John Rogers and Earl Carter, longtime friends and avid gin rummy players, really started something back in 1943 when they opened Roca Bar Tavern at 1618 S. Kentucky Ave.
Rogers and Carter are both deceased, but after nearly 63 years the operation - known today as Roca Bar Pizza - continues to endure and thrive while the number of similar small operations is dwindling in the Tri-State.
Area restaurants typically have a lighter trade on early weeknights, but not the modest Roca Bar on the city's South Side. The scene there on a Tuesday night is typically wall-to-wall diners. The Roca Bar also has a Mount Vernon, Ind., location.
Jerry Ritter and Fred Schroeder, current owners of the Evansville location, credit the success of the flagship Roca Bar to what they call its two "claim-to-fame" menu items: The Around the World Pizza and Italian Salad.
Each salad and crispy, heavily endowed pizza is made fresh with a special concoction of spices and sauces and other secret ingredients - and much tender loving care.
Unlike many mom-and-pop businesses, the Roca Bar's immediate neighborhood isn't its market. The Around the World dish is readily recognized and draws most of its customers from across the Tri-State and from coast to coast. Residents from Kentucky and New England to California and Florida place orders long distance and have the pizza - first introduced in the 1950s - shipped to them frozen, according to Ritter. Other customers experience the restaurant in person.
Ritter and Schroeder don't take the business' success for granted. "We continuously taste-test our pizzas daily to make sure the pies aren't overcooked or undercooked but are cooked exactly right. We also continuously test the dough and sauce," Ritter said. Preparing the pizza requires two to three assemblers and a cook.
The Roca Bar doesn't aim to be a price house that offers two-for-one items or other discounts.
"We will never be that," Ritter said. "Our prices, we feel, are fair for the product given: Custom-made salads and entrees with each order. We make nothing in advance."
Ritter said to succeed it's also essential that the restaurant owner is present, overseeing the operation, like he and Schroeder.
"If you're going to be an absentee owner, things don't function as well," Ritter said. "If the owner pitches in and works with the employees, they'll work with you."
Though the restaurant business is hard work and a huge commitment, Ritter and Schroeder don't mind.
"We have a 'diamond in the rough.' I just wish we were younger so we could take it to its pinnacle," Ritter said.
Other long-running local establishments, such as Sir Beef Ltd. and Cork'N Cleaver, also find success in offering consistently good food and personal service.
Located on an outlot at Lawndale-Washington Commons shopping center on South Green River Road, the 39-year-old Sir Beef is popular for its Roast Beef Sandwich au Jus (made from lean, uncured beef) and for its large baked potatoes, grasshopper pies and cheesecakes.
"Our beef is doctor-recommended. Doctors refer patients to us sometimes," said Ron Bryant, current co-owner of Sir Beef with his wife Jennifer. He estimated the restaurant uses between 600 to 800 pounds of beef a week.
Seasonings, including barbecue sauce, are specially made for Sir Beef, also helping give the restaurant's food a distinct taste. A free condiments bar, which includes sauerkraut, green beans and pickled beets, also is a hit.
Despite such advantages, Bryant said it is tough making a go of the restaurant business these days with growing competition in the area from big franchise operations. A slowing in business on the Green River Road strip in recent years also has made staying in business a challenge for him and his wife, he said. Some businesses left the strip to relocate in the Burkhardt Road retail district farther east.
The 32-year-old "Cork'N Cleaver," located at 650 S. Hebron Ave., attributes its staying power to its high-quality steaks, prime rib and seafood and to its attention to cleanliness and service.
"We just had one of our busiest Decembers ever," said Thomas Todd, a co-owner with business partner Steve Bennett.