John Bennett designs his restaurants to force interaction, with bar stools near a waiter’s route to the kitchen and street-facing seats.
A nudge or passing word from a waitress could be the one exchange a customer has all day.
The layout of the Benchmark Eatery at the corner of State and Anapamu streets in Santa Barbara will be no different, a restaurant that bustled with activity on a recent afternoon as Bennett’s clan of loyal longtime employees smoothed out final touches ahead of a mid-July opening.
Bennett, a 43-year-old serial purveyor of local restaurants, excitedly sat down on a wooden bench in the covered outdoor patio, facing an imaginary dinner companion and picturing the passersby that customers would see, the smells of the “new American” comfort food and the conversations that would spark during the dining experience.
“I love construction sites,” Bennett told Noozhawk with an enthusiasm many reserve for opening gifts.
Construction at the former Maggie’s Restaurant at 1201 State St. has lagged two months longer than Bennett planned because of snafus with prior permitting, but the San Roque resident’s easygoing, fun-loving manner showed no sign of distress.
Bennett says he has long valued service over profits, creating a casual eating experience around two goals — keeping prices low and food simple.
He co-owns those popular Harbor Way joints with his mother, Susan, a matriarch who helped open Brophy Brothers in 1986. From that first restaurant spurned a Bennett family dynasty, one that continues to grow today.
• • •
Bennett was born in upstate New York as a middle child with two brothers and two sisters, growing up in Long Island until his parents decided to move the family to the West.
He arrived in Santa Barbara at age 12, and soon after was washing dishes in restaurants, acting as prep cook by 16. His father, Frank Bennett, worked as an executive at a local investment company that owned Sambo’s Restaurant and other local places.
Because Bennett specializes in budgeting and development, he helped open the Ventura Brophy Brothers in 2007, and took over back house management for the Montesano Group, which owns Joe’s Café, Lucky’s Steakhouse, D’Angelo's Bakery and others.
The Bennetts transformed the Minnow Café into On the Alley in 2011, bringing the family-friendly, service-oriented culture to another purveyor under 3 Sides Clear LLC.
Tackling one matter at a time, Bennett employs an old, reliable restaurant formula: restructure, condense (the menu) and keep the classic classic.
The Cliff Room will retain its beloved dive-bar status, but add a fence around a back patio and open up a sometimes-intimidating space with a front window.
Acquiring Arch Rock was philanthropy, Bennett said, since struggling family friends owned the restaurant and rented space from the Hutton Parker Foundation. Most everything will stay the same, with a smaller menu and more open booths.
Similarly with Farmer Boy Restaurant, longtime owner and friend Ralph Karleskint was looking for someone to take over, and Bennett will leave most things as is, even keeping staff. The restaurant will reopen in November as a “fresh take on classic diner.”
Owning or managing more than a dozen Santa Barbara restaurants allows Bennett to keep prices down.
“When is it going to be too much to go out to dinner?” he said. “The margins are so small in this business. It’s nice to be rooted here and create places that will take root.”
The Bennetts don’t pay for advertisements, opting instead to put that 3 percent into treating loyal regulars in an “East Coast neighborhood” approach.
Bennett said the goal is to boast 14 restaurants by the end of 2015, and he’s working on a few ventures he couldn’t yet discuss. He did say a second On the Alley would open in Goleta near Costco next summer, along with a restaurant at the Santa Barbara Inn, currently under remodel.
• • •
A young woman walked into the Benchmark Eatery last week to drop off her resume, and found Bennett greeting her at the door.
The personal touch is commonplace, considering Bennett still responds to Yelp reviews after 32 years in the business.
A yoga-loving family man, Bennett makes it home every night by 6:30 to have dinner with his wife of 15 years, Erin, and three children — ages 18, 8 and 6.
Ironically, Bennett says he rarely eats at his own restaurants and packs his own portion-controlled lunches. He abhors waste, so his restaurants compost and don’t bring water to tables unless it’s requested. Bennett also wants to soon work with the Organic Soup Kitchen.
He surrounds himself with seasoned restaurant managers — one of whom recently described the group as a family — and Bennett thinks that’s why his ventures thrive when so many in Santa Barbara fail.
“I love creating jobs,” Bennett said, calling it his current passion. “It’s the people. It’s a collaborative effort. You need community. You need help with almost everything. This business isn’t about food, it’s about love.
“We’ll be here for a long time.”
At Benchmark, Bennett added booths, wooden tables made by a friend in the Funk Zone and a light-up sign to draw the eyes of every customer to the family’s business mantra.
“A simple and honest product with a genuine commitment to service,” he said.