The Untold Truth Of The Habit Burger Grill

Regional fast food burger chains can be found all over the United States. They're locally cherished, if not necessarily universally known. That's the case for one small California chain that has slowly built up a loyal customer base and has raked in numerous fan favorite awards: The Habit Burger Grill. From its roots in Santa Barbara, California, this fast-casual burger joint tries to bring West Coast flavors and ingredients to every order.

While The Habit Burger Grill doesn't have the name recognition of a place like In-N-Out, there's a good chance that won't be the case for long thanks to some big name investors and a big reputation for craveable burgers, fries, and sandwiches. But what is it about The Habit Burger Grill that makes it all too easy for eating there to become, well, a habit? This is everything you need to know about the chain, including what to order off the once secret menu, and why you'll likely be seeing more locations across the country and around the world.

The Habit Burger Grill used to have a secret menu

Pretty much everyone likes to feel like they're in on a secret. It's no different at restaurants and fast food chains, where locals and regulars always seem to know the best orders to get despite those meals not being listed on the official menu. The Habit Burger Grill once had a couple of these secret options and kept its menu relatively lean, but in April of 2012 the chain decided to take the secrecy away from what the kitchen can really do.

In an announcement on their website, The Habit Burger Grill said some burger and fry variations that had become customer and employee favorites over the past 40 years would be officially put on the menu. Two of the biggest added hits were the now standard Santa Barbara Char (a double cheeseburger with cheese and avocado on grilled sourdough bread) and the Half & Half (an order of half fries and half onion rings). While making these orders public knowledge hurt the cool factor a just little bit, it was great for people unaware of the full number of choices they have.

For anyone who still wants to order with inside knowledge, however, The Habit Burger Grill included some welcome news in the announcement of its no-longer-secret menu: you can still create your own personalized favorites by asking for additions and substitutions.

The Habit Burger Grill was once named the best tasting fast food burger

In 2014, The Habit Burger Grill only had around 100 locations and was rarely found outside of California, but it was still well-loved. A survey from the industry publication Consumer Reports asked people to rate fast food chains on a scale of 1 to 10. It was a close race to be labeled the king of burgers (not the Burger King, which was third from last in the ranking with a 6.6 rating), but The Habit Burger Grill pulled through. The Habit Burger Grill garnered an 8.1, putting it at the top of the list and 0.1 points above In-N-Out, 0.2 points above Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and a whopping 2.3 points ahead of McDonald's, which landed in the unenviable position of last in the ranking.

"We are beyond elated," Russ Bendel, CEO The Habit Burger Grill, said in a press release at the time. "Consumer Reports validates what we already knew: guests love the quality and menu variety we offer, from our signature Charbuger to our fresh grilled albacore sandwich and Cobb salad."

The accolades didn't stop in 2014. The Habit Burger Grill was named the best regional fast food chain in 2019 by USA Today's 10 Best.

The Habit Burger Grill has some familiar siblings

In March of 2020, The Habit Burger Grill officially joined the big leagues of fast food. Yum! Brands, which owns the likes of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, finalized the purchase of the California burger chain for around $375 million. It's the first fast casual chain in the Yum! Brands portfolio. The Habit Burger Grill had less than 300 restaurants around the world at the time of purchase, and Yum! Brand bought it with an eye on both national and international growth, according to a press release at the time.

"The Habit Burger Grill is a sweet spot within fast-casual because of its delicious California-inspired menu with premium ingredients at a QSR-like [quick-serve-restaurant] value, strong unit economics, and tremendous untapped growth potential in the U.S. and internationally," David Gibbs, Yum! Brands CEO, said at the time. "We couldn't be more excited about what the future holds for The Habit Burger Grill and believe our acquisition of this trend-forward brand is a 'win-win-win' all around."

The Habit Burger Grill, which remains headquartered in Irvine, California, was already quickly growing. It went from 26 locations in California in 2009 to an international reach with more than 250 locations globally in 2019. Yum! Brands, based in Louisville, Kentucky, is no stranger to growth — it's three core restaurant chains have more than 50,000 locations in more than 150 countries and opens an average of nine restaurants a day worldwide.

The original Santa Barbara locations of The Habit Burger Grill are still family-owned

When The Habit Burger Grill sold, it didn't sell in its entirety. Five locations in the chain's original home of Santa Barbara County remain owned by the same family that's been in charge for the past four decades. That means, despite The Habit Burger Grill as a whole being owned by Yum! Brands, Santa Barbara county's locations won't be making any changes dictated from up top.

The reason why is due to a few back and forth ownership changes. Brent and Bruce Reichard first bought the Hamburger Habit in Goleta (the original Habit location) in 1980. The co-founders are responsible for turning that one spot into a chain of restaurants, including six other The Habit Burger Grill locations around Santa Barbara. The Reichard brothers sold the chain in 2007 to an investment group called KarpReilly with one exception: Santa Barbara County's The Habit Burger Grill locations stayed in the family. That provision stayed when Yum! Brands purchased it from KarpReilly.

"The eight Santa Barbara County Habit locations are still locally owned, by our family, as they have been for decades," Brent Reichard told the Santa Barbara Independent. "There will be no changes to our operations, menu, or workforce. We remain committed as a local family business to our original motto, 'There is no substitute for quality,' and we appreciate your continued loyal support."

Every burger from The Habit Burger Grill is char grilled

If there's one thing you'll notice right away when you get to The Habit Burger Grill, it's that the burgers all include the word "char" in the name. There's the traditional Charburger, the Barbecue Bacon Charburger, and the Santa Barbara Char. It's all because of the cooking method, as all of the burgers at The Habit Burger Grill are flame cooked over charcoal. As the company says on its website,"it's not the same without the flame."

