Courtesy of Ricky D. Evans

For Ricky D. Evans, growing up smelled like family barbecues and cookouts during the summertime. Music blasted from speakers as he and his friends played chess and toasted over cold drinks, watching their parents fire up the grill and season slabs of meat. 

His food journey followed him outside the backyard, however. When he was not standing beside the grill, Evans could be found binge-watching Food Network, Barbecue Pitmasters and other cooking competitions on YouTube. Little did he know, his childhood entertainment would later become his inspiration and research for starting his own cooking business, now a well-loved restaurant in the heart of the Greater Science Park neighborhood called Ricky D.’s Rib Shack.

The Shack blends the sweet and savory flavors of Kansas City-style barbecue with North Carolinian vinegar and mustard-based sauces, reflecting the recipes of various other regions as well. “I would hang out with my dad by the grill,” Evans said. “[Today, the restaurant] specializes in ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, wings, mac and cheese, chicken, baked beans … [and] cornbread. I enjoy good friends, good food … — overall [a] good atmosphere, that will always be something I will enjoy.”

Evans went to college at Virginia State University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Business Management. After spending four years as a facility manager in the Northeast post-graduation, he decided that “corporate America” was not for him, and found himself increasingly drawn to the hospitality industry. That was when he opened his own food truck by the Yale Art Gallery in May 2013, participating in food truck festivals and moving around the city. In 2016, he transformed the business into a restaurant on 302 Winchester Ave., which has since been serving customers from around New Haven and beyond. 

At the restaurant, Evans prioritizes “memorability” and cultivating an atmosphere where customers can enjoy both the food and remember their time at the shack “forever.” He recalled a time when he served a customer who had just been reunited with his son after many years. Watching them talk over dinner and a bottle of wine for one to two hours, Evans could not help but smile and “feel good” as the restaurant owner who contributed to the father-son moment in a small way. Another time, two high school sweethearts who had lost touch for 20 years met up at the shack for dinner, Evans said, describing it as both a moment that “they couldn’t forget” and “he couldn’t forget.”

Myles Settle, a staffer, added that he enjoyed the livelihood of the atmosphere at Ricky D’s. “The people here are happy.”

Unfortunately, many of these personable elements that Evans values at his restaurant — and the ability to connect with his customers — were lost over the pandemic. Just when 2019 proved to be the best year for the restaurant in terms of revenue, everything changed with the onset of COVID-19 at the beginning of 2020, resulting in a significant loss of customers. The restaurant was not alone, however. According to Evans, the Greater Science Park community as a whole suffered, with many businesses shutting down and corporate offices moving to a remote platform. He then pointed to the chairs and tables positioned throughout the restaurant, saying that the restaurant looked extremely different the past two years and that it had mainly operated via delivery, online orders and grab-and-go. Evans also reflected on the highs that he had during those times, however. Throughout the pandemic, he and his staff, which has expanded to eight other members, partnered with the city to serve the homeless population at discounted prices, an opportunity that Evans was grateful for. On the one hand, he was able to assist the most vulnerable residents in the city by providing 75-80 meals a day, and on the other, he got some of his staffers “off the bench” and afforded them the opportunity to work again. 

Today, Evans sees the enduring challenges of the pandemic as a learning opportunity, and is happy to see that his community and fellow business owners are recovering now that the severity of the virus is subsiding. His staff emerged stronger, and, when asked to describe his staffers in one word, Evans said “dedicated.” He is also exploring a digital, futuristic vision of his restaurant via a soon-to-come cooking game on the App Store, where players can manage their own virtual rib shack; Evans hopes that one day, he will be able to merge the digital and physical restaurants by allowing customers to potentially accrue points in the game that can then be exchanged for real-life rewards.

“Since I’ve gotten here, it’s been like family,” said staffer William Anderson, citing the diversity and “uniqueness” of customers who walk in and out of the restaurant every day. “We get a lot of people from out of town because there aren’t that many rib shacks here.”

As one of the participants in this year’s New Haven Restaurant Week, Ricky D’s Rib Shack will be offering a 10 percent discount on both takeout and dine-in meal options. 

BRIAN ZHANG
Brian Zhang covers COVID-19 and Yale New Haven Health, as well as housing and homelessness. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, he is a student in Davenport majoring in English and creative writing.