The History of Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant

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The History of Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant

Jeff Heimbuch |
April 11, 2018

The iconic restaurant that sits just outside the Knott's Berry Farm main gate has been serving up over 80 years of tradition. Join Author Jeff Heimbuch as he takes us through the origin story of Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restuarant.

The unmistakable smell of delicious fried chicken is often the first thing that hits you when you set foot on the Knott’s Berry Farm property. How could it not? Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant has been a staple of Buena Park since 1934 when it first opened its doors to the public. However, the story of its humble beginnings is tied directly into that of the theme park itself. It’s the story of a family doing what they can to get by and make ends meet.

To keep their farm in business during the Great Depression, Walter and Cordelia Knott began selling their goods at a roadside stand along Highway 39. Amongst their berries and other things, they also sold homemade jams and jellies. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to help support their expanding family, so the Knotts expanded the business into the tea room of their farmhouse.

At first, most of their customers came during the summer, while on their way further south. During the winter months, they would close the tea room expansion. That was fine with Cordelia because she had no interest in going into the restaurant business. How wrong she was…

Serving up freshly baked biscuits and tea helped for a bit, but Walter thought they could do better. Since Cordelia’s chicken was already a neighborhood favorite amongst family and friends, Walter suggested that perhaps they should add that to the menu as well. And so, on June 13, 1934, they added four tables to the tea room, and Cordelia served her first chicken dinner to guests. That day, they only sold eight chicken dinners, all on their wedding china, at 65 cents apiece, but it was the start of something big. The thought process was that if they could entice people in for dinner, and they enjoyed the jams and pies, chances are, they would take some home.

Within a few weeks, Cordelia’s Tea Room was packed. While more crowded on weekends, it still was gaining its fans, and people started driving from as far away as Pasadena to have some of Cordelia’s home cooked meals.

The restaurant became a family affair, with Walter and Russell Knott in charge of catching and cleaning the chickens. Cordelia did all the cooking, while daughters Virginia and Toni served to the guests. Of course, Marion was also on hand, to help bus the tables. While Cordelia had no desire to get into owning a restaurant, she had no choice. By the end of  1934, they expanded their seating to twenty people, and by 1936, it grew to seventy!

With the increased seating came an increased workload. The Knotts had to hire locals to help out. In 1936, they served 620 dinners every weekend, and by Thanksgiving 1937, they were up to 1,774. That was also the year that the tea room began year-round operation, with multiple expansions happening over the next few years.

This was also when guests began to wait in massive lines in order to get in. People would often wait as long as three hours just to get in. Sometimes, even after waiting for hours, they wouldn’t even have any chicken left!

In order to help entertain the crowds during their massive wait times, Walter Knott began to add various things around the area for people to see. Antique music boxes grew into a rock garden, grew into waterfalls, grew into a millstone vignette, grew into a gigantic volcano, and eventually, grew into a ghost town. And the rest, as you already know, is history.

Today, Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant serves more than 1. 5 million guests each year and growing. Even today, the chicken is still made using Mrs. Knott’s classic recipe. So the next time you visit Knott’s Berry Farm, be sure to check out the greatest chicken dinner you will ever have, guaranteed.  The restaurant is open every day of the year, except for Christmas.

* Black and white photos are courtesy of the Orange County Archives