Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Naturally good: The Natural Cafe isn't just for veg-heads
BY WENDY THIES SELL
The sign above the door reads The Natural Cafe.
So it’s natural that people might assume that the Southern California restaurant chain serves mostly green, leafy vegetables.
While many salads are on the menu—and tasty ones at that—one might be amazed to learn that the ingredients in the best-selling dishes at The Natural Cafe are not grown in the ground.
“We sell a lot of chicken and fish,” The Natural Cafe founder and owner Kelly Brown said. “People are always surprised when I tell them that.”
Brown said nine out of the top 10 best-selling menu items are animal protein, including chicken enchiladas; Cabo fish tacos—fish fillet sautéed in chunky salsa on corn tortillas with cheese, topped with shredded carrot, cabbage, and lime; the Baja burrito—chicken in a ranchero sauce, pinto beans, and rice, wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla, topped with ranchero sauce, cheese, guacamole, and sour cream; Mt. Fuji stir fry—grilled chicken stir fried with fresh seasonal vegetables in a ginger-soy sauce, served over steamed brown rice; and grilled chicken Caesar salad.
And, a drum roll please, the No. 1 best-selling menu item at The Natural Cafe is … the moist and satisfying Gobbler Burger, a char-broiled ground turkey patty topped with grilled red onion, lettuce, tomato, and sprouts, served on a whole-wheat bun with Thousand Island dressing.
Added Brown, “We sell a lot of salads and vegetarian entrees relative to your average restaurant, we really do.”
In fact, half of the menu is vegetable based.
But “only 10 percent of our clientele is … vegetarian, which is about the population,” he said.
Brown founded The Natural Cafe 21 years ago, sort of out of necessity.
In the early ’90s, “I was a bachelor, living on my boat in the [Santa Barbara] harbor, riding my bike to work, which is how I saved the money to open the restaurant,” he said. “I needed a healthy place to go to eat every day. It’s hard to eat well dining out all the time. For myself, there was a need that wasn’t being met.”
Brown started washing dishes in restaurants at age 15, and worked his way up in the restaurant industry throughout Hawaii, Mexico, and America’s ski resort towns.
During the 1980s, Brown was less than enamored with the fancy food being served at the restaurants in which he worked.
“What I was interested in was what the chefs were cooking for themselves. You know, the staff meals,” Brown recalled. “They’d be these simple, high-protein, low-fat meals—completely the opposite of what they were plating for the restaurant. You know, the ‘oh, wow’ factor.
“I was thinking, that’s what we should be serving: great, simple, easy meals … tasty and good for you. So that was the impetus for the whole Natural Cafe thing.”
He found his first locale on State Street in Santa Barbara in late 1992. He now has nine Natural Cafe locations along the southern and central California coast. The Santa Maria location, at the corner of South Broadway and McCoy Lane, opened in 2005.
The philosophy is still the same: fresh, tasty, and affordable.
“That’s always been the goal: fresh food that’s good for you; make it taste good, and sell it at a price that people can afford,” Brown said.
I have dined at The Natural Cafe in Santa Maria more than a dozen times in the last year, usually with my children along because it’s a family-friendly place.
My kids love The Natural Cafe’s kiddie pizza: whole-wheat flatbread topped with marinara sauce and jack cheese, served with blue corn chips and salsa.
My favorite thing on the menu is the Greek salad: baby leaf lettuce topped with feta cheese, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, red onions, and sunflower seeds, with Caesar dressing and the delicious and hearty add-on, sautéed tofu.
I told Brown that The Natural Cafe is my go-to place when I am in the mood for a salad, and that “the Greek” with tofu is my favorite.
“The tofu makes that salad a meal—a little substance,” Brown said.
So what’s Brown’s favorite menu item?
“I go through phases,” he replied. “Today, I had a Good Karma Burger [tempeh veggie patty] and I had it with jack cheese and avocado and a side of brown rice. It was just fabulous. I can eat that meal and I don’t need to go take a nap. I feel good afterward.”
The extensive menu stays pretty much the same, with different specials every day.
Brown gives a lot of credit to his capable and friendly employees, who work hard for him and their customers.
“We have 250 employees, and they’re awesome! When you go to [The Natural Cafe in] Santa Maria, you don’t see Kelly Brown; you see Kat, the general manager, and her crew,” Brown said. “And that’s the secret to this whole thing … the staff. We have great people working for us.”