Abner White opens Fairhope restaurant

Published 10:30 pm Thursday, June 18, 2009

When Abner White was 23 years old, he walked into bank after bank, with his hat in his hand, asking for a loan to “create something new.”

“I even applied with the Small Business Association but they all wanted to see my balance sheet,” White said.

“I didn’t have any restaurant experience and had nothing to show, and I was asking for enough money to start a business. Their reaction was ‘You’ve got to be kidding!”

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Finally, White came to Troy and banker Larry Hancock made it possible for him to get the money he needed to create Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders restaurant. Today, 16 years later, White will host a weekend grand opening for an Abner’s restaurant in Fairhope, the ninth, and those who thought he was kidding now have their answer.

White, laughingly, said the fact that his family was deeply rooted in Troy probably had more to do with his getting the loan than the collateral he was able to raise – his old car and a few meager possessions.

His being the grandson of Dr. Jack Abner and Jane Jernigan Brantley and Charles and Mazie White and the son of Parker White and Wiley Brantley White might have “brought peace of mind” to the Troy banker. However, it was more likely, that the confidence White radiated sold his idea.

He had played center for the Ole Miss football team from 1988-1992 and had won several academic awards. So, he brought along his transcript to show that he had worked hard and done his best.

“I told Larry that I had an idea that I knew would work if he would just give me a shot,” White said. “In Oxford, there were plenty of burger and pizza places and a few local restaurants but nowhere that specialized in chicken tenders — no places like I’d seen in several small college towns.”

White got a $20,000 line of credit and, with it, he opened Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders restaurant in Oxford in 1993.

Abner’s was in the corner of a building that also housed a gas station’s convenience store and a liquor store.

“The kitchen was six feet wide, and we had five tables,” White said. “The menu was simple – fried chicken tenders, French fries and garlic bread and the sauce, Abner’s special sauce.”

Business was good from the beginning and boomed to the extent that, in 1995, White bought and remodeled the building. Two years later, he opened an Abner’s in Starkville and a standalone in Oxford. He expanded to the suburbs in Memphis and Jackson and then, against advice, in Tupelo.

“People told me to stay away from Tupelo but, once I pulled the trigger on Tupelo, I wished I had done it years earlier,” he said.

Each of the Abner’s has a sports theme, mainly football. Signed photos adorn the walls along with football helmets and other memorabilia.

White, laughingly, said the Abner’s of Fairhope will be somewhat different in its gridiron “allegiance.”

“We’ll have Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU, and I’m trying to get more Troy University displays because we want to support the Trojans, too,” he said.

With all the chicken places around and the trend toward healthier eating, Abner’s has diversified to meet the growing demand and changing preferences of his customers.

“I thought that I could be successful if I did chicken right and coupled good food with outstanding service,” White said.

“And, of course, there’s nothing like our Abner’s sauce. It’s a comeback sauce, and it’s a little more spicy than other comeback sauces. We also offer our own honey mustard and barbecue sauces. I feel like we’ve put distance between Abner’s and other chicken tender restaurants because of the freshness and quality of our food.”

Abner’s serves Greek salads and a variety of gourmet salads, wraps, wings and about as many specially grilled tenders as fried.

The success of Abner’s has been rewarding and encouraging but White said he’s not interested in franchising the business even though he’s had offers.

“I’d rather be in control.” he said.

It’s in an old location and it reminds me of the first Abner’s in Oxford. It’s a neat location and I’m having fun with it. I want to keep doing what we’re doing and if that means further growth, then the better.”

At the grand opening of Abner’s Famous Chicken Tender restaurant in Fairhope this weekend, White said he will probably steal a moment to reflect on how it all came to be.

“Being 23 years old and never having worked in the food service business, I thought never mind the hard work and the long hours,” he said, laughing. “But I’ve learned the harsh lessons and gotten a lot of wakeup calls along the way so I’m here to stay.”