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Ones to Watch | By Judy Kneiszel

Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders
Wraps from Abner's Famous Chicken Tenders.

The idea for a quick-serve restaurant specializing in chicken tenders came to Abner White in the early ’90s when he was a student at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The city didn’t have chicken restaurants at the time, but when he visited friends attending colleges in his native Alabama, he saw concepts he thought could work near Ole Miss. After graduating in 1993, the then-23-year-old tried selling local bankers on the idea of creating his own concept.

“The first three told me ‘no, you’re just a kid,’” White says. “But the fourth one bought into my idea enough to give me a $20,000 line of credit.”

With that, White opened his first restaurant. Today, the college football player turned entrepreneur owns seven Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders locations in Mississippi plus one each in Tennessee and Alabama. The concept grew beyond the deep-fried tenders and fries offered on the original menu to include grilled tenders, wraps, salads, wings, and baked potatoes.

While some Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders stores were built from the ground up, others used existing space, but all are between 2,500 and 3,500 square feet and seat an average of 100 guests. The concept, White says, combines a quick-serve restaurant with a sports bar, complete with flat-panel televisions and sports memorabilia. The only unit serving alcohol is in Fairhope, Alabama, and offers wine and beer.

All the tenders at Abner’s are fresh, not frozen, and cooked to order. The fried tenders are dipped in batter before a 3.5-minute bath in hot oil and the grilled variety is marinated for 24 hours before spending eight minutes on the heat. As people focus more on healthy eating, White says, the grilled tenders are gaining popularity.

“We do mixed meals where people order a four-piece meal and have two fried and two grilled,” he says. “You have to think of ways to make the product something people can eat while still respecting themselves in the morning.”

Abner’s menu includes the Original Meal with five fried or grilled tenders, french fries, cole slaw, and garlic bread for $6.99. For the lighter appetite, the Lil’ Abner priced at $3.99 includes two tenders, fries, and garlic bread.

The trend of health-conscious eating increased sales of salads like the Mandarin Chicken Salad made with fresh greens, Mandarin oranges, toasted almonds, and grilled tenders for $5.99.

White says the somewhat unusual offering of the grilled tenders helps Abner’s compete with the larger chains. Another aspect he believes gives Abner’s an edge over the big players is customer service.

“I’ve always told my people that a lot of restaurants can throw together good food but what sets you apart is how you treat customers,” White says.

“Sure, we have a self-service drink bar, but I tell employees if they take the food out and notice a customer hasn’t gotten a drink yet, they should offer to get it for them. We don’t define ourselves by what we don’t do; we go the extra mile.”

Abner's Famous Chicken Tenders

President/Founder: Abner White

HQ: Oxford, Mississippi

Year started: 1993

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total units: 9

Franchise units: 0

Web site: www.abnerschicken.com

White is cautious about making changes that could detract from the quality of the food or service at Abner’s. That’s why Abner’s is only now beginning to offer drive-thru service. “Everything has always been made to order and we still want to cook fresh food, so now we’ll have to stay about five minutes ahead on the grill to keep up,” he says.

If the drive-thru system is a success, he will be able to downsize his prototype from 3,500 to 2,500 square feet since a drive thru would reduce the need for seating. The growing amount of catering Abner’s is doing—up to 25 percent of sales at some stores—also means higher sales without more seats.

Another challenge White has grappled with over the years is how to do cost-effective marketing. He found success in sports partnerships, from signage at college stadiums and arenas to co-hosting a sports radio show to broadcasting radio shows live from two Abner’s locations.

While college sports are always a hot topic in Mississippi, these days the economy is a big issue as well. White says Abner’s has felt the pinch.

“Sales have held up, but when food prices started shooting through the roof we had to raise our prices 10 percent,” he says. He believes his business is more insulated from the economic downturn than an upscale restaurant would be.

“I know for my family when we go out now instead of a fine meal a few times a month we’ll go get a pizza or burgers; something more affordable,” he says. “That’s what a lot of people are doing now.”

But White, now 40, isn’t worried about the future.

“I’d like to get up to 15 Abner’s locations in the next 10 years,” he says. “Or maybe 20.”