Brent Reichard was driving and listening to the radio last month during a visit to Los Angeles when he heard a news report list the nation’s top fast-food restaurants.
Most people polled to name the tastiest burger in America went with a Southern California-based chain, according to Consumer Reports.
No surprise to Reichard, who continued paying attention with half an ear, assuming the award went to well-known West Coast gem In-N-Out Burger.
His ears perked up when a far-off voice instead said The Habit Burger Grill — a joint the Santa Barbara resident co-founded in Goleta with younger brother Bruce in 1980.
The report named The Habit No. 1 in burger taste, right above In-N-Out, and as the No. 2 burger chain, just behind the fellow “quick casual” chain.
Within hours, Reichard’s inbox was flooded with emails from folks less fazed with The Habit’s rise to celebrity status.
“That was unbelievable,” Reichard told Noozhawk this week. “It’s been great for business. I was very surprised.”
The Habit hadn’t hit a big-time ranking before, Reichard said, although locals have consistently bestowed readers’ choice awards on the restaurant with five South Coast locations and nearly 100 in California, Utah and Arizona.
Wafts of char-grilled beef and burgers priced between $7 to $10 — but starting at $2.95 — help draw a steady stream of customers to The Habit’s downtown Santa Barbara State Street location, where waiting in line is commonplace, if not a certainty.
A diverse menu featuring fresh salads, malts and a variety of sandwiches puts The Habit in a slightly different league than In-N-Out, which has more locations but also focuses more on quality, execution and service than other fast-food joints, Reichard said.
The Habit’s popularity has far exceeded expectations Reichard established nearly 35 years ago.
In 1976, Reichard began working as a 16-year-old cook at what was then the Hamburger Habit, which opened at 5735 Hollister Ave. in 1969. After graduating from Dos Pueblos High School with an interest in business and real estate, Reichard enrolled at Santa Barbara City College. He left college three semesters later when the restaurant owners divorced and sold the place to Reichard and his brother.
A year later they changed the name to The Habit and for a while went off to do their own thing — Brent started and later sold Goleta restaurants Spike’s and California Taco, and Bruce got into the sea urchin diving industry — before deciding to open a second location in Ventura in 1996.
“I realized how great the concept was,” Reichard said of The Habit. “It appeals to everybody. The pricing appeals to everybody. We don’t change quality for price.”
The Milpas Street restaurant followed the following year, and the regional chain expanded to 17 before the brothers sold the company to a private equity firm Reichard said would help the brand “really hit the gas” in 2007.
Instead of growing by two or three restaurants a year, The Habit will open more than 20 in 2014, including the chain’s first East Coast location in New Jersey.
The Habit’s first franchise locations — all non-local joints are company-owned — are also in the works for Seattle and in Nevada.
Reichard, 55, who has stepped down as CEO after 25 years, still co-owns the five Santa Barbara County locations with his brother, and they hope to open two more in Santa Maria and Buellton with drive-through windows.
Reichard said The Habit remains his first true love, where integrity begets quality and passionate employees strive to make the chain the best, not the biggest.
“Burgers are not going out of style,” Reichard said. “It’s being around people and being able to share.”