Though "char" isn't in the name of the other menu items, some others, like the ahi tuna sandwich and the grilled chicken, are also cooked over an open flame. Larger chains like Burger King tout flame-grilled burgers as well, but The Habit Burger Grill has one main thing that sets it apart.

"We only serve fresh proteins, beef and chicken," Bendel told Forbes in 2019. "Burger King cooks its meals on a flame but it's on a conveyer belt. Ours is chargrilled with briquettes."

The Habit Burger Grill is not just about burgers

Burgers are right there in the name for The Habit Burger Grill, but it's not all that the chain has to offer. As Bendel put it to Forbes, burgers make up the majority of the sales, but are only 60 percent of the options on the menu.

There's the ahi sandwich made with line-caught, sushi-grade tuna, for example. In a nod to a popular regional cut of steak, The Habit Burger Grill serves tri-tip sandwiches as well. Tri-tip is a cut of beef taken from around the same region as top sirloin, and it was popularized by Santa Maria style barbecue from the city of the same name a couple hours north of Santa Barbara. For sides, there are options like tempura green beans. The option to customize your order doesn't stop at the register. The restaurants feature a complimentary pepper bar where you can self-serve jalapeños, banana peppers, hot sauces, lemons, and limes.

Vegetarian options are increasing as well. In June of 2020, The Habit Burger Grill announced a partnership with Impossible Foods to sell plant-based burgers done, as chief brand officer Iwona Alter put it in a press release, "The Habit way." The plant-based burgers will come in two options: the Original Impossible Burger made with caramelized onion, American cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a sesame bun; and the Impossible Bistro Burger made with caramelized onions, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a secret sauce on a brioche bun.

The Habit Burger Grill usually opts for fresh, never frozen ingredients

When the Reichard brothers purchased The Habit Burger Grill in 1980, they looked at upping the freshness factor right away. On the company's about page, it describes how fresh ingredients became a priority. First there were the buns, which were originally sourced from a local bakery. Then there was the produce. They sprung for California tomatoes and lettuce, as well as fresh ahi tuna from the South Pacific for the sandwiches.

The Habit Burger Grill has expanded far beyond that first small outpost near Santa Barbara, as has its food supply needs. You'll still find that, outside of the made-to-order malts and shakes, the only thing previously frozen is the fries, according to the Times-Advocate. The ahi tuna, tri-tip, and the lettuce for the salads are all hand cut. When it comes to the most popular options, the burgers, The Habit Burger Grill promises 100 percent ground beef patties without additives, preservatives, or fillers.

The Habit Burger Grill can only be found in 13 states, for now

For most of The Habit Burger Grill's history, it was available only in California. Things started to change in the 2000s after the investment group KarpReilly acquired the company. Between 2007 and 2014, The Habit Burger Grill nearly quadrupled its stores to 109 locations. That was just the start. Today, you can find one of the more than 265 outposts in California, Arizona, Utah, New Jersey, Florida, Idaho, Virginia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Washington, Maryland, and North Carolina.

Growth was front of mind during the purchase by Yum! Brands. The CEOs of both Yum! Brands and The Habit Burger Grill mentioned in a press release the increased franchising opportunities after the Yum! Brands finalized the purchase. Still, the western half of the United States is where you're most likely to find The Habit Burger Grill. There were only 26 locations on the East Coast as of 2019.

So if you want to try one of the Charburgers, you'll have to keep an eye out when you're in the regions it operates. The company is miniscule compared to the bigger national chains found across the country like McDonald's, Burger King, and Five Guys. It is, however, similar to its other California burger rival, In-N-Out, which has more than 330 stores in six states (California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas, and Oregon).

But The Habit Burger Grill is also available internationally

While you may be out of luck if you want a Charburger in say, New York, you may have better luck in a different country. The Habit Burger Grill has seven international locations as of March 2020. The first international restaurant opened in 2016 in Dubai, which was one of 50 originally planned for the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf region.

The Middle East isn't the only part of the world that could see more Charburgers in the future. South Korea locations were announced in 2019, and they were billed as part of a larger international expansion plan into the Asia-Pacific region. Cambodia is another country where expansion plans for The Habit Burger Grill got going in 2019. More expansion is to come, and this time with the strong international experience of Yum! Brands behind the company.

"Being part of Yum! will take The Habit Burger Grill to the next level by leveraging Yum!'s global scale, resources and franchising capabilities to strengthen and significantly grow our beloved brand for many years to come," Bendel said in a press release.

The Habit Burger Grill also has a fleet of roving food trucks

Food trucks have become a fixture of the modern dining landscape. Among the taco trucks and mobile grilled cheese purveyors, there's a fleet of The Habit Burger Grill trucks dishing out Charburgers and chicken sandwiches. It's about as close as you can get to the in-person experience thanks to a kitchen with a stainless steel charbroiler and full set up.

The Habit Burger Grill has long been focused on being a more upscale option than typical fast food. Over the past half decade, however, new locations have focused on to-go options and drive-thrus, Bendel told Nation's Restaurant News in 2017. That year, around 30 percent of the sites had drive-thrus, while it was expected to top 50 percent from 2018 forward. Food trucks are just another way to easily get Charburgers from the restaurants to the customer and position The Habit Burger Grill as something more than an on-premise food purveyor.

"We believe these are great vehicles for brand awareness as well as catering and are excited to have our 10th truck in production for Northern California," Bendel told Nation's Restaurant News.

Just don't expect to see one parked outside your office. The food trucks are primarily for events and catering.