When Abner White (BBA 92) was playing center for the Ole Miss football team from 1988 until 1992, there wasn’t the plethora of dining options found in Oxford today. There were some fast food franchises and a few old local restaurants. But the familiar sights and smells of the now bustling restaurant scene had yet to arrive.
Armed with a business degree and a carefully crafted business plan, the young Mr. White began knocking on doors, seeking financing for a new restaurant to fill a niche and serve a need. Compared to the typical fare at the time, burger and pizza joints or restaurants with extensive menus, his concept was simple, and one that he’d seen work in other small college towns—fried chicken tenders.
The Montgomery, Ala., native knocked on many doors, and heard many people tell him no. He spent hours by a phone that refused to ring. But at last he found a banker in Troy, Ala., who was willing to take a chance, and he secured financing with only his old car and a few meager possessions offered as collateral.
I’d done a lot of work on my business plan,”; White explained. “It was really in-depth. I had good grades that I was proud of. I took my transcript and my resumé. I really believed in it.
It was something I felt I could make work if I had the funds to do it.” In 1993, he opened the first Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders restaurant in Oxford on the corner of University Avenue and South Lamar Boulevard.
I got a $20,000 line of credit and I used 19 of it,” White recalled. “I remember I had a thousand dollars left when we opened the doors.”
The space was small and so was the menu. In the corner of a building that also housed a gas station’s convenience store and a liquor store, the first Abner’s had five tables. The kitchen was only six feet wide. The menu consisted of fried chicken tenders, French fries and garlic bread. And, of course, the sauce.
Over the years, the company grew along with the menu. First, the restaurant grew to encompass what had been the convenience store. In ’95, White bought the building, keeping the tiny liquor store as a tenant. Two years later, he remodeled the entire building. Then it was on to more expansion — a new store in Starkville, then a standalone restaurant on Jackson Avenue in Oxford and restaurants in the suburbs of Memphis and Jackson. Later, he added another in Tupelo. “I dabbled around with Tupelo forever,” said White. “People told me for years to stay away, that it was a bad market. But once I pulled the trigger on Tupelo, I wished I’d done it years earlier.”
Along the way, the fare became much more diverse than just fried tenders. Today, the restaurant offers their tenders grilled, but also wraps, salads, baked potatoes and wings. “I didn’t really want to expand the menu,” White confessed. “But everyone became more health conscious. People wanted more than fried food. We added grilled tenders 8 or 10 years ago and it’s by far the biggest and best move we’ve ever made. We’ve sold as much of the grilled as we do fried.”
The latest store will open soon in White’s new home of Fairhope, Ala.
“We have 11 flat screen TVs in there,” said White. “It’s going to be a cool location. It’s an old location that we’ve gone in and put some fresh paint on. It’s a similar look to all the other Abner’s but it’ll have the alcohol this time. We’re still going for a family approach. We’re not having a full bar. Just beer and wine.”
Since the beginning, the décor of Abner’s stores have been characterized by a sports theme. He says he just wanted something to put on the bare walls and given his sports background, sports memorabilia was his first thought. Signed photos adorn the walls of every Abner’s, along with football helmets and other memorabilia. White calls the collection of these items one of his favorite parts of his job.
“The people who work for me know that that’s one of my tasks that nobody wants to fool with me on,” he said. “I’m really hands-on about it. I don’t let anybody else meddle in that.”
In Oxford, choosing memorabilia was easy. The decorations consist mostly of Ole Miss legends, with a smattering of other SEC heroes strewn about. But White says that choosing what to put on the walls gets a bit trickier in other towns. In Fairhope, he has carefully selected an equal amount of Alabama and Auburn items, with Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU being represented as well.
In addition to opening the new store in Fairhope, Abner’s is rolling out another new feature this summer—drive-through windows.
“It’s been one of these things just like the grilled chicken thing,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it at first because I thought it would compromise our food quality. But we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve decided we can do this and still have the fresh food as we have now. We think it’ll be a big improvement to serve our customers when they’re out and about.”
With nine stores now, Abner’s is still growing, but White has resisted the temptation to franchise, preferring to remain hands-on and retain control. Though he started with a meticulously designed business plan, 15 years in business has provided White with a type of sixth sense when it comes to business decisions.
“I’ve been pushed to franchise it and I’ve looked at it a few times,” he said. “But it never felt comfortable to me. I like to think our object is putting out a really good product and good customer service and being a part of our community, and not just pumping out stores.”
Instead, White’s strategy for growth is based largely on intuition. Where others pore over data and traffic counts, White likes to spend some time in a new town to get a feel for it and visit other area restaurants.
“Sometimes you feel like you know your business enough to see if it would fly somewhere,” said White. “So I’ll go and spend some time and just get a feel for whether it’s an Abner’s type town. It’s just a matter of finding that market that fits.”