What famous foods were invented in Santa Barbara?

Hidden Valley Ranch sounds like the kind of rustic name created by marketing executives to sell dressing. But, as many Santa Barbarans already know, the origin of the ubiquitous ranch dressing is a very real place, located just off Highway 101 north of Goleta.

That prompted listener Celia Wright to ask Curious Coast, “What famous foods were invented in Santa Barbara?”

Here are three.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

The Hidden Valley Ranch from the air, just off of San Marcos Pass. (Though it looks vintage, this is a contemporary photo.)
Gayle and Steve Henson, the owners of the Hidden Valley Ranch. Photo: Courtesy of Santa Barbara Historical Museum

Let’s talk about Ranch Dressing first, which connects Nebraska, Alaska, and Santa Barbara. Kenneth Henson was a cowboy from the small village of Thayer, Nebraska (Pop. 63), who came out west in 1949 with his wife Gayle. Their first stop was in Alaska, where he worked for three years as a plumbing contractor. His other job: cooking for his co-workers.

He developed the dressing from what was available: buttermilk, mayonnaise, and a handful of herbs and spices. And as many a parent with a fussy child will tell you, this new dressing got these rough and ready men to eat their veggies.

With the money the Hensons earned, they moved south to Santa Barbara where they purchased Sweetwater Ranch in 1954, renaming it Hidden Valley. (And Kenneth renamed himself Steve.) It didn’t do well as a dude ranch, but the guests couldn’t get enough of the salad dressing, asking to purchase jars of it. That was too laborious: the Hensons eventually started selling the dressing in powder form.

Up until the 1971, you could purchase powdered Hidden Valley Ranch dressing at Kelley’s Korner, a grocery store on the north-west corner of State and La Cumbre (Gold’s Gym is there now). When the Henson’s finally sold the brand and product to Clorox in 1973, they made a cool $8 million.

An On-the-Go Benedict

Herb Peterson and the teflon griddle that makes uniform, muffin-width eggs for the Egg McMuffin.

That same year, 1973, McDonald’s launched the Egg McMuffin and its first wave of breakfast foods. Two years previous Herb Peterson, a former ad agency man who had created the character of Ronald McDonald, was looking for a way to deliver an Eggs Benedict as a take-out item. He originally wanted to call it the “fast break sandwich” but the name was taken. After much tinkering at the six Santa Barbara franchises he owned, the Egg McMuffin was born. The secret was in the teflon rings he had a blacksmith forge, allowing several eggs to be fried in a perfect, muffin-sized circle.

You can find this plaque honoring Herb Peterson’s invention at the McDonald’s at 3940 State St. Photo: Ted Mills

Herb Peterson died in 2008, and since then Central Coast McDonald’s franchises celebrate “Herb Peterson Day” on January 26, where his creation is offered at a reduced price. The original McDonald’s where he developed the McMuffin still stands at 3940 State St. There’s a brass plaque near the entrance in honor of Peterson’s sandwich. The breakfast menu, which Peterson helped start, now accounts for a third of McDonald’s business.

Herb Peterson’s impact on Santa Barbara extends beyond food: he helped bring Santa Barbara Zoo its first elephants.

A Fad Goes Mainstream

During the 1990s, the Balance Bar was an essential health food item. Photo: crazyfooddude.com

In the 1992, Thomas Davidson and Richard Lamb — the latter a windsurfing champion back in the day — developed the Balance Bar. Their company, Bio Foods, Inc. was based in Carpinteria. Their mission: to develop an energy bar to take advantage of a fad diet at the time. Developed by biochemist Dr. Barry Sears, “The Zone” was a diet of 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein and 30% dietary fat. A perfect balance, as it were. Bio Foods bought the rights to make the bar based on Dr. Sears’ principles.

The resulting “Balance Bar” is made of a “protein mix” that contains peanuts, whey, soy, and a lot of other hard-to-pronounce chemicals.

By 1997, Balance Bars made the jump from natural food stores to supermarkets. In 2000, Kraft foods, a subsidiary of the non-healthy tobacco giant Philip Morris, bought Balance for $268 million. At one point, Balance was the number two energy bar in the nation. Today it’s fallen off the top 10 charts, but it’s still readily available in most stores.

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Curious Coast is a project made possible by the supporters of KCRW and a grant from Antioch University Santa Barbara.