RINGGOLD, Ga. - Terry Bennett stood in the middle of the crowded tables and glanced around at newly finished orange walls and chatty customers Thursday morning. The smell of tacos - with a hint of fresh paint - floated through the air.
Yellow confetti and purple stars hanging from the ceiling greeted local residents and city officials as they walked through the Taco Bell doors.
Just nine weeks ago, Bennett, a Taco Bell manager, had hauled his employees into the kitchen cooler and led guests in the building to the women's bathroom as an F4 tornado ripped through the restaurant.
Now the manager was celebrating the restaurant's reopening - the first of the heavily damaged businesses in the Ringgold area to reopen.
"It's closure," he said, his eyes darting around the room. "I never thought I'd see this."
During the April storms, Taco Bell was one of 121 businesses damaged in Ringgold, where at least 30 others were destroyed. Nearly every fast-food restaurant, hotel and gas station was wiped out along Alabama Highway near Interstate 75.
Businesses with minimal damage, including Wendy's and popular local restaurant Aunt Effie's, reopened quickly after the storm. But most of the heavily damaged areas haven't begun to rebuild.
Taco Bell worked hard to be one of the first places to reopen, said April Hurst, a restaurant spokeswoman.
Early Thursday, Ringgold High School Principal Sharon Vaughn and Mayor Joe Barger cut a purple ribbon set up outside to mark the reopening.
Many of the fast-food restaurants' cashiers and cooks were Ringgold High School students. And Tacala LLC, the franchise operator of the Ringgold Taco Bell, donated $5,000 toward rebuilding the high school that was hit in the tornado.
"I had [students] at every business," Vaughn said. "[Now] there's nowhere for kids to work or go to a place to hang out."
Before the reopening ceremony was complete, two cars had pulled into the restaurant's driveway.
"[Ringgold] is starting to coming back," said A.J. Howard, a local resident. "It's one of the best things you like to see."
Across the street from the Taco Bell, workers were laying bricks on the new Waffle House structure. But the surrounding motels looked a lot like they did days after the tornado.
Most of the restaurants along the highway already have submitted plans or at least notified officials that they plan to return, Ringgold City Councilman Randall Franks said. But there is no timeline.
If a business decides not to return, the city actively will pursue other businesses to come to the area, Franks said.
"It's going to be a long process," he said.