Monday, July 4, 2022     Volume: 23, Issue: 18

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Cowboy Flavor Catering: Bringing the Central Coast lifestyle to all corners of the world


It started on packing trips in the backcountry.

Billy Ruiz would lead groups through ranchland in the Santa Ynez Valley, stopping at night to camp and barbecue. He’d introduce his customers to cowboy-style cooking in Dutch ovens.

Cowboy Flavor aims to bring the cowboy lifestyle to people’s events, so it offers a chuck wagon for rent, along with a Dutch oven and a commercial mobile kitchen.

“We barbecued like we did at home,” Ruiz said. “Santa Maria-style meat. Good seasoning. We mixed our own seasonings, our own sauces. And we cooked on oak wood for them.”

People came away from the trips mesmerized by the new culture of food they’d just discovered. They’d tell their friends, who’d tell their friends—and before he knew it, Ruiz had a new business.

“The catering thing just took on a life of its own,” he said. “It just got bigger and bigger. We never advertised. It was all word of mouth.”

And thus, Cowboy Flavor Catering was born.

The business opened officially in 1980, taking Ruiz all over the Central Coast and as far as Long Island and even Japan, where he helped a group of restaurateurs open a Western steakhouse. About a decade ago, Ruiz met Sue—his now-partner in life and in business—and Cowboy Flavor really took off, serving all corners of the country and catering to everyone from Ronald Reagan to Michael Jackson.

“But the cornerstone of our business is still Santa Maria-style barbecue,” Ruiz said. “I don’t care how fancy the wine palates get around the Central Coast. They still want that red meat barbecued with red oak wood and paired with local wine.”

Billy Ruiz said Cowboy Flavor has really taken off since his wife, Sue, came on board about 10 years ago.

For that reason, Ruiz sees his business as more than a catering company—it’s a window into Central Coast culture.

“We’ve been lucky to travel and introduce a lot of people for the first time to Santa Maria-style barbecue,” he said. “It’s been kind of a fun adventure. It’s more fun to take it to somebody who’s never had it before, because all of us on the Central Coast were raised on Santa Maria-style barbecue. We’ve been lucky to introduce a lot of people to it.”

Cowboy Flavor sources as many ingredients as it can locally, with California-raised Harris Ranch All Natural Beef at the center of its menu. Ruiz said it’s just as important to taste the Central Coast as it is to see it, so he wants his food home-grown whenever possible.

“We try to push the Santa Maria-style barbecue in not just the food, but we try to push the lifestyle as well,” he said. “I think we’re getting so far away from rural ranch cowboys, handshakes as our bond. We’re getting far away from that. So we try to share the lifestyle as well as the food in our business.”

Cowboy Flavor takes its taste of the Central Coast lifestyle to weddings, wineries, corporate parties, and pretty much any event where a Dutch oven, a few barbecue pits, and a chuck wagon would be welcome. And it’s paid off: The company spent four seasons on a cowboy cooking show, which left the air a couple of years ago. But according to Ruiz, a New York-based producer has expressed interest in involving Cowboy Flavor in an outdoor cooking show, and Ruiz and Sue might consider the opportunity more seriously when their slow season hits this winter.

“We’ll see,” Ruiz said. “That’s a fickle business, so we’re real careful.”

After 35 years of business, Cowboy Flavor has taken its team all over the country and the world. Billy Ruiz has catered to parties as far away as Long Island, New York, and he even helped set up a Western steakhouse in Japan.

Until then, Ruiz foresees a lot of travel in the company’s future—about half of Cowboy Flavor’s gigs take him out of the area, he said, with clientele spread all over the U.S. (but mostly in the western states). He said he likes to hit the road, especially since the market for catering has grown so much in recent years.

“There’s more competition on the Central Coast than there ever was,” he said, “and we don’t mind traveling.”

And his favorite part of the job?

“It’s fun to be at a place where you’re feeding happy people,” Ruiz said. “To feed them good food and introduce new people to our way of cooking and put smiles on their faces and fill their bellies—you can’t hardly beat that.” 

Brenna Swanston can’t wait to have a chuck wagon at her next event. Tell her about your weird corporate party fantasies at

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