Magazine / People

Charlie Wilson turns family homestead into Denver tradition White Fence Farm

White Fence Farm is half country theme park, half retro restaurant where $14.75 buys you a chicken dinner with all the trimmings. Photo courtesy of Charlie Wilson

When the restaurant that would become White Fence Farm first opened in 1973, it was the southwesternmost eatery in Denver. Owner Charlie Wilson has seen the area surrounding the restaurant change a lot since then — what was once fertile farmland is now homes and strip malls — but his commitment to providing families with quality food and a comfortable place to gather has never wavered. Boasting a gift shop, playground and petting zoo on its 12-acre site, White Fence Farm is half country theme park, half retro family restaurant where $14.75 buys you a chicken dinner with all the trimmings.

When Wilson (BSBA ’72) was growing up, the site was an 80-acre farm that he worked along with his family. After getting a degree in hotel and restaurant management from DU, Wilson joined his father in opening a family restaurant called Wilson’s Good Eating on a portion of the land. In the ensuing years, Wilson went on to open another restaurant — Wilson House — in Aurora and a New Orleans jazz-themed bar called Basin Street on Larimer Square in downtown Denver.

“It was neat,” Wilson says of his days as a budding restaurateur, “but after about three or four years of that I realized I was burning myself out. I would open this place for breakfast and I’d close that place [on Larimer Square] down. I wasn’t smart enough to realize that if you have three different concepts that are all different, it’s really tough to keep it operating smoothly.”

So in the late 1970s, Wilson sold his other restaurants and devoted all his energy to Wilson’s Good Eating. Not satisfied with its performance, he looked at other restaurants around the country for inspiration. He was so impressed with a Chicago-area fried chicken concern called White Fence Farm — whose spacious farmland setup was similar to that of his own location — that he paid to bring their concept to Denver. The restaurant reopened as White Fence Farm in 1981 and quickly became a go-to place for families celebrating special occasions or looking to get a little taste of country life. Kids who bring in report cards with straight A’s are treated to a free chicken dinner; school teachers get a special discount.

“We’re not a sexy, trendy place, and we don’t try to be,” Wilson says. “We try to be a place where people like to come and get together with friends and family.”

Having undergone several expansions over the years, White Fence Farm now seats 600 people at a time and on a busy night serves more than 1,000. More than 7,000 chickens per month give their lives to become one of the farm’s famed chicken dinners, a process that begins on a farm in Arkansas, where the chickens are raised. Shipped fresh to Colorado, they are cut up, breaded and steam-cooked, waiting to be flash-fried to order so the finished product is juicy on the inside, crispy on the outside. Other entrees on the menu include steaks, roasted turkey, deep-fried shrimp and broiled pork chops — not the flashiest fare by some standards, but simple food that’s quick to prepare and easy to turn out in large numbers.

“I tell people we’re a dinosaur in the restaurant business. We’re the kind of restaurant that if you went someplace in the 1940s or 1950s you would find more of,” Wilson says. “That worries me in some respects, because eating habits are changing so much and the nuclear family isn’t what it used to be.”

But when it’s time to celebrate a birthday, graduation or other milestone, he says, White Fence Farm has it all over fast-casual chains or run-of-the-mill pizza parlors.

“They may not come every week, but when an uncle or aunt comes into town or relatives visit or the kids graduate or whatever it may be, they want to go someplace special,” he says. “We’re that place.”

A sign in the White Fence Farm kitchen — one of many such inspirational placards — reads “We’re creating wonderful memories.” For Wilson, that’s what it’s really all about. Not too long ago, a young woman came in with her family to celebrate her 22nd birthday. It was her tradition, she said — she’d come to White Fence Farm every birthday since she turned 7.

“If I was 22 I’m not sure I’d want to come to White Fence Farm. I’d want to go to a LoDo restaurant, something a little trendier,” Wilson says. “But because it’s a tradition and because the whole family’s along, they come to the farm.”





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