In January 1993, years ago, Abner White started small in Oxford.
He had five tables, one cheap cash register, two small fryers, one griddle and a fountain drink machine.
“That was it,” he said. He shared eight parking spaces with an adjacent gas station.
The menu featured less than a half-dozen items – all fried to keep things simple, White said.
From that converted gas station at the corner of University Drive and Lamar Avenue, White build a chicken tender empire that has become a Mississippi landmark.
The first few days of operation in Oxford were not empire-like. White said most people didn’t understand the concept of a restaurant that specialized in chicken tenders. “I’d have to repeat myself,” he said. “Then, they’d smirk and say ‘Good luck with that.’”
The confusion didn’t last long. Within two weeks of opening, lines of customers ran out the door. That led to the expansion of his existing building, an additional location in Oxford, and new stores in Starkville and Tupelo. “I had been so worried about failing that I didn’t have a plan for success,” White said.
His second year of operation, White bought the adjacent gas station, making him the owner of an expensive piece of college-town real estate at the age of 25.
“It was scary, but it turned out to be a great move,” White said. “And it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of a young banker named Ben Bolton. He believed in me when I was just starting out. His ability to assess my business and our potential in Oxford has meant a great deal over the years.”
The restaurants filled a niche. They offered a Southern staple food and served as a museum of sorts, with their walls lined with all manner of sports memorabilia, a lot of it autographed.
“The sports memorabilia started out as my way of putting something on the walls to keep them from being blank,” White said. “I’d played college football, so I had collected some souvenirs during my four years on the Ole Miss team — and I had some other random sports photos.”
“It was really exciting to send letters to sports greats all over the country—not just from Ole Miss — and to witness how surprisingly generous they were,” White continued.. Among his collection are signed photos from the likes of Bo Jackson and John Wooden. There are many others.
“My mother is an artist, so she helped me turn those photos into large collages,”
White said. “That was the beginning of a new tradition: parents and grandparents bringing children into Abner’s to show them the sports greats that spanned generations.”
Aside from the chicken tenders and memorabilia, the restaurants’ calling card has been the Abner’ sauce, a recipe White developed with his mother.
“She always made this remarkable shrimp sauce,” White said. “So, the two of us went into her kitchen and started experimenting with different spices and recipes until we got it just perfect. It took lots of trial and error.”
To celebrate 20 years in business, Abner’s Famous Chicken Tender Restaurants will be running special programs to recognize their loyal customers. In addition to daily specials, free drinks and discounts, Abner’s is sponsoring a “Wall of Fame” contest in which customers can submit their own sports shots. The winning entries will share wall space with the restaurants’ existing memorabilia. Customers can enter by visiting the Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders Facebook page.