Robert Crayton is at a crossroads. Literally. The compact, muscular 40-year-old with an earnest face and gentle eyes, plans to open Rubies, a new restaurant/community- gathering-entertainment space, at the corner of Simpson and Darrow in Evanston’s 5th ward.
If the City Council approves it, Rubies, named after Robert's mother, will mark a new direction in Robert's life--and, he hopes, bring new energy to the neighborhood.
Robert is at a juncture figuratively too. A respected and popular personal trainer at Evanston’s McGaw YMCA (he’s been a truck driver and a school custodian as well) and a deeply religious man, Robert has inspired many in his community to get fit and find God.
But he's also served five years in prison for drug trafficking, and was arrested last April for selling heroin to undercover investigators (there's a hearing January 11). He’s made some bad decisions and faced significant roadblocks, but with his faith and determination, and the support of friends, family, and his community, he is jumping hurdles, not letting them hold him back.
"Robert is an example of all that's good in Evanston," says Rev. Kenneth Cherry Sr., pastor at Christ Temple Church where Robert is a member. "Here's a young man who's made mistakes and has a chance to rebound and become a contributor to society. That speaks to how great this community is."
“I always want to give back,” says Robert, as we sit with friends and supporters Monique Parsons and Phillip Walker in a bright, freshly painted room steps away from about 45 chattering guests at an open house for Rubies at the building at 1723 Simpson on Sunday.
“There are two things I believe I need to do. Save souls and bodies. Help people be physically and mentally strong.”
The ultimate plan, Robert says, is for Rubies is to be a sit-down, easy-menu restaurant as well a multipurpose venue that individuals and organizations can rent to hold parties, shows, classes, groups, and other community gatherings. “I want it to be family-oriented, somewhere that is a hub for people, for the community,” Robert, who graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1996, explains. “I want everyone to know each other. I want it to be friendly.”
Right now, though, because the building needs some work to get it up to code (it needs a third ADA compliant bathroom and some additional updates) Robert plans to open Rubies in two phases.
Phase I he hopes will happen very soon--to serve take-out breakfast (pancakes, eggs) and lunch (sandwiches, tacos) from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.--which will raise the capital he needs to move towards completing his vision.
Liz Gustafson, a 5th ward resident who attended the open house with her husband, told me she thinks Rubies will be successful.
"It's in a prime location, with a beautiful interior and concept, and it's an endeavor by a passionate man," she says. "We love Evanston for its originality, but that's getting diluted more and more by big business interests. We need to put our money where our mouth is. This location has been a stain on our community and Robert is going to turn it around."
Robert has worked hard to bring the interior of this low-lying building, a former grocery store known for drug deals, scams, and busts that was cluttered with junk and in disarray, to where it is today: airy, bright, welcoming, spacious, and decorated in shades of grey and white. On one side is a kitchen and counter space. On the other, a large area with gleaming floors, couches and a coffee table, and lots of possibility.
Robert has held down three part-time jobs while getting the place ready, working late into the night, his mother Rubie tells me, and while all of the many guests I talk to praise Robert’s work ethic, his love of community, and his generous spirit, Robert is low-key, and keeps it very real. I can’t help thinking that his project is a metaphor for his life: cleaning up, moving forward, giving back.
I talked to Robert, Monique, and Phillip about Robert’s life and his hopes for Rubies.
DE: Tell me about this location ...
RC: 1723 Simpson has been around for a long time. When I was growing up it was Ramy’s grocery store under its first owners. There were two generations of owners. The older generation kind of took care of us. When we didn’t have any money, we could come get snacks sandwiches every now and then. He’d tell us to grab a broom, sweep up the front, and he’d feed us.
DE: Why this building, this vision?
RC: Phillip is my best friend, we grew up together. He lived on Darrow. We’d organize comedy shows and live bands for the neighborhood. We call ourselves and our friends Gold Star Productions. We’d get huge audiences, sell out Fleetwood. We were trying to figure out how to get the freedom to do more of what we want to do. And we thought, we got to get a place, our place, and give back. The grocery store owner wasn’t stocking the shelves any more. He was going to get rid of the building. He allowed me to step in and lease it.
My plan is that the restaurant will pay the bills. Everything else is going to be for the community. I like people. I know how to make them happy. That’s my goal.
DE [to Phillip and Monique]: What do you two think of it?
PW: When he brought me in here he’s like,'Man, this is going to be my spot.' I saw trash. I’m like, 'Nah, this ain’t the one, man.' Then I saw his vision.
MP: I think everyone who’s come through this space, younger or older, can see themselves in it, and this community is diverse in that way. It’s multigenerational. People have been raised in this community and are now raising their children and grandchildren in this community. Like Phillip, I only saw trash at first. Robert had the vision.
DE: Who will serve the food, do the prep work?
RC: We’ve talked to a few chefs. We haven’t hired anyone yet. And we want to hook up with YMCA, the City, the high school and get kids to do prep. They can cut vegetables, that kind of thing. And then maybe later on they can become chefs. We want to do something that will show kids this trade.
DE: So let’s talk about you. How did you become a personal trainer?
RC: It was around 2008. I was going to Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center every day looking for a job. Betsy Jenkins was the manager at the time. But she told me they didn’t need any more janitors and she asked me what else I could do. And I didn’t know what I could do, or what my life was geared for. I just didn’t have an answer. I just still didn’t know.
