Believe it or not – NH is the chicken tender capital of the world 

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 08-25-2023 9:19 AM

Arthur Pappas has told the story dozens of times before.

Almost 50 years ago when the Puritan Backroom opened at its current location in Manchester, his father Charlie and some cousins decided to add a restaurant to the back of the building to complement their takeout business at the front. Their poultry provider sold them boneless chicken breasts, and each day they’d have leftover strips.

“(We) didn’t know what to do with them but decided to fry them up and try them out and sell them as chicken tenders,” said Pappas, now the co-owner.

Based on Pappas’ chicken tender research – and it sounds quite extensive – his restaurant was the first place to ever sell “chicken tenders,” way back in 1974. Verifying that claim is tricky; after all, there’s no organized database on the history of chicken tenders, and some places have used the name interchangeably with chicken fingers and chicken strips. To the best of Pappas’ knowledge, though, Puritan Backroom was the birthplace of the chicken tender.

“If anybody can find out that it happened before us, that’s fine,” Pappas said. “But as far as I know, I think we’re the first ones that started to do it.”

First or not, it’s indisputable the way the chicken tender – served with its sweet duck sauce – has infiltrated the local New Hampshire culture. The restaurant has always been a favorite spot for retail politics during presidential and congressional campaigns, and recently, it’s also taken on an unexpected partnership with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the local Minor League Baseball team.

‘Uniquely Manchester’

Late last month, the Fisher Cats, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Double-A minor league affiliate, held their second Chicken Tenders Night. Not only did they stock their concession stands with thousands of Puritan tenders, they actually changed their team name for the day, taking the field as the Manchester Chicken Tenders, with a corresponding jersey and cap that Pappas had helped design before last year’s inaugural event at Delta Dental Stadium.

The jerseys worn this year against the Hartford Yard Goats showcased the Backroom’s classic tender. They’ve also had jerseys featuring the other two prominent flavors: Buffalo and Coconut.

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“Got into selling t-shirts and hats and all that kind of stuff,” Pappas said. “They approached me wanting to know if I’d be willing to help them out, give them some chicken tenders, so I did.”

Current Fisher Cats General Manager Michael Neis joined the organization last October, so he wasn’t directly involved in the decision-making about the original theme night, but he’s quickly learned why it’s taken on such a following.

These types of theme nights are one of the staples for minor league teams across the country to draw in a variety of fans and give people a reason to come out to games. With players frequently sent to higher or lower levels of the minor leagues, it can sometimes be hard for fans to maintain strong attachments to individual players. Having a chicken tenders night provides that extra pull.

“We wanted to look for something that was uniquely Manchester … which of course is the establishment and the invention of the chicken tender in 1974 at the Puritan Restaurant,” Neis said. “I know chicken tenders was something that not only resonated with the people locally, but it’s also just a lot of fun when you get to represent yourself as the Manchester Chicken Tenders for a night out at the ballpark.”

The fan reaction hasn’t been the only draw, either. Neis’ favorite part, he said, is seeing the way the players respond, especially those who are less familiar with the area.

“I always love the education piece that comes with it, and hearing that, ‘Really? I never knew that about Manchester,’” Neis said. “For us, that’s a point of pride, and it doesn’t hurt that we’ve gotten tremendous response from the players on wearing the jerseys too. I think they think it’s a lot of fun.”

Added left fielder Will Robertson: “You always see (chicken tenders) growing up in different restaurants and stuff, and you wouldn’t imagine it being (invented) in Manchester, New Hampshire,” he said. “Chicken tenders you would think would be a pretty universal thing, but finding that out, it’s definitely cool.”

For Robertson, who was also on the team last year for the inaugural event, it’s one of his favorite nights at the ballpark. A few days after this year’s Chicken Tenders Night, his family visited the Fisher Cats team store and quickly found that much of the merchandise had been cleaned out by fans a few nights before.

“It’s just a very unique promotion,” Robertson said. “I think it draws people to the ballpark. We always love to have the stadium packed and get some buzz going and get to wear a different jersey. It’s nice, too, because they bring some samples over into the clubhouse and stuff, so you get to try some. It’s always fun.”

Robertson’s favorite tender?

“I really, really enjoy the coconut one,” he said. “Gives it a sweet and salty flavor which is surprising. I wouldn’t think I would like that, but the coconut one’s probably my favorite.”

‘A New Hampshire institution’

In addition to the recent chicken tender fanfare at the ballpark, the Puritan Backroom has also maintained itself as a favorite location for political candidates of both parties to come to interact with potential voters.

Arthur Pappas’ son, Congressman Chris Pappas, started bussing tables and scooping ice cream at his family’s restaurant when he was 14 years old. No longer directly involved with the business, he saw firsthand the impact it had both on his personal life and the larger community.

“There’s no better training ground for a life in public service than in a restaurant where no job is too big or too small, the customer always comes first and you’ve got to listen and find common ground even if you don’t see eye-to-eye,” Pappas wrote in an email to the Monitor. “I couldn’t be more proud of the legacy my family has built, and we’re privileged to have had a front-row seat to New Hampshire presidential history for so many years.”

From former president Bill Clinton to former congressman Bill Zeliff, the Backroom has welcomed a variety of candidates over the years. Clinton returned to the Backroom during the 2016 campaign for his wife Hillary’s presidential run, after he’d campaigned there during his own run for office in 1992. Zeliff, a Republican who held the seat currently occupied by the younger Pappas, also stopped by frequently in the ’90s, Arthur Pappas recalled. The business has also hosted multiple election night campaign parties thanks to its accompanying function rooms, which serve a full menu, including those renowned chicken tenders.

“The Backroom is a New Hampshire institution where politicians and candidates from all political parties and walks of life come to meet with voters and enjoy some of America’s best chicken tenders,” Republican Governor Chris Sununu said in a statement to the Monitor. “And don’t forget the ice cream!”

Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan added that the Puritan Backroom represents the best of New Hampshire thanks to its down-to-earth ambiance. And while the location is a great place for retail politicking – and should continue to be with the 2024 primary heating up – the unpretentious atmosphere, including the coveted tenders, is a big part of the draw.

“Even in the midst of heated campaigns and political division, customers leave the Puritan knowing that we can all come together in loving great food, lively debate and our state and country,” Hassan said.

‘The go-to item’

In Maine, it’s lobster. In Vermont, it’s maple syrup and dairy products. In New Hampshire?

Chicken tenders.

The identity has stuck so much so that the day the Fisher Cats held Chicken Tenders Night in July, Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig signed a proclamation stating that Manchester is the chicken tender capital of the world after a barnstorming campaign from Nick Lavallee, a local entrepreneur who sells pop culture items online including “Tender Town” merchandise.  

Chicken Tender Night for the Fisher Cats is here to stay as well.

“It’s certainly up there when you talk about our most popular nights,” Neis, the GM, said.

And it’s all something that the Puritan Backroom could’ve never imagined when it started selling extra pieces of chicken breast that otherwise would’ve gone to waste nearly 50 years ago.

“It’s been very interesting developing over the years, something that started out as a small item has become a feature item and the go-to item that people come here for,” Arthur Pappas said. “It’s been somewhat overwhelming to keep up with the demand for it, especially on  the weekends. We have a great following, and it's great for us.”

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