For Hudson Sandefur of Daphne, Ala., putting his next Zaxby’s store in Gulfport was a no-brainer.
The restaurant, known for its chicken fingers and salad selections, will be in front of the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market on U.S. 49 north in Orange Grove.
“I’m hoping it will be open before Thanksgiving, but we’re aiming to be open some time in November,” he said.
Sandefur has five other locations of the fast-casual restaurant chain, all in Baldwin County, Ala.: Two in Daphne and one each in Robertsdale, Foley and Gulf Shores.
“We looked at locations all throughout the Gulf Coast, from Baldwin County to Gulfport, and we found that spot at Orange Grove Road and 49,” he said. “We had been working hard on something or anything along that 49 corridor. It took about two years to make it happen.”
The interest came after seeing the heavy traffic on 49 in Orange Grove.
“While traveling to Venice (La.) for fishing trips, I would stop in Gulfport to eat,” he said. “I was always impressed with the area, the amount of people and the available dining options. It was obvious the locals supported high quality restaurants and it was too populated an area to not have a Zaxby’s! After talking with my wife, Leslie, and my partner, David Marks, we felt like the time was right and it would be a great fit for Gulfport.”
Marks has worked with Sandefur for about 10 years, and the two will be co-owners of the Gulfport Zaxby’s, with Marks managing operations.
“We’ll be hiring around 50 people, and all of them local,” he said.
This Zaxby’s will have a farmhouse design, which Sandefur said is “the first farmhouse style west of Pensacola, and it’s the first one with a super fancy farmhouse look.”
Interest in Zaxby’s came while Sandefur, who moved to Daphne in 2004, was in Atlanta working in another industry.
“I lived in Atlanta and ate there at least three days a week,” he said. “I was in another business and I didn’t enjoy it. I thought about it every day as I drove to Zaxby’s.”
He pondered other franchise opportunities but decided, “If I like it, other people would.”
This will be the second Zaxby’s to open on U.S. 49 in Gulfport. The first, which is now closed, was south of I-10 in front of the Wal-Mart Supercenter.
In advance of the new store’s construction, a Facebook page specific to the Gulfport Zaxby’s was created. Interest slowly grew, but it boomed when its neighbor gave it some love.
“Wal-Mart posted a photo and said Zaxby’s will be our neighbor. An unbelievable amount of people responded to that. They said things like, ‘So glad you’re coming back.’ We hadn’t had that kind of extreme reaction at the other stores,” he said.
It could be that Coastians missed their chicken fingers, which Sandefur calls “our bread and butter.” The restaurant also has added boneless wings to its menu, keeping company with the chain’s popular chicken wings that are available in 10 flavors, he said.
“We also do a lot of salads,” he said. “We have things you can’t find anywhere else.”
The salads — or Zalads, in Zaxby’s speak — include Cobb, Caesar and Blue. The spin is that the meat can be prepared several different ways. The Blue, for example, can feature blackened chicken along with mixed greens, red cabbage, carrots, Roma tomatoes, blue cheese crumbles, fried onions, Texas toast and Mediterranean dressing; chopped Buffalo Chicken Fingerz and blue cheese dressing or eschew the meat altogether and take the vegetarian route.
“I’m terrible,” Sandefur said. “I like the Kickin’ Chicken Sandwich Meal.”
This “so messy, but so good” sandwich pairs Chicken Fingerz, ranch sauce and Tongue Torch hot sauce on Texas toast.
“Lately, though, I’ve been eating a lot more of the salads, especially the Blue Blackened,” he said.