She said, ‘Well, you work out every day. Why don’t you become a personal trainer?’ She said, ‘I’ll let you work half your day personal training, and half your day cleaning up.’ She sent me to school out of her pocket to get my certificate.
I had just come home from the penitentiary when I got that job.
DE: Why were you in the penitentiary?
RC: Trafficking. Drugs. In Evanston. I had an 11 year sentence and served five years, and probation.
DE: What was it like in prison? Did it change you?
RC: Mentally, it developed me into a man. I started learning. I was around a lot of older people. They kept me out of trouble. I clung to them, they clung to me. I hadn’t had the rough experience a lot of them had had. And God protected me in jail also. When I was in jail, God surrounded me with knowledgeable people. I read books. I wrote letters for the first time. I never wrote a letter in my life. I learned a lot there.
DE: What got you into drug trafficking in the first place?
RC: All the guys I knew drove Cadillacs. They’d go to fancy restaurants. There was never no “no.” Whatever they wanted to do, they could do it. My upbringing was wonderful. My mother and father worked all their life. My dad is head custodian at Haven. My mom worked an assembly line. They’ve been together all this time. So I can’t even say it was because my mom and dad weren’t there. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. That’s what got me in trouble.
DE: How did your parents take it?
RC: My parents took it hard. They did not raise me to be a bad boy. My parents gave me what I needed, but I had to work for it. I’ve been working since eighth grade. If we needed shoes, we had to work with my dad. For others, their upbringing may be different. But I chose my life. Quote me on this, my mother and father do not agree with that. They’re not okay with that.
Those guys with Cadillacs looked like they didn’t have any problems. The lifestyle tricked me. I saw my mom had problems. She worked 9-to-5 everyday and she had problems, struggling to pay the bills. These guys were out there and they had no trouble. But it was a facade.
DE: How do you feel now?
RC: I definitely feel remorse for past decisions I made that weren't positive for the community. I have an opportunity now to give back and do better. I have a different set of people around me, whose opinions I respect and friendship I value. They support the man I am today and lucky for me, they haven’t held my past against me. They expect me to use my lessons and turn them into good. I’m a wiser man. I’m determined to not let them or my community down.
DE: What’s your biggest regret?
RC: I don’t think I have regrets. I think everything serves its purpose. Even the bad. When I was in prison, 33 people I knew died. But I got in trouble and was able to live. So I figure man, I’ve got to take the good with the bad. So even if I got a storm tomorrow, I know it’s going to better me later on. I believe we go through things to make us stronger. If we don’t struggle, we don’t get stronger.
DE: What’s your biggest accomplishment?
RC: I haven’t gotten there yet. But the biggest thing I want to be known for is giving back.
DE: Do you see yourself as a role model?
RC: Oh no. Of course not. I’m not a role model. I do some good things. I believe I can help. I have a story that can help someone, but I’m not a role model yet. I have to get there. I still have to get there.
MP: Look at all the people who came today. People just wanted to support him. I think people know that in his spirit he wants to be positive and be an example. He doesn’t think he is a role model, but I absolutely think he’s one.
DE [to Monique and Phillip]: So tell me more. How is it that so many people are in Robert’s corner?
PW: He’s a great guy, he has great vision, and a great spirit. He’s compassionate. He’s the guy who got me into the gym. He gives great advice to motivate you. He has a tradition for his birthday, everyone shows up at church. There’s two things he says: everyone has to come to the gym at 5 a.m. and everyone has to be at church on Sunday. And I respect him for that.
MP: I know Robert doesn’t see it yet, and he knows his story is still being formed, but he has great conviction, a strong work ethic, and a strong sense of community and what it means to represent and give back.
To understand Robert, you have to understand him completely. So often when someone goes through bad stuff, that’s where the focus is. But he was the one who got me in the gym, got me to lose weight, got me back in church. That was his first question to me when he’d see me. And I’d say, ‘What? Who are you and why are you asking me this?’
I don’t think anybody’s perfect and people are quick to highlight the negative, but they don’t understand how hard it is to walk in his shoes and still have a vision for this community. So I think that’s who he is.
DE: Do you believe that people deserve second chances? What would have happened if you didn’t get a second chance?
RC: Yeah, I believe everybody deserves second, third chances. It takes some longer than that. You know it’s hard to come from prison and then get a 9 to 5. That’s why I’m so invested in this program working.
DE: So you’re a pretty determined person.
RC: Yes. I am.
DE: And you’re humble.
MP: Very much. He’s very humble. And he gives beyond what giving should be. He never says no. What he’s taught me is that when you give, you give without expectations and that it does come back to you. People can ask him for anything-- some people don’t even have to ask--and he will graciously just do. And it could be he doesn’t have any more to give, but he won’t tell you no.
DE: Do you think that having this place as a community hub is your way to keep young people occupied in positive ways?
RC: Yes. Most definitely. Ms. Jenkins at Fleetwood made sure I took care of two types of people, younger people and seniors. She put that in my mind a long time ago that this is what you have to do. These are groups you have to give back to.
DE: Are you excited?
RC: I’m excited. I’m happy. I just want this for us. I don’t want people to say, 'That’s Rob’s place.' They’ll say, 'It’s OUR place.' That’s satisfaction for me.
PHOTOS: Robert Crayton (top); Robert's dad (middle); Robert with his mom Rubie and best friend Phillip Walker (bottom).
Robert Crayton has a zoning meeting January 9, 2018 and then Rubie’s goes to council for a vote.