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Carol Duncan Remembers Early Days of Rusty’s Pizza

Cofounder of Iconic Regional Chain Honored by Spirit of Entrepreneurship Awards

Rusty's Pizza Founder Carol Duncan with her son Tyler | Credit: Paul Wellman

In the late 1960s, Carol Duncan, a passionate Goleta elementary school teacher at the time, was looking for a way to supplement her family’s modest income. With her husband, Roger Duncan, a hard-working grocery store supervisor, she set out to transform Isla Vista’s Rusty’s Roast Beef into a pizza parlor. 

“We didn’t have enough money for a new sign, so we just cut off the part that said ‘Roast Beef’ and added ‘Pizza,’” says Duncan, chuckling. “That was purely economic.”

Practical business decisions like these have allowed the Rusty’s franchise to expand to 17 different locations, with eight locations from Carpinteria to Goleta and the rest in and around Bakersfield. Duncan further credits the chain’s success to her industrious children, who have been valuable team members since the early days of their childhoods. 

“One day at the State Street location, it was so busy, so I put my teenage girls to work bussing tables and thought, ‘What do I do with my 3 year old?’” Duncan remembered during a recent interview, smiling across the room at her now grown-up son, Tyler Duncan. “I took him behind the counter where the beer sinks were really low, with three rinses for glasses. He’d put one mug in and one mug in and one mug in, and that was his little job. He was pretty handy.”

Nowadays, Tyler is the president of Rusty’s Pizza Parlors and is focusing on opening the next location in Summerland. His older sister, Cyndi Hicks, owns and operates the Bakersfield locations. Carol’s husband retired from the business long ago. 

Rusty’s Pizza on Storke Rd (top left), Carrillo (top Right) and Isla Vista (bottom).

After nearly 50 years of dedication to Rusty’s, Carol Duncan is taking some time off from her usual hands-on role as CEO to heal a broken ankle. But she explained that, to this day, the entire family is “involved in the construction, the design, and anything else it takes to do a Rusty’s.” 

For this enduring diligence, Duncan will be honored on May 3 at the Spirit of Entrepreneurship Awards Gala. She will be bestowed with the Rock Star: Life Achievement Award, an annual recognition of a prestigious female entrepreneur who has shaped the community for the better. “You know, we started at the same time as Domino’s,” recalled Duncan. “[Domino’s Pizza founder] Tom Monaghan had a big idea, and we had a small one.” What both founders saw, however, was a lack of pizzerias in their geographic areas.

Duncan decided to focus on bringing her signature pizza and sauce to the various neighborhoods of Santa Barbara County. The family worked hard at creating a memorable experience tailored to these hometown customers, whether that meant playing black-and-white silent movies accompanied by live piano or having employees dress up in pizza costumes to wave at passersby.

Though some features have come and gone, most Rusty’s locations still maintain a nostalgic parlor atmosphere with vintage booth seating and arcade games, and occasionally a theme as well, such as the railroad motif at the newer locations in Goleta. That’s despite some of the untraditional buildings that the franchise has been tasked with transforming, such as the former English-style pub on Carrillo Street and an old bank building on Storke Road. Like the original makeshift Rusty’s sign, Duncan and her team have always been creative in the act of “bootstrapping and trying to do something different and new with what is available,” according to Tyler Duncan.

Perhaps the most different concept that Carol Duncan has tried is dressing in a Godzilla costume to entertain children at store openings. When a Santa Barbara Zoo executive saw the Godzilla head in Duncan’s office, the gag led to her personal involvement as a benefactor in the development of the zoo’s popular dinosaur puppets. The human-sized Duncan the Dinosaur and his cohorts have become an attraction that families travel from far and wide to witness. 

Carol Duncan was also an integral supporter of the zoo’s train. “We like to get involved in anything that we can do, and it’s all about kids and families,” she said humbly, the former elementary school teacher in her coming through. Rusty’s has been a contributor to school programs and youth organizations for decades, and the upcoming Spirit of Entrepreneurship Awards will honor Duncan’s generosity and commitment to Santa Barbara youth as well as her business achievements.


4•1•1 | Carol Duncan of Rusty’s Pizza will be honored with the Rock Star: Lifetime Achievement Award during the Spirit of Entrepreneurship Awards on Friday, May 3, 5:30-8:30 p.m., at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort (633 E. Cabrillo Blvd.). See soefoundation.org

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