Originally published in The Daily Sound, Sept. 9, 2010.
The license plate on the Burger Bus reads “EAT HERE.” Lunch-goers throughout Santa Barbara and Goleta seem to be listening.
“[They’ve] embraced our mobile food,” said Cheryl Gardner. When they first started, she found challenging that they couldn’t park the bus on a city street, beach, or park. For Burger Bus to have a place to serve customers, it needed to ask permission of local businesses to park on private property.
“Now it’s flattering that people are asking us to come to their business locations,” she added, mentioning that the Burger Bus has been ramping up its appearances at private events.
For almost a year and a half, Cheryl and Michael Gardner have driven their converted school bus-cum-kitchen to various locations around town to serve lunch on a rotating schedule. The couple starts their workday at about 9 a.m., and can finish back at Earl Warren Showgrounds (where the bus is kept and all prep and cleaning is done in a rented kitchen) anywhere from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., depending on where they were and how busy it was. The Gardners have learned to streamline and optimize their time; for instance, they modified their original onion ring shape in a way that cut down on man-hours but made the onions cook and scoop a lot easier. They never, however, compromise. Everything is handmade; onion rings and pickle chips are hand-dipped in beer batter (made with Telegraph Brewing Company Ale) and fried to order.
“Every day is different,” Cheryl shared, pointing to a day they recently ran out of bread as an example of the pair’s ever-shifting challenges. “We prepare to serve 90.”
The bright yellow school bus — “Charlie,” as the Gardners call it — travels about 25 miles a day by Cheryl’s estimation. Starting from “home base” at Earl Warren Showgrounds, its farthest regular location is Citrix Online’s upper campus (Goleta, approaching Ellwood Butterfly Preserve), but it’s also seen at high-profile downtown Santa Barbara locations such as the WheelHouse (Anacapa/Cota).
“No matter where you are, the Burger Bus comes somewhere close,” said Cheryl. She surmised that since most people only have a few opportunities per month to visit the bus, it keeps them coming back for more. She also believes that locals appreciate the Burger Bus’ dedication to fresh, organic, and local sources, and its green business practices. Cheryl revealed that the bus is exclusively powered by pricey B100, a.k.a. pure biodiesel. They are also dedicated to recycling, including the frying oil they cook with.
While the iconic bus helps the business’ visibility, the duo spreads the word in alternative ways, eschewing traditional advertising (“it’s very expensive,” says Cheryl). The Burger Bus Facebook account, for instance, proactively transmits to fans each day where the duo will be serving up their locally sourced, freshly made fare (five days per week plus the occasional weekend appearance). The Gardners also sell Burger Bus T-shirts at cost, hoping that fans will help spread the word.
The best advertisement for the Burger Bus? The burgers themselves, of course. Not only do the proprietors attempt to deliver the freshest ingredients from local suppliers — beef from Shalhoob, served on ciabatta from Our Daily Bread — they display creativity and innovation in constructing the burgers themselves. For instance, the Burger Bus has a knack for using jellies in its burgers to create interesting flavor combinations. A recent daily special featured a burger with blueberry preserves and blue cheese. It may seem odd at first blush, but, according to Michael, “everything that we started with was based on how we were cooking at home.”
Back before Burger Bus was a reality, Michael introduced Cheryl to the concept, cooking a burger served with white cherry apricot preserves. About six months later, when the Burger Bus went into business, the burgers plus preserves were a hit on the road as well as at home.
The preserves all come from Mama’s Preserves, a fixture on the local Farmers Market scene. Customers, says Cheryl, enjoyed burgers paired with Mama’s jalapeño jelly so much that they kept coming back — and asking if it could be hotter. Cheryl and Michael petitioned Lori Heal, the proprietor of Mama’s, to make a habanero jelly for them. Heal did so, and Cheryl says that not only is it very popular on burgers, but Burger Bus is the only place where you can taste Mama’s habanero.
“It’s a Burger Bus exclusive,” said Cheryl.
At the beginning, the learning curve was fairly steep, according to Michael, because they’d only had a short time to practice within its confines before opening for business.
“We just went straight for it,” he said.
They’ve learned a lot since then. While they got a lot right from the get-go, Cheryl said that if they had to do it over again, they’d consider a bigger bus.
“Another three or four feet would be great,” she said, which would allow for another small refrigerator next to the fryer.
Cheryl shared that the pair’s ultimate goal would be to have a restaurant of their own, a hub of sorts that would not only serve food, but would be home base for a small fleet of food-serving vehicles, each promising a different kind of cuisine. In the shorter term? That the Gardner’s tend to favor Mexican and Chinese food during their off-time may be a sign of things to come. Michael said that the next venture could well be a kind of taco truck.
“It’s not going to be your everyday taco truck,” he elaborated, even as he emphasized that they are big fans of traditional taco trucks, specifically Don Paco (open 8 p.m.-11 p.m., M-F at Micheltorena and San Andres).
“We’ll give it a bit of a Santa Barbara twist. We’ve done a good business with [The Burger Bus], and we’re hoping people will be just as excited to try [the next one] out . . . and hopefully it’s just as good.”