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What is the origin of the word chicken tenders?

Chicken tenders are a popular food item made from chicken breast meat that has been battered or breaded then deep fried. They are also sometimes referred to as chicken strips, chicken fingers, or chicken goujons. Chicken tenders make a convenient and tasty snack or appetizer and are a menu staple at many restaurants and fast food chains. But where exactly did the term “chicken tenders” come from and how did this dish become so popular?

History of the Term “Chicken Tenders”

The exact origins of the term “chicken tenders” are unclear, but food historians trace its use back to the American South in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the earliest known references to “chicken tenders” on restaurant menus date from this time period:

  • A 1968 menu from Morrison’s Cafeteria in Mobile, Alabama offers “Chicken Tenders – Tasty strips of chicken breast breaded and deep fried to a golden brown.”
  • A 1970 menu from Toddle House, a diner chain based in Texas, advertises “Tendersweet Fried Chicken Tenders – Delicious strips of solid white chicken meat, breaded and cooked to a golden brown.”

So while fried chicken strips were likely being served before then, it appears the specific name “chicken tenders” emerged in the American South in the 1960s as a descriptive and appealing label for this dish. The term refers to the tender strips of meat from the chicken breast, highlighting their texture and quality.

Popularity and Spread of Chicken Tenders

In the 1970s and 1980s, chicken tenders started appearing at more restaurants and fast food chains, helping boost the dish’s popularity nationwide:

  • In 1979, Jack in the Box restaurants advertised Breaded Chicken Tenders on their menus.
  • Church’s Chicken added Chicken Tenders to their menus in 1984 after acquiring another chain, Bojangles.
  • Fast food leader McDonald’s rolled out Chicken Selects Premium Breast Strips nationally in 1991.

As chicken tenders gained more exposure and availability from national chains, the term became further solidified in American food culture and vocabulary. By the 1990s and 2000s, chicken tenders had become a standard item familiar to most consumers.

The dipping sauces that often accompany chicken tenders have also proliferated, with ranch, barbecue, honey mustard, and buffalo/hot sauce among the most popular flavors. Additionally, recipes for air fryer and oven-baked chicken tenders have arisen as healthier alternatives to deep frying.

Reasons for the Popularity of Chicken Tenders

So what explains the mass appeal of chicken tenders? There are several factors that have likely contributed to their widespread popularity:

  • Convenience – Chicken tenders require no silverware and are easy to eat as finger food.
  • Kid-Friendly – The mild flavor and dipping sauces appeal to children’s tastes.
  • Portion Control – Individual tenders allow for portion control compared to other fried chicken.
  • Adapterability – Chicken tenders work as an appetizer, entree or snack in many types of restaurants.
  • Nutrition – White meat chicken tenders are lower in fat and calories than other fried foods.

For these reasons, chicken tenders have become a default menu choice satisfying the preferences of American diners of all ages. The versatile strips of breaded chicken can be served on their own, as part of a sandwich or wrap, atop a salad, or paired with various dipping sauces to enhance the flavor. This flexibility and reliability have made chicken tenders a modern American classic.

The Chicken Tender Supply Chain

Once a niche menu item, the incredible demand for chicken tenders forced the food industry to evolve its supply and production capabilities. Poultry suppliers began optimizing operations to harvest tenderloins from chicken breasts on a mass scale. Here are some key components of the modern chicken tender supply chain:

  • Specialized breeding programs produce broiler chickens ideal for tenderloin harvesting.
  • Highly automated processes extract, trim and bread tenderloins at major poultry plants.
  • Flash freezing preserves tenders immediately after breading for distribution.
  • Widespread cold storage infrastructure maintains frozen inventory for restaurants.
  • High-volume pressure fryers in commercial kitchens cook frozen tenders to order.

Such advancements in supply chain management and food manufacturing technology have enabled chicken tenders to become one of the highest-volume items at many quality focused restaurant chains and fast food outlets. Companies like Chick-fil-A, Raising Cane’s, Zaxby’s and others have essentially built their business models around the perfect chicken tender.

The Rise of Chicken Tender Restaurants

Starting in the 1980s, a new wave of quick service restaurants emerged that specialized exclusively in chicken tenders. Many trace this trend to the opening of Guthrie’s restaurant in 1965 in Auburn, Alabama, which billed itself as “home of the golden chicken fingers.” This pioneering establishment proved the viability of a restaurant dedicated to chicken tenders.

Some other major chains that followed in Guthrie’s footsteps include:

  • Zaxby’s – Founded in Georgia in 1990 with an emphasis on high quality tenders and signature sauces.
  • Raising Cane’s – First location opened in Louisiana in 1996 with a focused menu of chicken fingers, crinkle-cut fries and coleslaw.
  • Slim Chickens – An Arkansas based chain started in 2003 with cooked-to-order tenders and dipping sauces.
  • Guthrie’s – Expanded beyond Alabama to open franchise locations across the Southeast after its early success.

These chains and similar concepts ignited the broader trend toward chicken tender focused fast casual dining establishments. They proved the viability of chicken tenders as a primary menu anchor rather than just an appetizer or side dish.

The Rise of Chicken Tender Food Trucks

In recent years, specialty food trucks devoted to chicken tenders have also become popular, bringing their crispy battered tenders and assorted sauces directly to consumers wherever they are. Some notable examples include:

  • The Chicken Guy – Founded by celebrity chef Guy Fieri in 2018.
  • Cluck Truck – A Nashville area food truck started in 2012.
  • Tenderlicious – A Houston, Texas area food truck launched in 2010.
  • Tenders, Love and Chicken – A San Diego food truck serving battered or grilled tenders.

Food trucks provide a lower cost of entry for entrepreneurs to test new chicken tender concepts compared to opening a permanent restaurant. They can also build loyal followings at local events and office parking lots during the weekday lunch rush. While less prominent than chicken tender chains, food trucks further illustrate the widespread fan base for this handheld, dipable comfort food.

The Future of Chicken Tenders

Chicken tenders have come a remarkably long way from their humble beginnings as a specialty item at Southern cafeterias in the 1960s. They are now a staple menu component at most restaurants from fast food joints to family diners to catered events. Their appeal spans all ages and backgrounds, while new chains and food trucks continue pushing the envelope on creative sauces and flavor possibilities.

Some emerging trends point to continued innovation and growth opportunities for chicken tenders:

  • Gourmet chicken tender concepts at higher price points in fast casual and full service restaurants.
  • International flavor influences like Korean barbecue, Buffalo ranch, mango habanero and more.
  • Focus on fresh, natural and antibiotic-free chicken as ingredient quality becomes more important to consumers.
  • Rise of plant-based chicken tender alternatives to appeal to vegetarians and flexitarians.

While their origins may have been humble, chicken tenders are now a versatile protein staple satisfying America’s craving for comfort food that’s also portable and easy to eat on the go. Don’t expect this tasty battered bites to lose their appeal anytime soon.


Chicken tenders have become ingrained in modern American cuisine due to their kid-friendly flavor, dipability, and portability as finger food. The term and dish traces back to the American South in the 1960s, but wider availability at chains like McDonald’s brought chicken tenders nationwide by the 1990s. Dedicated chicken tender chains emerged to meet demand, followed by specialty food trucks. Advancements in supply chain management and food processing enabled mass production to keep up with America’s voracious appetite. With a winning formula of crispy breading, tender white meat, and endless dipping sauce possibilities, expect chicken tenders to continue thriving on menus across the country.