Batter up: Chicken Tenders take the field
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Regional food-based alternate identities have been a popular trend in Minor League Baseball for years, but until this season the New Hampshire Fisher Cats had been on the outside looking in. “We hadn’t done any [food promotions]. We were asking ourselves, ‘What is New Hampshire?’” said Fisher
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Regional food-based alternate identities have been a popular trend in Minor League Baseball for years, but until this season the New Hampshire Fisher Cats had been on the outside looking in.
“We hadn’t done any [food promotions]. We were asking ourselves, ‘What is New Hampshire?’” said Fisher Cats president Mike Ramshaw. “Like, there was somebody who already took the lobster roll. But then, just looking online, we remembered the story of the birthplace of chicken tenders. It was 1974, Puritan Backroom restaurant.”
Chicken tenders are now ubiquitous, to the extent that one might not think to question their provenance. But, yes, these humble strips of battered and fried boneless chicken breast were invented at Manchester’s Puritan Backroom. This iconic multi-generational establishment, long a requisite visit for presidential candidates jockeying for position in the New Hampshire primaries, is located in the city the Fisher Cats call home. (The "Backroom" in the name refers to where the dining area is located.)
The Fisher Cats transformed into the Manchester Chicken Tenders on Saturday, June 4, wearing specialty uniforms for the second game of a doubleheader and serving Puritan Backroom tenders at the Delta Dental Stadium concession stands. This marked the culmination of a creative process that started during the 2019 Baseball Winter Meetings. After getting approval from the Puritan Backroom, now overseen by third-generation co-owner Arthur Pappas, the Double-A Toronto affiliate partnered with design firm Brandiose to create a series of logos representing the restaurant’s three most popular chicken tender flavors: Classic, Buffalo and Coconut.
“We went through a couple iterations and said, ‘You know, we can’t pick one,’” said Ramshaw. “They’re known for three. So we got to talking, what are creative ways we can market this? We said, ‘Why don’t we put all three on a [hat] presale, and whatever one sells the most, that’s the one we’re going to have the team wear for Chicken Tender day at the ballpark.”
The Fisher Cats launched their “Which Chicken You Pickin’?” campaign in November, fulfilling hat orders all over the country. Ramshaw said the team initially wanted to package the hat in chicken to-go containers, complete with a side of the duck sauce that accompanies the Puritan Backroom’s chicken tender orders.
“We couldn’t figure out an economical way for shipping, to create the box,” said Ramshaw. “Which I think worked in our favor, because after the fact I can only imagine the number of calls that we would get if the package got banged around, and then when they opened their hat it’s covered in duck sauce.”
Classic turned out to be the chicken tender that hat buyers picked, triumphing over a sauce-slathered, devil-horned Buffalo and a Coconut wearing a bikini top and luau skirt. The players thus took the field in yellow-brimmed Classic hats on June 4, following a first pitch from preeminent local chicken tender purveyor Art Pappas.
“My grandfather started the [Puritan Backroom] back in 1917, as an ice cream and candy store location in downtown Manchester,” said Pappas. “Now we’re located on the north end of Manchester. We’ve been there since 1938. In 1974 we had opened up a full-service restaurant. We started selling boneless breasts of chicken, and after a couple of weeks our chicken supplier said, ‘Hey, I’ve got all these little remnants of chicken. What am I going to do with them?’ So my dad said, ‘Well, I’ll figure it out.’ And we started selling chicken tenders in 1974, probably 8 to 10 years before any of the fast-food places started doing their reconstituted chicken. All of our chicken is fresh, breaded and made to order.”
The chicken tenders were a popular item, almost from the moment the restaurant started selling them.
“Because we sold so many chicken tenders, we started to figure out different ways to do it,” said Pappas. “First was Buffalo chicken tenders, and then we started doing coconut because we had a coconut shrimp that we did that was really good…. We actually have a fourth one that no one recognizes here [at the ballpark], but we do a spicy chicken tender. That’s actually one of my favorites.”
For June 4’s ballgame, Pappas provided the Fisher Cats with 10,000 chicken tenders to sell at the concession stands (a mix of classic and coconut, which are easier to prepare than Buffalo).
“I told the [Fisher Cats], ‘I can do chicken tenders for 400 people. I can’t do it for 4,000,’” said Pappas. “But then I figured out a way to flash freeze them and have them redo them today, and actually I’m very happy with the way they came out. So, we might have come up with a new way to sell our chicken tenders nationwide.”
Puritan Backroom brand chicken tenders may or may not be coming to a frozen food aisle near you. The Fisher Cats, meanwhile, now plan to play as the Chicken Tenders on an annual basis. Perhaps, in time, the team will add another local food to their alternate identity roster.
“We’re trying,” said Ramshaw. “You got maple syrup, but Vermont did that. I think maybe fried clams? I mean, that’s New England, where you get the fried seafood basket. But it wasn’t easy to find a New Hampshire food, to be honest with you. So, really, it’s about pulling everyone together to celebrate the heritage of the chicken tender.”
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.