Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Follow the Chicken

These days, Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant receives its chickens the same way you do: More or less ready to cook. But for many decades, the Knotts brought live chickens in one door and sent fried ones out another. In between those steps was a huge process that required a big staff, multiple buildings, and a great deal of labor. In honor of the 75th anniversary of the restaurant, I thought we'd take a look at some of the steps in that process.
The first photo (above) shows Knott's chicken buyer, John Ritter, (no relation to Jack Tripper,) buying the restaurant's millionth chicken, in 1944. At that time, he had contracts with 33 local chicken ranchers.
The photo above (circa 1963) shows the chickens being cut and sorted into their various component parts. Knott's "chicken dresser" Myrtle Beavers has the exact expression you'd expect of someone with her job. I also have photos of several steps between these first two images -- But processes like de-feathering are not as attractive as you might think.
The next photo (below) shows the chickens in the restaurant's main kitchen. The row of women in back are washing the chickens. I'm not sure, but it appears that the pans of chicken in the foreground are being soaked in milk. This step is designed to make the meat more tender.
Combined, these kitchen images (one above and two below) from the 1940s hint at how big the operation was. And this kitchen, it should be noted, was just one piece of the puzzle. There was also a bakery, space to wash dishes, and much, much more.
The next photo (below) shows the chicken being fried - a job that seems to have gone to men in those days. Once fully cooked, the chicken was deposited onto plates and whisked away to hungry customers.
Frying, of course, is where the real magic happens. Frying creates that wonderful aroma that accosts you even before you're in sight of the restaurant. How can anyone NOT love Knott's Berry Farm once they're met at the entrance with that smell?
A not-so-small army of waitresses brought the food out to the ever-expanding dining areas. The chicken, mashed potatos, rolls, and vegetables in the photo above were all traditional at Mrs. Knott's. I'm less familiar with the aspic-like object atop two leaves of iceberg lettuce. I also wonder why we don't see the traditional dish of cherry rhubarb.
Finally, the chicken is enjoyed by the customers. They undoubtedly worked up a big appetite while waiting in long lines to get a table. Again, there's a strange lack of rhubarb at the table, but the boysenberry punch and preserves more than make up for it.
So that's the short version of the chicken-dinner-making process. With a few changes and streamlines here and there, this process has continued nearly every day (except Christmases) for 75 years. These days, they serve about 1.5 million meals annually.
Other restaurants that regularly change and update their menus could learn a thing or two from this Buena Park institution. The trick is to find something you do well and keep doing it.
If you fry it, they will come.


The Viewliner Limited said...

The colonel had nothing on this place. The best fried chicken I ever ate. Great post Chris. Very much appreciated.

outsidetheberm said...

Nice post. Any idea where that ranch was in the first photo? It has a San Bernardino feel to it. Also, in those days rhubarb was only seasonally available, I believe. Make sure you avoid the leaves, too! They're poisonous.

Great photos.

colony rabble said...

Buttermilk. The proper thing to soak your chicken in is buttermilk. Sadly, the last time we were out there it seemed like they skipped the buttermilk and went straight for opening the boxes of Banquet frozen.....

Chris Jepsen said...

C: Yes, I've had some unfortunate dining experiences there myself in recent years. But Saturday's anniversary event featured EXCELLENT fried chicken. I hope this is a sign that they're going back to their old ways rather than just a single let's-look-good-for-the-VIPs event. The chicken was fresh, tender, and served hot. If they keep that quality up, I would love to eat there more often.