Enthusiastic raves slipped from the lips of customers before their juicy burgers even materialized on a recent afternoon, the familiar anticipation mounting as coworkers waited in the parking lot of Home Improvement Center on East Gutierrez Street in Santa Barbara.
The men smelled their lunch from work, teased nearly a block away from the parking lot where the Burger Bus sat on its designated day.
These customers, and many others, have decided the affordable, unbeatable burgers are worthy of frequent visits.
If you ask owners Cheryl and Michael Gardner how the business has managed to stay open for nearly four years when other food trucks have come and gone, their answer is good burgers, too.
“It’s not really a secret,” Michael said of his seasoned, beef-grilling skills. “It’s been a fun little adventure.”
The rad, yellow ride could also have something to do with it.
Decked out in Charlie Brown yellow and black — why the Gardners have named the bus “Charlie” — the mobile restaurant is a fully refurbished, retired school bus equipped with its own grill and a menu full of nothing but local ingredients.
The Gardners, along with their two employees, serve up lunch five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, adding new locations where they park on a set schedule. Gutierrez Street is the newest of the lunch locations.
“We try a place,” Cheryl said last week, holding her bubbly 10-month-old daughter, Emi. “We ask the business. If it works out we keep it on the schedule. We fortunately had some great people say yes to us.”
The food truck idea came about in 2009 when Michael decided he wanted to get back into the burger-flipping restaurant business he had been a part of in San Francisco years earlier.
A brick and mortar restaurant seemed daunting, and Cheryl, a teacher at Washington Elementary School at the time, jumped onboard the mobile train.
“We decided mobile was the way to go,” she told Noozhawk. “It was such a new thing in Santa Barbara.”
These days, Cheryl says she’s semi-retired. The bus business has been successful, so she’s splitting time between working and Emi, who already has a Burger Bus onesie.
“Burgers soon!” Cheryl said, referring to the teeth Emi is growing in.
The bus, which has a simple menu of seven to eight different burgers, is also available in the evenings for catering. Their claim to fame, Michael says, was catering for Drew Barrymore’s wedding last year at her Montecito home.
The grill master said he recommends customers try the infamous CB&J burger, a cheeseburger made with seasonal Mama’s Preserves jelly, or the “gonzo,” a burger on the menu that rarely has the same ingredients twice.
The couple says although they love the bus, they’d like to have a stationary place to call their own in the next few years.
“It would be great to open up a brick and mortar in the future,” said Cheryl, noting a lack of space in the kitchen on wheels. “Things are really going well. We’ve definitely seen a number of food trucks open and close.”
They’d keep the bus, she says, reassuring loyal regulars.
“It’s been awesome,” she said. “We definitely have our regulars. It feels good. They’re our people.”