Across the Table: Lifelong friendship formed around sausage gravy

Of all my favorite local foods, the one I’m most up close and personal with is Bob Evans Sausage Gravy.

Biscuit slathering as a Sharp family tradition began when my grandparents took us to a Bob’s after church and continues through my family’s visits today. But my special connection is a buddy who helps keep the gravy coming.

I go way back with Larry Bussert, who’s in charge of Bob Evans’ livestock procurement. My dad coached Larry in Biddy league football, we played high school ball together and my brother Scott was in his wedding. But the fluky thing is that Larry learned the livestock trade while working at his grandpa’s stockyard, which bought livestock from local farmers including my grandpa, who taught me about caring for the animals we sometimes sold to Larry’s family, who in turn sold those animals to meat processors including, you guessed it, Bob Evans.

Many years later we’re both still in the livestock business, albeit on a different scale. Where Larry’s family used to buy from 20 some farmers each day, he’s now in charge of buying 200,000 hogs a year and procuring millions of pounds of meat for Bob Evans’ restaurant and grocery customers. While my grandpa raised hundreds of dairy cattle, I now serve more than 25,000 farmers who raise livestock and poultry and twice that many who grow livestock feed—nearly 1 million Ohioans with jobs connected to food production and all our members who enjoy our state’s meats and other farm bounty.

While our duties have broadened, what Larry and I appreciate is how our upbringing prepared us for the responsibilities we have today. As Larry puts it, “Just knowing where our food comes from, our small family values, wanting to do the right thing every day.” That’s how we were raised, and we’re fortunate to have landed at organizations that reflect it.

“Doing the right thing” is part of our companies’ cultures – like partnering to buy champion livestock at the Ohio State Fair to support thousands of young fair participants. Or last May’s community fundraiser when Bob Evans donated a significant portion of its restaurant sales to the educational efforts of 4-H, FFA and Farm Bureau. When asked about Bob Evans’ generosity, Larry says it’s simple: “We want to make sure our communities have great people in place for generations to come.” Which is what I’d expect from one of Ohio’s great local food providers.

Yes, local. Just as local as when the company’s namesake began making sausage. In 1948 Mr. Evans started buying local hogs from local farmers to serve local residents in his 12-stool diner in Gallipolis. Today, his legacy includes more than 500 restaurants and grocery products found in all 50 states. But many of the family farmers and small businesses that supply them still live near you, as do the 13,000 Ohioans who work in their restaurants, production and distribution facilities and corporate offices. Yes, Bob Evans is known far and wide, but I know that tasty sausage gravy is still as local as it gets.

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