Robin Willoughby was determined to find the man with the ribs.
“I’d seen him on TV,” she said.
A little sleuthing led her to a Facebook page and a phone number.
“I was like, ‘I wonder if he’s open, because I want some of those ribs!’” she recalled with a laugh.
“He” happens to be Ricky Evans, owner of Ricky D’s Rib Shack. And he was definitely open for business — finally. For three years Ricky D’s Rib Shack has been a shack in name only. Or rather, a shack on four wheels only.
The popular local food truck has been a fixture in front of the Yale Art Museum and at major events throughout the city including the annual Food Truck Festival. You can usually find the truck at an event if you look for the longest line.
Evans is hoping Ricky D’s will become a fixture in a new neighborhood now that he’s serving up his sweet-savory, Kansa-Lina style barbecue, at the crossroads of the Dixwell/Newhallville neighborhoods. Just a few days before the Fourth of July, Evans hung out a shingle at 302 Winchester Ave. at Science Park and achieved a goal that has been three years in the making — having his own storefront.
And you can smell the smoke before you hit the front door. Evans runs the business with the help of his younger brother, Brandon, Robert “The Wing King” Covington and Jerome “The Clean King” Houfer Jr.
When a customer asked how sweet the sweet tea is, Brandon lets him know that it’s sweet and then some, just as it’s done in the South.
“I might better not have that,” the man said. “I’m diabetic.”
“No,” Brandon said, “I wouldn’t recommend the tea then. But that water? The water is sugar free.”
With old school R&B pumping through the restaurant’s sound system, the men are cheerfully serving many of the favorites that people have come to love from the truck, such as ribs and pulled pork. They’re also dishing up a bigger menu that includes more sides like baked mac and cheese, chicken wings and salads.
“On the truck we don’t have propane, so it’s really just the grill,” Evans said. “This allows me to extend the menu. With the ovens I can add mac and cheese, I can add cornbread. I have space to do salads, so we’re doing salads with the smoked chicken, pulled pork or the brisket on top. We’ve got fryers. Before we didn’t do wings. When you have the equipment you can take advantage of that.”
Evans said the storefront also allows him to do more and bigger catering jobs, which was good news to Willoughby. She’s getting married soon and has a bridal shower coming up. Barbecue could be on the menu.
“We can bring the cookout to you,” Evans told her.
Making every day a cookout is part of Evans’s strategy for success. He said for the last year and a half he’s been looking for a storefront for the restaurant, but nothing seemed to be the right fit. In fact, he’d looked at a location around the corner in Science Park that would have put him right near the intersection of Winchester Avenue, Munson and Henry Streets across from the ever popular Farmington Canal. But it would have required a lot more resources, so he passed.
Then a broker from Yale University Properties contacted him about the space at 302 Winchester Ave., which hadn’t been available when he initially looked at the other Science Park location. (It was occupied by a Chinese restaurant at the time.) He decided to check it out.
“It just was the right place, at the right time,” he said. The location puts him directly across from the Winchester Lofts apartment complex and around the corner from the new Ashmun Flats apartments. In addition to the Farmington Canal the restaurant is just a short walk, bike or skateboard ride from Yale’s Ingalls Rink. It also stands a good chance of reaping the benefit of the Science Park lunch crowd and Newhallville neighbors like Willoughby, who lives just down Winchester Avenue. The restaurant is open until 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 10 p.m. Saturday, making it one of the few in the area serving more than wings and sandwiches well into the evening.
“We’re really the only place open on the weekend,” he said. “That’s why I really love this location. We’re right in the middle of both sides of town where we can attract people from Yale, downtown is not far, the local community over here, the hockey rink, the Science Park area.”
“It feels good,” Evans added. “We’re in the community, and we just want to market to New Haven and surrounding areas and establish that relationship with the community and have them connect with us actually having a location versus us only being on the food truck.”
Evans said the food truck isn’t going away, but he wants to get the rhythm of the storefront and understand the flow of the business to see how the truck might fit in going forward. He’s also looking forward to getting signage installed thanks to a facade grant he was able to secure from the city. Once that’s done, he’ll be looking at what he needs to do to get some outdoor seating and some bike racks.
“It took a lot of hard work and motivation to get here,” he said. “We’re still going to add more decor. This is just a start. We want customers to come here and I want them to grow with us and say, ‘I remember when the only thing they had on the wall was ‘Every Day Is A Cookout’ and ‘Don’t Bite Ya Fingers.’’”
Evans said he wants his “shack” to have a storied and humble beginning as all great barbecue restaurants do. While customers can dine in a storefront, there are no TVs for watching the game, or a bar for bellying up.
“But I think if I was to look at a next location, I’d look to add a bar and TVs if that opportunity was to come up,” he said. “But I wouldn’t want to move too fast. I want to get this location established. This is the original.”