A blow-up chicken the size of a man welcomed guests to the Zaxby's on Shallowford Road when the store re-opened Monday morning after a two-week break for renovations.
Gary Avants, one of the first Zaxby's franchisees in the country, bought the rights to operate the restaurant earlier this year from Mark Shepard. Avants' company, Avants Management Group, is based in Athens, Ga., and operates 14 other Zaxby's restaurants in four states and plans to soon build more in Texas.
The Shallowford Road Zaxby's closed two weeks ago when Avants ordered renovations at the restaurant as it changed owners. The floors were redone and now are hardwood, and a few interior walls have changed. The restaurant also now has a touch-screen Coca-Cola Freestyle machine with 100 options.
There are about 37 employees at the restaurant now, some holdovers from previous ownership. Store managers said Monday that more hires are expected. The store will be fully staffed when it has 40 to 45 workers on staff.
The restaurant is the first in Chattanooga for Avants Management, which operates two Zaxby's restaurants in Cleveland, Tenn., and one in Athens, Tenn.
Avants Management Group marketing manager Ashley Noggle said the company is excited about breaking into the Chattanooga market. He said the company's Tennessee stores are some of its most profitable and most trafficked.
He said corporate Zaxby's typically eyes a market and decides about how many stores it can support. Chattanooga is either at its maximum or close to it right now, he estimates, so Avants is glad to get an opportunity to break into the market. If demand shows itself, he said the company will entertain expansion.
* What: Zaxby's
* Where: 7328 Shallowford Road, Chattanooga
* When: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day
* Online: Apply for work at pleaseapplyonline.com/zaxbysamg
* Contact: Zaxby's at Shallowford Road at 423-499-2940
The other seven Zaxby's restaurants in the Chattanooga orbit are operated by two other Zaxby's franchisees.
Noggle said Avants avoids moving into an area simply because it doesn't have a Zaxby's. He said the company tries to avoid hurting other chains and franchises that already are established.
"We want to be good neighbors," he said.
The Zaxby's company was founded in 1990 in Statesboro, Ga., by Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley. The two opened a small chicken restaurant in an 800-square-foot space that was a hit with students at nearby Georgia Southern University.
Since then, America's love affair with chicken and rising beef prices have been boons for chicken-centric chains such as Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, Bojangles' and Zaxby's, which are considered leaders in fast-casual dining.
Zaxby's recently broke the $1 billion annual sales barrier as primarily a Southern regional chain. There are 670 Zaxby's restaurants in 16 states, and counting. Zaxby's has recently been introduced to Utah.
Noggle said chicken is also popular because it can be fixed many ways and it can be really healthy.
"If you know the Zaxby's menu, you can really manipulate it and eat really healthy," he said. "You get what you want."
Because of Zaxby's rapid expansion, the chain is now shifting toward a central design and decoration scheme in its new stores. Where most Chattanooga-area Zaxby's stores have hyper-local art and artifacts on the walls, the Shallowford Road restaurant unveiled a crisp, less-is-more look.
Dylan Thompson, general manager at the Shallowford Zaxby's, made the move to the store from the Athens, Tenn., location. A native of the area, he started out as a cook and has worked his way up to general manager.
He said one of the biggest hurdles coming in to a change in ownership situation is changing the company culture.
"I've kind of been on both ends of the spectrum," he said.
Thompson said one of his priorities at the store is customer service, after talking to folks who have visited in the past.
Gary and Teresa Edmonson, area residents, eat at the Shallowford Road Zaxby's frequently.
"We love Zaxby's," said Teresa. "I like the chicken salad. It's fast food, but it's not hamburger food."
Gary said in the past, the drive-thru sometimes backed up, resulting in longer waits.
But "they've been very helpful the last three times we've eaten here," he said. "They've been, I think, a little more helpful in getting you what you need."
Contact staff writer Alex Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6480.
Zaxby's on Shallowford Road