Restaurant employee pivots during pandemic and starts Better Burrito, On a Roll
David Medina, a third-generation Santa Barbara resident, was on the cusp of opening a new restaurant on State Street in March.
Of course, as most stories go, the pandemic hit, and his route changed drastically.
As a part of the Santa Barbara restaurant scene for years, he was forced to think about his next move, after working as a manager at Loquita on State Street for three years.
“It was just a bad time for restaurants,” Mr. Medina told the News-Press. “They’re letting go of people, building outdoor parklets … I thought, ‘This isn’t really what I love to do. I want to feed people and figure out how to do that. ’”
He was cooking a lot of breakfast at home, and he began thinking about what a “nice gesture making breakfast can be.”
Then it hit him.
There aren’t many local breakfast places in Santa Barbara that deliver.
Thus, Better Burrito was born.
Starting in July, Mr. Medina began cooking burritos in his own home and delivering them to people, including many of his friends, in Santa Barbara and Goleta. He created a website, and eventually, one night, he ran into an order of 60 burritos for the next day.
“That’s when I had to make the decision, do I stay as this Facebook mom home cook, or do I actually start something?” he said.
With the help of a caterer friend with a commercial kitchen, Mr. Medina was able to go from cooking in his own home to a commercial space. Better Burrito was soon picked up by Old Town Coffee in Goleta and started selling the burritos seven days a week in their shop.
The most popular include the Bacon Burrito, with applewood smoked bacon, browned-butter scrambled eggs, grilled potatoes, caramelized sweet onions, cheddar and jack cheese and fresh salsa verde, along with the Vegan Burrito, with cauliflower al pastor (achiote marinade and pineapple), green bell pepper, curry tofu scramble, caramelized onion, Spanish rice, smashed pinto beans and fresh salsa verde.
Soon the burrito business took off, and companies such as HG Insights, Lockheed Martin, ProCorps, Cottage Hospital and nurseries in Carpinteria began doing drive-through pickups for the employees.
“Businesses with a lot of employees, especially during COVID, wanted individually packaged meals and obviously don’t want to pay a crazy price,” Mr. Medina said. “The burrito just happened to be good for them.”
So now, people can buy his burritos three different ways: delivery, drive-through pickup or pickup at Old Town Coffee or Dart Coffee in the Funk Zone.
However, even the burrito business wasn’t quite enough for the chef.
“I was itching to do something more lunch or dinner and expand beyond just breakfast,” he said. “I was thinking about doing foods from other cultures … I wanted to do that in the burrito, but thinking about it, there’s just an idea of a burrito as whatever we know it to be — Mexican-American fusion food.
“I just think, because of that image, it’s hard to break and go beyond that,” Mr. Medina said. “Also, the burrito doesn’t really showcase its ingredients, so it’s hard to show off what’s inside. You could have $100 wagyu beef inside and no one would know.”
Then he remembered how much he loved fresh bread, and began reminiscing on going to restaurants with good, fresh bread. He then thought about what bread he hadn’t seen enough of in Santa Barbara.
Dutch crunch bread.
“It’s really cool bread, super light and airy but has a crispy layer on the top,” he said. “Plus, the sandwich allowed me to showcase ingredients inside on a roll.”
Thus, On a Roll, the sister business to Better Burrito, was born.
Its speciality is modern sandwiches on fresh baked bread, with flavors from different cultures. Mr. Medina is now in his fourth week of operating On a Roll.
So far he has made two featured sandwiches with his Dutch crunch bread: a bulgogi cheese steak, with the steak marinated in Korean bulgogi sauce and prepared like a Philly cheese steak, and a chicken Tatsu caprese sandwich, with a Japanese-style panko breaded chicken with diced tomatoes, fresh Italian mozzarella and basil on top. It also features a reduction of balsamic vinegar and soy sauce.
“I like bringing these cultures together,” Mr. Medina said. “My background is from different cultures, and California is pretty diverse, so I think it’s fun to explore that and see what combinations work.”
On a Roll has been, well, on a roll, selling out almost every day. Mr. Medina uses the kitchen at Third Window Brewery and sells his sandwiches there as well on Tuesdays.
His goal is to meet people where they are during the pandemic. He only receives help from two employees and his family members when they are able to assist.
While both of Mr. Medina’s businesses are separate, he hopes that as they get more established, he can look at a permanent kitchen and location for customers.
“There’s more local support now for business than ever before,” he said. “People are really understanding by talking to their business owner friends and family members in it and realizing that you buying something once a week from somebody can help keep them going. It’s just about making that little decision to maybe not go to the corporate food establishment.”
As Mr. Medina continues to find ways to provide Santa Barbara residents with food they can’t find anywhere else, he’ll continue updating customers on the websites and social media pages.