<b>GRILLER GUY:</b> Matt Benko built Santa Barbara Chicken Ranch into a modest mini-empire of mesquite-grilled chicken and tri-tip restaurants.
Paul Wellman

It’s a typical Tuesday at Santa Barbara Chicken Ranch on De la Vina Street, where Matt Benko is working the register, chatting up customers, bringing out orders, and wiping down tables. Wearing a ball cap and eyeglasses, this fit Californian could easily blend in with the mesquite barbecue restaurant’s younger staffers. But the middle-aged Benko is actually the founder and owner of this and two more Chicken Ranch restaurants.

Back in 1992, Benko was 24 years old, teaching volleyball, windsurfing at a resort in Thailand, and not thinking of becoming a restaurateur. But he had to rush back to his native Santa Barbara when his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was the proprietor of the El Pollo Norteño restaurant, and had passed away by year’s end.

“It was a scramble just to save [the restaurant],” said Benko, who had no restaurant experience and just $60,000 in life insurance, which helped pay off the family home. He found a partner to revamp El Pollo Norteño at the De la Vina Street location into Santa Barbara Chicken Ranch, and success came quickly, allowing Benko to buy out that partner in 1995.

Since then, Benko has developed sharp theories about the restaurant industry, including his concept of “the restaurant circle,” which refers to the idea that most people really only have five or six spots they frequent regularly. Benko’s goal, of course, is to get the Chicken Ranch into your circle, which is already the case for many Santa Barbarans. Benko is even starting to see customers he knew as children bring in kids of their own. That consistency is a point of pride for Benko, as is “having the same employees for a long time, some of them more than 15 years.”

In 2004, Benko opened a Goleta location, which he runs with Denise, his wife of 24 years, and in 2014, he opened another one near the Pacific View Mall in Ventura, where his brother-in-law Jeremy Fransen runs the show. He’s also considered Carpinteria and Santa Maria but now insists he won’t be opening any more. “I’m good where we’re at,” Benko said, whose locations each go through more than 100 chickens a day. “This is not a franchise concept. It’s so hard to teach the cooks how to do it. It takes a long time, at least six months.”

The menu is fairly limited, and Benko has only added one item, a tri-tip sandwich, since 1992, relying on the proven motto “Keep it simple, stupid!” So it’s the quality of the choices, not the quantity, that keeps folks coming back to the Chicken Ranch. Here’s a small taste of what they do best:

Chicken Plates: Available in quarter-, half-, or whole-chicken options, this is not the meat to drown in barbecue sauce because it’s already deliciously smoky with crispy golden skin. “It’s not what people associate with barbecue unless you’re Hispanic,” said Benko. “Cooking on charcoal 100 percent makes the difference. You can’t cook with gas; it just doesn’t taste good.”

Guacamole: You can tell when a restaurant phones it in with store-bought avocado dip. Not here. The guac is so rich and alive, you’ll nearly want to eat a bowl of it for lunch. Said Benko, “We make it fresh from scratch five times a day.”

Combination Plate: For first-time menu explorers, this may be the best move in the house: a generous plate with a quarter chicken, slabs of sliced beef tri-tip, requisite rice and beans, and a half dozen hot flour or corn tortillas.

S.B. Chicken Ranch has locations at 2618 De la Vina Street, S.B.; 149 North Fairview Avenue, Goleta; and 4020 East Main Street, Suite E-10, Ventura. See sbchickenranch.com.


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