In his early 20s, David Pearson moved from Canada to sunny California, where he could pursue a career in the golf business and play 365 days a year.
However, at a golf course in Ojai, he encountered a different opportunity. He befriended three businessmen who wanted to open a Dinah’s Chicken franchise. With $15,000, Pearson and a silent partner launched one of the restaurants and he handed it over to his parents, Harry and Mae Pearson.
“My dad worked in a mine for next to nothing,” he said. “I wanted to get him out of there. It was wonderful for me. I had my parents, and I was able to put them into the [restaurant] business.”
Since 1967, the Pearson family has owned and operated the business, which has become a Glendale institution, famous for its original chicken recipe that has remained unchanged.
The quaint, farmhouse-like eatery also serves home-cooked-style meals, including macaroni and cheese, pineapple coleslaw and its most recent menu addition, chicken and waffles.
Pearson attributes the restaurant’s long-running success to his family’s hard work and consistency. His parents worked seven days a week for 12 hours a day to get the business going, he said. In 1981, when they started to have health problems, David Pearson took over for his parents.
“With a lot of restaurants, the owners don’t run them,” David Pearson said. “We own it, and we run it. It can’t be a success unless you work it.”
Linda Pearson, his wife and a co-owner, said she takes on whatever role it takes to keep the restaurant running smoothly — owner, manager or dishwasher. Their sons haven’t found a passion in the business, but still contribute their skills. David Pearson Jr. is a contractor who helps make structural improvements to the restaurant, and Robert Pearson is a studio art director who has contributed to Dinah’s logo.
In a restaurant business congested with franchises and corporate diners, Dinah’s mom-and-pop feel has made it stand out.
The owners’ compassion and kindness is evident, said Jose Dominguez, a 37-year-old Pasadena resident. Customers walk into Dinah’s Chicken, and they feel like they’re recognized. Some regulars are greeted by name and automatically seated at their usual table, he said.
Dominguez said he has been eating Dinah’s chicken since he was a child. His father was a truck driver who delivered Dinah’s poultry and was good friends with the lead cook, who has worked there for nearly 40 years. As Dominguez grew older, Dinah’s chicken became a celebratory meal he enjoyed each time he got a good grade or recognition in high school.
“It’s been part of my life since I was a baby,” he said. “It has a very special place in my heart.”
Dominguez, like many of Dinah’s customers, raves over the restaurant’s original chicken recipe. Dinah’s patented chicken is fried under pressure, and covered with various herbs and spices to make for a juicy, but less oily fried chicken than competitors, Linda Pearson said. But she won’t reveal much more than that.
A sign outside the restaurant reads, “If the colonel had our recipe, he’d be a general.”
“Funny story, KFC’s Col. [Sanders] asked if the creator of our recipe would take over [KFC’s] operations in the seven western states,” Linda Pearson said. “He said, ‘No, we have a better recipe. We’re not interested.’”
Last year was one of the restaurant’s most successful, with $1.4 million in sales. The diner has only 27 seats, so it has thrived on take-out orders and catering — it has even catered [for] the staff that set up the Academy Awards, making 3,000 pieces of chicken overnight.
More recently, Dinah’s Chicken has taken advantage of the growing popularity of delivery apps, such as UberEats and Postmates, which Linda Pearson said has increased the restaurant’s sales by 10%.
And with a new member of the family in training to take over Dinah’s management , it’s sure to further modernize. Clayton Pearson, David and Linda Pearson’s 23-year-old grandson, has been working at the restaurant for eight months as he studies business.
“I’m loving it that my eldest grandson is finding a niche here,” Linda Pearson said. “I enjoy him walking in and saying ‘Good morning, Grammie.’ He’s someone I can trust when I’m not there.”
She said her grandson will “fast track” the restaurant and help it stay connected to today’s culture, without changing Dinah’s classic identity.
To keep up with demands, Clayton Pearson plans to improve Dinah’s social media, website and make upgrades in the restaurant.
“Dinah’s is in the Pearson blood, and it would be a dream to keep that legacy alive for more generations to come,” he said in a text message. “What makes Dinah’s so special is the people who have been coming for 20-plus years and remember me as a 3-year-old running around Dinah’s.”
David Pearson said his golf career might not have worked out, but he gained an irreplaceable family business.
“I just want it to be kept in my family when I’m gone,’ he said. “I’d hate to close it up, that’s for sure. It’s part of my identity.”