When Ramon Bavista started working for Panda Express in East Brainerd nine years ago at age 20, he thought it would only be a temporary job for six months or so, working 15 hours a week.
But Bavista quickly grew to love the work and the team at the Gunbarrel Road Chinese restaurant, which was the first Panda Express to open in the Chattanooga area. Bavista said the company taught him the skills of operating a restaurant and managing other people and, within eight months, he was promoted to general manager.
"We pay better than almost any other restaurant chain (starting workers at $16 or $17 an hour) and we work hard to make sure this is a great place to eat and to work," Bavista said Monday during a grand opening celebration for the newest Panda Express in Chattanooga.
Bavista has traveled across the nation to help open other Panda Express outlets in 10 other states, but the 29-year-old manager said he was most pleased to be opening a new and bigger Panda Express on Monday morning down the street on Gunbarrel Road to replace the restaurant where he began.
Bavista cut the ribbon Monday to officially open the new Panda Express at 1808 Gunbarrel Road in the Target shopping center near Hamilton Place Mall. The new eatery is one of only three of the new Panda Express designs anywhere in the nation, and the new eatery will add a drive-through window for better takeout service. The previous East Brainerd Panda Express in the Overlook at Hamilton shopping center at 2260 Gunbarrel Road will stay open for a couple of weeks before it shuts down.
"This is in the center of everything here on Gunbarrel Road, and this new location, which is about twice the size of our previous location, gives us double drive-through service and all of the beauty and efficiency of our new design," Julius Salcedo, the area coach of operations for Panda Express, said in an interview at the new store.
The new store design cost nearly $1 million more to build than the previous Panda Express outlets, but Salcedo said it will help accommodate the growth expected from the new site and the addition of drive-through service, which accounts for about 60% of sales at most Panda Express outlets.
The new restaurant is boosting the staff size to more than 40 full- and part-time workers, Bavista said. Panda Express opened its first outlet at 2288 Gunbarrel Road in 2011.
Panda Express has since added other area restaurants in Hixson, Collegedale, Cleveland and downtown Chattanooga in Southeast Tennessee, along with Fort Oglethorpe and Dalton, Georgia in Northwest Georgia.
Founded in 1983 by Andrew and Peggy Cherng, Panda Express operates more than 2,500 restaurants and, on average, opens a new restaurant every three days. Panda Express, which has remained a privately held restaurant chain with all units being company owned, will open another new restaurant in Athens, Tennessee, next year, Salcedo said.
"In the next five years, we're looking to double our revenues and be a $10 billion company (for annual revenues)," Salcedo said.
The new Gunbarrel Road Panda Express is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
The site of the new Panda Express was developed by Chattanooga developer Bassam Issa, who is bringing a trio of new restaurants to the shopping center site anchored by the Target store in East Brained.
Next door, Popeyes recently opened a new fast-food restaurant and in the former Golden Corral restaurant nearby, a new LongHorn Steakhouse is scheduled to open later this year.