RIP

11:45 p.m. July 26

Money magazine recently named Naperville, Ill. as one of the top two places to live in America. Naperville is a suburb of roughly 140,000 about 40 miles west of Chicago.

At the same time Naperville received this honor, the Bob Evans restaurant in Naperville closed down.

Both stories were front page news on the July 18 edition of the Naperville Sun.

Money magazine gave Naperville its props for its Riverwalk (think San Antonio in the prairie), Centennial Beach (a beautifully restored quarry that was a WPA project) and its top notch school system. I was a product of that school system. My parents still live in Naperville.

They are Bobheads, real Bob Evans regulars.

The thing about Naperville and perhaps Fort Collins, Colo. (which was number one on the Money list) is that how transitory the city has become. Naperville is an extremely upscale professional community, where many residents hang around for five or six years and move on.

It’s not only difficult to lay down roots, its hard to FIND roots.

And Bob Evans was the slow roadside diner in a fast paced suburb.

Many hip Chicago restaurants are now opening eateries in Naperville. Bob Evans is a lot of things. But it is not hip. It is not even ironically hip like White Castle.

I saved Kathy Millen’s fine story in the Naperville Sun. Her dispatch quotes several old timers and there’s a picture of an elderly couple in a booth who were going to Bob Evans regularly for the last 23 years. The woman in the picture is waving her finger with fierce instruction. Her husband is obidiently sitting across from her wearing one of those brightly colored baseball caps that probably say “Suddenly Senior.” They are not my parents. Millen reported the homespun chain closed the Naperville location because of “declining sales and profits over a period of time.”

In other words, Naperville is losing its senior population.

I never got Bob Evans, and I would tease my parents about that. Now that it is gone, maybe I get it a little more. At Bob Evans, people got a real return on their dollar. This spoke volumes to the declining number of Depression-era regulars.

Bob Evans has the Shroomin’ Onion Cheeseburger, Fishermen’s Fried Cod, Pot Roast Sandwich (slow-roasted beef, carrots, onions and American cheese piled as high as the Sears Tower on grilled sourdough.) I told a friend about how my parents will be missing Bob and she said, “Oh, there’s other places.” No, there’s no other places like this. You can get a honkin’ martini in Naperville, but you can’t get Golden Cornmeal Mush (two slices of fried cornmeal mush with choice of meat)—discounted at Bob’s for “Our Friends 55 and over.”

In the fall of 2003, I broke away from a Farm Aid concert in Columbus, Ohio to check out The Bob Evans Homestead Museum and Craft Barn just off of U.S. 35 in Rio Grande, Ohio, (pop. 750) about 95 miles south of Columbus. The museum is part of a rolling 1,110 acre farm that was the home of Bob, his wife Jewell and their six children between 1953 and 1970. The museum is in the red brick farmhouse where Bob invited neighbors to try out his sausage, which he liked to say was “made by a farmer on the farm.” The recipe is still used today, and while it remains a secret, I do know that Evans sausage includes all of the hog, including the hams and tenderloins, black pepper and sage.

I bet this is part of what people talk about at Bob Evans, but I’m not sure. The Naperville store opened in 1984 and truthfully I only went there a couple of times with my parents. I couldn’t even get past Bob’s “General Store”, which was stocked with hopeless stuffed animals, candy and the smell of potpourri. Nothing warms you up for dinner like a hospital gift shop.

Like a fine meal, diversity is essential to the quality of life of any American city. My hunch is that a city without Bob Evans is a city without many seniors and that is too bad. The strengh of a tribe is in its elders and I now think about that as I drive by the empty Bob Evans in Naperville, Illinois.

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