The idea came while Sierra Falso and Darin Fiechter were on the beach, out of work for six months following the closure of the couple’s Paseo Nuevo restaurant, Live Culture, amidst the recession of the late aughts.
“What if we got a school bus?” asked Falso, further proposing to do her hair in a beehive and bring a retro vibe to the party bus business. “If it doesn’t work, at least we could live in it.”
Up to that point, Fiechter was a veteran of both medical sales and the hospitality business, working in restaurants like Cava, Brophy’s, and Paradise Cafe as well as for hotels like the Bacara. He’d never been so down on his luck, even selling a 1984 Westfalia just to get by.
“We were selling everything to survive,” he said. “I rode her coattails because I’d never been through anything that tough.”
While he’d led a pretty charmed life — born at Cottage Hospital, raised in Solvang where his dad sold insurance, surfing Jalama regularly — she’d had it a little tougher: growing up with a firefighter mom in a boat in the harbor and a cabin on Paradise Road, having a kid at 19 years old, even living on welfare for a time.
Without any other apparent options, Falso sold her Rolex for $4,000 in October 2011 and bought a bus for $3,000. They used the other $1,000 to paint it black and decorate it for Halloween in Isla Vista, where a cop told them they didn’t have a license to drive passengers.
Less than two weeks later, they had everything in order. On November 11, 2011 — aka 11-11-11 — Falso and Fiechter hosted their own roving wedding party from the Mission Rose Garden to the County Courthouse to Stearns Wharf. ”Whoever wanted to jump on could jump on,” said Fiechter. “Jump on the School Bus” became their new company’s name.
They started running $20 roundtrips from the Rose Garden to Cold Spring Tavern on Sundays, which is when Santa Barbarans began to notice the big black bus with customized lettering on the side. “It was not well received at first,” recalled Fiechter, who was a new competitor for the many trolley, wine tour, and party transportation companies in town. Not everyone enjoyed the pirate-like vibe of the bus, the bold messages on the side, the loud horn blasting. “You either loved us back then or you hated us,” he said.
Party-throwers strongly approved, and business boomed into weddings, bachelorette and bachelor parties, kid birthday bashes, and the like. They bought old buses from school districts — one up by Eugene, Oregon, was particularly reliable for clean, working machines — and even trademarked their black-and-white school bus-with-white lettering motif.
Before COVID, they had 30 buses, all stored near the intersection of State Street and Highway 154. Pandemic restrictions cut them down to 17 buses, but they’re actively seeking more again, as they provide transportation for about 200 weddings per year, among other events. “We need more buses ASAP, he said. “We can’t keep up.”
Jump on the School Bus employs five full-time drivers with another 15-plus contractors working most weeks as well, plus another 20 to choose from. “We get the highest rates so we pay the best,” said Fiechter of how they keep their drivers. Added Falso, “No one has ever quit.”
This weekend, on November 11, 2022, they’re throwing a private anniversary party, and a proper wedding for themselves, at Dos Pueblos Ranch. “We never did a grand opening, or a five- or 10-year anniversary,” said Falso. “This is our first big anniversary celebration.”
They’ve recently been reflecting a lot on these past 11 years. “We’ve been running efficiently without any problems,” said Falso. “We’re profitable and we are able to run a tight ship.”
Fiechter sees their story as a great example of locals-done-great. “We created something from nothing and we did it the way we wanted to,” he explained. “I’m proud to have created a brand in my hometown that everyone recognizes.”