By Dennis Seid
It’s been a tumultuous two weeks for Abner White, the founder of the popular Abner’s restaurant chain.
Several reports initially indicated the company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, fueling rumors that the restaurants would be closing. But White says only two restaurants filed for Chapter 11 and that all Abner’s locations will remain open.
The restaurant chain was founded in Oxford in 1993 by White, a former University of Mississippi football player.
White said the confusion began when the Daily Mississippian in Oxford misunderstood the Chapter 11 filing. While the newspaper has issued a correction, White has sent letters to the editor to newspapers across the state to help clarify the issue.
In part, the letter said, “the story communicated erroneous facts related to a bankruptcy that is affecting just one of our companies, and not our entire chain as reported. As a result, numerous other regional publications in the state simply picked up the inaccurate story without contacting me for the correct information, further spreading completely false information about our company.”
White said each restaurant is under separate ownership. Abner’s Inc. of Oxford – which White owns – was the entity that filed for Chapter 11. Abner’s of Starkville Inc., Abner’s of Tupelo LLC, Abner’s of Cordova LLC and Abner’s of Brandon LLC are not involved in the Chapter 11 proceedings
“Abner’s Inc., although it sounds all-encompassing, owns only two restaurants in Oxford,” White said. “Abner’s Inc. is the company that filed Chapter 11 protection due to difficulty in working out a deal with a bank. Chapter 11 protection simply allows us time to restructure debt and work through issues with this creditor.”
He said other newspapers should have taken better care in checking out the facts and tried to contact him for clarification.
“The publicity my company has received as a result of the articles that have run misrepresenting the facts could potentially shut the doors of all my businesses,” he said.
Putting out fires
But White said, “The bottom line is this: We are not closing, and we plan to be a strong Mississippi tradition for many years to come.”
White said 90 percent of his time during the past few weeks has been spent “putting out fires” related to the Chapter 11 filing.
“So many people have come into Abner’s locations in Tupelo, Starkville, Cordova and Brandon and want to know when we are closing,” he said. “We have been inundated with emails and phone calls from customers wanting to know how much longer we will be open. … We reiterate to people daily that none of our restaurants, including those in Oxford, will be closing. This is a temporary reorganization of debt (for the Oxford stores) – that’s all it is.”
White said he “couldn’t be more confident” that the Oxford stores will resolve their issues.
“We have certainly seen changes in the landscape of Oxford over past 10 years just like everyone else has. The market is full of restaurant options,” he said. “This means we have to be at our best every day. It means that we need to hire the best employees that we can find. We are working to do just that – not just in Oxford but at all Abner’s markets. We have seen increasing sales in the last year and we are still not at our best, but getting better every day. We will continue to improve until we are confident that we are doing everything we can to make sure our customers have a great experience every time they visit us.”
Abner’s employs about 120 people in its Mississippi stores, plus another 25 in Cordova. All Abner’s companies also are majority-owned by Mississippians, with some outside ownership. White is the sole owner of the two Oxford Abner’s Inc. locations.
“Not only are we run by Mississippians, we utilize other local businesses to help us maintain our operations,” he said. “We work with small businesses in each of our markets to service the needs we have for our supplies, maintenance, repairs, etc. We always look for a local company before we call someone from Memphis or Jackson. We also work closely with Mississippi State and Ole Miss and support them every way that we can.”
White also said the company hasn’t backed off plans to grown into new markets. He admitted they’ve slowed down some due to the “negative attention” in recent weeks.
“Once people see that we’re operating just as good or better than we were before the story broke, we can begin exploring that again,” he said. “Our focus will remain on north Mississippi. We get calls from a lot of people from other states wanting us to locate there but I think that there are good markets right here in our area that would work well for us. I would certainly not rule out going out of state at some point but right now my focus remains on the existing Abner’s companies and new Abner’s in this area.”