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Culver's, Panda Express, Slim Chickens move into Lakewood Ranch

The fast-casual menu grows in Lakewood Ranch with three new fast-food franchises now open.

Lisa Caufield and Rose Braonea serve customers at Panda Express.
Lisa Caufield and Rose Braonea serve customers at Panda Express.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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Dining options continue to expand in the Lakewood Ranch area, but perhaps in an unexpected direction.

Once a desert in terms of fast-food options, chains have found the upscale community to their liking.

Sapphire Point’s Jimmy Rhode, who owns the newly opened Culver’s at the corner of State Road 64 and Pope Road, said he doesn’t think the trend is simply about convenience.

“I don't think people necessarily want to just be in and out in a minute," Rhode said. "The people in Lakewood Ranch care about the service, and the hospitality, and the smile,” he said.

Other recent additions to the Lakewood Ranch-area fast-food market include Panda Express and Slim Chickens, which landed at the northwest corner of Lorraine Road and State Road 70.


Panda Express

Rose Braonea, who manages multiple Panda Express locations regionally and assists at the new location in Lakewood Ranch, said local interest in the restaurant, after its opening, exceeded what was anticipated.

“We were expecting to do well, but the response of the community was amazing,” she said. “I think it doubled from what we expected. We are really happy and proud to be here.”

Rose Braonea said the public's response to Panda Express' opening has more than doubled expectations.
Photo by Ian Swaby

The restaurant serves dishes such as orange chicken, teriyaki chicken, and broccoli beef and side options that include chow mein and rice.

Braonea said the decision to bring Panda Express to Lakewood Ranch was made because the company perceived a demand in the area. The closest Panda Express location previously was in Riverview, she said.

“We heard our guests say, I had to drive close to an hour to come here,” she said. “As a manager, we heard what our guests had to say, and we just brought those concerns to our supervisors.”

Braonea said it is the restaurant’s dedication to creating a welcoming atmosphere that continues to draw customers.

“We consider ourselves to be in the people business," she said. "We are glad to be here and provide new job opportunities to everyone. The relationship we create with our team is how we make the difference. That's why people drive an hour to support us.”

She said there has been an excellent response to job postings in the area, with many applicants coming from Sarasota and Bradenton.

Braonea said she began with the restaurant as a regular associate, eventually working her way up to a managerial position. “My supervisors trained and developed me all the way up,” she said. “We want to provide to our new members, that sense of belonging.”

If You Go: Panda Express. 14525 State Road 70, Lakewood Ranch. 941-867-6088.

Slim Chickens

Country Club’s Tommy El Mahdi, director of operations for Florida's Best Chicken, LLC., said after living in Lakewood Ranch, he saw the need for more high-quality fast-casual dining.

“Being here in the community for all of these years, we needed a place that serves hot food fresh, fast, and in a clean, friendly environment,” he said.

Slim Chickens is located at 14675 State Road 70, Lakewood Ranch.
Photo by Ian Swaby

El Mahdi said the motto of his company is "love the guests and help each other," and that the food and experience of the restaurant would demonstrate the principle.

The Arkansas-based fast-food restaurant specializes in fried chicken items which include sandwiches, wraps, and chicken and waffles. The chicken is marinated in buttermilk and individually hand-breaded. The restaurant is also distinguished by its jar desserts, layered treats which come in flavors including chocolate brownie.

Tampa’s David Kennedy, the restaurant manager, said Lakewood Ranch is often open to concepts not normally seen in Florida, such as a Skyline Chili nearby at 4112 Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, making Slim Chickens a good fit for the area

“Starting something new in this area was exciting for me, and seeing it progress from start to finish is very exciting. It’s fun to introduce a new concept to a community, and it’s something I want to be a part of.”

Lakewood Ranch's Tommy El Mahdi is director of operations for Florida's Best Chicken, LLC.
Photo by Ian Swaby

He said the community has responded well to the restaurant.

He said while there are fried chicken concepts also found in East County, including Chick-fil-A and Zaxby’s, Slim Chickens differentiates its food offerings from those restaurants through items like the jar desserts.

He also said the atmosphere at Slim Chickens is part of its appeal.

“I think it’s a welcoming place,” he said. “It’s a welcoming business for the community.”

He said people are coming from as far as Brandon to work at the store.

“We think it’s a pretty cool place to work,” El Mahdi said.

If You Go: Slim Chickens.14675 State Road 70, Lakewood Ranch. 941-541-7546.


Rhode said he first suggested opening a Culver’s in Florida before his family ever set foot in Lakewood Ranch.

It happened in 2015 at his family’s former home of Wisconsin, as a snowstorm was raging outside. Rhode turned to his wife, Karisa Rhode, and suggested the idea. The family, including 10-year-old Britta and 2-year-old Ellerie Rhode, moved to Greenbrook five months later and now live in Sapphire Point in Lakewood Ranch.

Culver's is now open at 13020 State Road 64, Lakewood Ranch.
Photo by Ian Swaby

When Rhode arrived in 2015, he opened a Culver’s franchise on Cortez Road, which paved the way for his next Culver's on S.R. 70 in East County.

Rhode purchased the S.R. 70 location from Steve and Dori Sherman. With that sale came the rights to the new location at Pope Road and S.R. 64.

“We knew it was going to be a great spot (Pope Road and S.R. 64) right out of the gate, and it really has been,” he said.

Jimmy Rhode owns numerous Culver's restaurants, including the location at 13020 S.R. 64, Lakewood Ranch.
Photo by Ian Swaby

He said he isn't surprised Lakewood Ranch has embraced the fast-food restaurants.

“I think more convenient options of quality is what is important,” he said. “You can't keep growing at the rate that [Culver’s is] without a solid foundation, without a local owner-operator who lives in the community and who goes into his restaurant every single day.”

Rhode’s restaurants have been active in causes that include local sports organizations, schools, charities, and churches. 

If You Go: Culver’s. 13020 State Road 64, Lakewood Ranch. 941-896-7205.



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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