Santa Barbara’s Third Window Brewing Co. has found the right formula: combine highly acclaimed beer with soul-satisfying food, and serve it in a relaxed outdoor patio setting.
But it took a pandemic to put all the pieces of this success story in place at the restaurant at 406 E. Haley St.
Because of California’s COVID-19 lockdown rules that required bars to serve food, “the brewery wasn’t going to survive if we didn’t get the food right,” co-owner Kris Parker said.
Parker is mainly a beer guy, but he and his wife and co-owner, Michellene, decided to “fill the gap by making our own food,” he said.
But where to start?
It helps when your sister owns a local cattle ranch and has large amounts of ground wagyu beef on hand. So they decided to try smashing cheeseburgers.
“Within a few weeks of the start of the pandemic our food business took off,” Parker said.
From using 20-25 pounds of ground beef per weekend when they began, “it’s now 600 pounds no problem,” he said.
Initially, “we really didn’t know what we were doing,” Parker admitted. “We were just trying to not burn ourselves” on the 450-degree cooking surface.
Then he smiled and confided, “We would go over to In-N-Out and spy on them, see how they were doing it.”
Since that beginning, Parker estimates that he personally has smashed more than 100,000 burgers. Practice makes perfect.
Food experts say that smashing the burger patty on a very hot surface produces a more dynamic Maillard reaction. In English: you get more browned bits that create that distinctive flavor.
Adding onions at the right moment in the process, and then topping the patty with American cheese creates a finished product the hamburger-loving public has embraced.
On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, Third Window (which takes its name from the legend of Saint Barbara) was packed.
To compliment the burgers, they also began making wood-fired pizzas, using the sourdough starter that Michellene, who manages the entire food operation these days, has had for 15 years.
When it comes to making the pizzas, Parker allowed, “my job is mainly to cut the wood for the oven.”
The Let’s Go Eat Team ranks Third Window’s pizza as some of the best we’ve tried in Santa Barbara. No doubt, it’s due to the optimum combination of sourdough crust and well-cut wood.
In addition to pizzas and smashed cheeseburgers, Third Window also offers chicken wings, sides and salads, and vegetarian options.
And Third Window supplements all that with a changing roster of “pop-up” chefs making a variety of creative food. (Click here for the current schedule.)
Food success notwithstanding, Parker’s first love remains making beer; and he’s good at it, winning four medals in the past three years at the Great American Beer Festival, including Gold for his dark lager.
“I got really interested in beer while in business school,” he said, adding, “I’m the son of a winemaker, but I felt like I had my own story to tell.”
Although Parker and his family live in the Santa Ynez Valley, he chooses to have the brewery in Santa Barbara.
“Much like wine, where you make the beer has a big influence on the final product,” he maintained.
And the employees are passionate and knowledgeable about that product.
“When you’re at the counter ordering,” Parker said, “you’re often talking to a brewer.”
Guests are encouraged to geek out with crew members about fermentation schedules, etc.
Looking back on the past few years of challenges and successes, Parker said, “If you’d told me back in business school that I’d be smashing cheeseburgers 12 hours a day, I’d have said you were crazy.”
But it would seem his MBA from USC does come in handy.
“We’ve built a great beer team and a great food team here,” Parker said, “and our success is just as much their story.”
The most popular beer with the cheeseburger is The Dark, with the Pilsners and IPAs close behind.
When You Go
Third Window Brewing Co. is located at 406 E. Haley St. in The Mill and is open from noon to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and noon to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Wood-fired pizza is available from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and Monday, and wagyu smashed cheeseburgers are offered from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.