CINCINNATI - Imagine you were opening a pizzeria hidden off the main road on a quiet, mainly residential street. What would you call it?
Richard Evans picked the name Cosmic Pizza and chose a character from the old Flintstones TV cartoon show to put on the sign in front of his little place on Woodsdale Avenue in Hartwell.
"He said he got the idea from Great Gazoo on the Flintstones. He wanted a Martian with a big head and a little body," remembered David Fields, who used to deliver pizzas for Evans.
Never mind that the Great Gazoo was from the make-believe planet Zetox - or that the character on the sign doesn't look like him.
"Rich said he picked it out of the blue, but the Martian didn't turn out the way he wanted," said Bill Wesley, who lives next door to the pizzeria. "He wanted something unusual that would draw attention to this place because it's not out in plain sight."
Evans wore a chef's hat and uniform because he wanted to convey a professional image, Wesley said. But Wesley laughed when he remembered the time Evans came over to talk in his driveway wearing shorts with his chef's hat and shirt.
"I kidded him a lot about that. He just said, ‘It's hot in the kitchen,' " Wesley said.
Evans' friends and customers have remembered him fondly – and sadly – in the week since he was shot to death in a robbery attempt June 15.
Many gathered Sunday at the Hartwell Kroger for a cookout to raise money for his widow and three young children. An online fund at http://www.gofundme.com/3ac52k has raised more than $36,000.
Evans, 50, traveled around the world and married a Thai woman he met in that country, according to people who knew him. They lived in California for a while before they came to Cincinnati to settle down.
He had a passion for making pizza by hand with quality ingredients and loved to talk about it with customers.
And he treated customers like family.
"Richard was a wonderful human being and knew more about pizza than anyone I've ever met," said Dan Brookbank, a customer. "We celebrated many of my family's special occasions there and always enjoyed ourselves and Mr. Evans' engaging and entertaining conversation. We will miss his literally homemade pizza and we will most certainly miss this very good, hardworking and honorable man.
"He showed me the right way to reheat pizza - in a skillet on top of the stove! I still do that and always think of him showing me that," said customer Jeffry Caudill.
"We loved Cosmic Pizza," said Jamie Greene Irwin, who ate there with her husband and daughter.
She and others who talked with WCPO Digital described Evans as a thoughtful, honest and worldly man. She said Evans' upstairs dining room had "an African motif" with sculptures and masks hanging on yellow walls.
"He talked about traveling and embracing other cultures," said Irwin. "He talked about food and his appreciation for other ways of life. He said everybody doesn't have to live life the way we do it.
"I would describe him as engaging. He was somebody willing to take the time to make good pizza and engage with you."
"The thing is, he was sincere," Wesley said. "He'd say, ‘Thanks for coming, come again' and he meant it from the heart. He was a really nice guy. If you met him, you'd never forget him."
Foremost, "Rich loved to make pizza," Wesley said.
A sign on the front of Cosmic Pizza advertised: "True thin-crust pizza that's out of this world."
It was named Cincinnati's fourth best pizza by Cincinnati Magazine in November, 2011.
"He made this really thin crust because he always wanted the toppings to be the focus of the pizza. He was all about flavor," Fields said.
"It was like a cracker crust," said Dawn Murray, a neighbor and customer who set up the online fund for Evans' family.
"If you were getting your pizza to go, he would recommend half-baked because the trapped steam in the box would create a water vapor, causing a soggy crust," Irwin said. "The man was serious about the quality of his pizza."
"He used the best ingredients," Wesley said. "He said a little place like his had to have better food and better service than the other guys."
Fields said Evans and his wife, who goes by the nickname "O," created delicious, spicy Thai-flavored pizzas besides the usual pizza menu.
"Thai beef, Thai chicken … Rich would put samples out and the customers would eat them up. When I was there, those were some of their best sellers. You can't get that from Domino's," Fields said.
Fields, who had worked at pizza chain restaurants, said he had to relearn his skills when he came to work for Evans.
"I was more of a New York-style pizza guy because I had worked at Pizza Hut and Papa John's, where the way of doing everything is industrialized. Rich had to teach me how to roll the dough," Fields said.
Evans was very
proud of his culinary skills, Fields said.
"That's why he always wore a chef's hat and coat. He wanted the customer to know the person making his pizza knew what he was doing and he wasn't just a minimum-wage guy throwing stuff on dough," Fields said.
Evans poured money and sweat into the business since he bought the former Capri Pizza site five years ago, said Wesley, who helped him fix up the building. Evans was determined to make a good living for his family and a comfortable place for families to eat good food.
"He spent a year working on it before he opened it," Wesley said. "He worked seven days a week."
At first, it was mostly a carryout with just one long bar table on the first floor.
"The first time my husband and I went, he had a few high-back seats on the first floor. We wanted drinks and he said, ‘I don't have any, but you can go over to CVS and get it,' so we did," Irwin said. "We chatted about the business and the community. After we paid, I think we stayed and talked for 15 or 20 minutes. I looked forward to going back, and we did several times."
Wesley remembered when Evans hired people to march along nearby Vine Street carrying a sign advertising his restaurant. When they walked past Frisch's, the manager got angry and came to the pizzeria, and the manager and Evans had words, Wesley said.
"Rich said it was pretty bad when a big restaurant like Frisch's was worried about a little shop like his," Wesley said. "He was a go-getter."
Last year, Evans started renovating the attic and eventually turned it into a dining room with seating for 35.
"Rich loved his family and I think that's why he was so determined to have a comfortable place where families could come and have a good meal," Wesley said.
Murray said Evans enjoyed taking his family to other "mom-and-pop" restaurants where they could get good, healthy food and he could talk to the owner and manager about their business.
"They ate healthy. The children were always well-dressed and well-mannered. They were absolutely delightful. They were home-schooled. You could see they were products of good parenting," she said.
Wesley said Evans started cutting back his business hours when his second and third children were born. At the time of the shooting, the pizzeria was open 4-8 p.m. five nights a week and 4-9 on Saturday.
"The kids were always in the back room playing with toys," said Fields. "The back room was visible from the kitchen so they were never out of his sight. Plus, he had a camera in there."
Evans' wife and kids – ages 8, 5 and 18 months – were in the restaurant when the shooting took place. His wife and kids were not hurt.
Wesley said Evans' older kids used to stand near his chain-link fence and call to his dogs, a pit bull and a Chihuahua. A few days after the shooting, the 8-year-old boy was standing there again and spoke to Wesley.
"I made my dad a birthday card, but somebody shot him," the boy said.
"That tore me up," Wesley said, standing in his driveway a few feet from the restaurant.
"I always thought Rich would be here as long as I would."
You can read comments from Evans' customers and friends and donate to the family fund at http://www.gofundme.com/3ac52k .