Pita Wheel Opens its Doors in Downtown Gastonia — Here's What to Expect
The highly anticipated time has come: Downtown Gastonia’s Pita Wheel is open for business. Rolling up the garage doors to eager customers, the new location is situated at the corner of West Main Avenue and South York Street in the former historic Sinclair gas station. Meticulously renovated, with bits of nostalgia and pop-art throughout, Pita Wheel has expanded to a multi-faceted business, ready to join the ranks of Gastonia’s ever-growing Downtown district.
Chris Davis Knows Gaston County
Pita Wheel grew to local infamy thanks not only to an expansive menu of pitas, burgers and what their menu calls “Epic Phillys” (sic), but to owner Chris Davis’ insider knowledge of Gaston County. (The best seller is the Cheech & Chong, a Philly Cheesesteak with shaved sirloin, caramelized onions, smoked provolone, ranchero sauce, artisan chipotle, topped with North Carolina fried pickles.)
“I grew up here and never left,” Davis says. A native of the county, Davis attended North Gaston High School in Dallas (where, fun fact, he wrestled under coach Beau Norwood, owner and brewer at Ole Dallas Brewery). At the age of 15, Davis got his start in the restaurant business at Jackson’s Cafeteria. After high school, Davis says he “went to college to get out of the restaurant business.” Starting at Gaston College and ultimately ending with a business degree from Belmont Abbey College in 2012 Davis is, as he says, “hard core Gaston County.”
During college, Davis spent five years (three of which as manager) working under Serafimes “Sammy” Balatsias at Sammy’s Neighborhood Pub. Working with Balatsias, Davis says, is how he learned to run a business. Sammy’s opened originally as a deli in Charlotte’s Plaza Midwood neighborhood before selling the establishment to open up his different concept in Belmont (and will soon open a second location in downtown Dallas), a model Davis would ultimately emulate.
Getting the (Pita) Wheels Turning
Before opening Pita Wheel, Davis had been studying the market, thinking of the most viable options for a restaurant. Originally, he’d wanted to do burgers. But, as he says, “You can get a burger on every corner but you can’t get a pita.”
As a child, Davis and his father would frequent a now-closed pita stand in the North Carolina coastal town of Southport. These Fourth of July trips stuck with Davis and his fond childhood memories evolved into a business that would then evolve into a cult favorite. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Balatsias, Davis began his methodical plan to open his business.
“Starting with a truck was the way to go,” he says, and, hence the name, Pita Wheel. He upfitted his truck, “learned the trade”, and began as one of the original trucks to frequent the now-defunct Food Truck Fridays (FTF) in Charlotte’s Southend neighborhood. Outside of FTF, Davis frequented breweries, like one of his favorites, Charlotte’s Sugar Creek Brewing, until ultimately setting up shop in Gaston County because, he says, “no one was doing that here.”
So Davis returned to his stomping grounds and kept the truck going before the April 2014 opening of Pita Wheel’s flagship (and now closed) location on The Historic Square in Downtown Dallas. The original location had a new-wave diner vibe, with a juxtaposition of craft beer signage, eclectic decor, mix-matched seating and a wall of art — like the Lucille Ball and Cheech & Chong prints — that would inspire the Gastonia location’s decor.
Building on History
After six years in his leased Dallas restaurant, Davis was ready to purchase a space of his own. Tired of traveling to his favorite spots, like Asheville’s Wicked Weed Brewing (“and all of Asheville, really,” he says) and Charlotte’s Common Market (another Plaza Midwood mainstay), Davis set out to build something close to home.
The Sinclair gas station and service center sat vacant just on the edge of downtown in the years after its closing. Davis watched as Gastonia’s downtown began to come back to life as businesses like Webb’s Custom Kitchen, Barrister’s at the Esquire Hotel and Sleepy Poet Antique Mall began to breathe fresh life into the historic buildings in the York Chester district. The upcoming FUSE District promises more growth and traffic to the already-transforming downtown. The potential of the unoccupied building drew him in and he knew this was the one.
“This location stands out on the corner,” Davis says. “There is the opportunity for tons of foot and bike traffic as well as vehicle traffic because of the proximity to I-85, Highway 74 and Highway 321. I love this location.”
The love of the location took dedication; between EPA regulations (primarily in relation to a January 2019 gas tank removal) and construction, it took around sixteen months to come to life, much longer than Davis had anticipated. “This was an experience I’d never had,” Davis says. “I didn’t fully understand how construction and renovations work start to finish — now I get it.”
And it wasn’t just the physical location that did it for Davis.
Davis saw potential in and the importance of renovating this historical space and what that would offer his establishment and the integrity of downtown. With his love for historic spaces and old buildings, Davis notes “Charlotte doesn’t really have any left — but Gastonia does.” Davis was awarded a facade grant through Gastonia Economic Development Corporation (GEDC), who, according to their website is the "..the chief architect responsible for the National Historic District status being awarded and actively serves as promoter and contact for the revitalization of the downtown." The GEDC supported Davis through his process, creating a grass pad for dogs and planning for future bike racks.
Set on upfitting the space with an authentic Sinclair sign and after seeing a handful online, Davis contemplated driving as far as Texas to pick one up. After months of searching, he ran across one on Instagram in nearby Shelby, North Carolina, a town his bankers happened to be from. After their help and some digging around, they were able to locate and purchase the sign from Mike Spake, which now sits prominently in the corner of the expansive patio, a nod to the building’s origins. “I hardly heard a ‘no’ from [the Gastonia Economic Development Corporation], though I did have to prove this was a historic Sinclair station to have approval for the sign,” Davis says, in light of downtown’s National Historic District distinction.
Design Based on the Past Nods Toward the Future
Staying as close to the original Sinclair colors of white, red and green as he could, Davis had a jumping off point to begin a design project that would encompass the past, embrace his original Pita Wheel aesthetic and give space to expand to new design concepts.
Glass roll-up doors connect the outdoors to the bar and dining room, where a vibrant Lucille Ball mural by Charlotte’s Andy Rocco covers an entire wall, setting off the bright red leather stools surrounding the restaurant's centerpiece bar. A walkway from West Main Avenue guides guests between original German Beer Fest tables to the ramp that leads in the front door.
Retro-inspired metal gliders sit brightly painted around the exterior and under the awning that once housed gas pumps. The fence encompassing the patio is complete with an 8-inch metal plate for drinks and plates, creating a space Davis says is “perfect for people watching.”
The interior is filled with little gems that elevate the former location’s style and pay homage to the gas station past. Crafty Beer Guys created a tap line from an old Ford Bronco tailgate, above which is an old service station bell that chimes when the foot pad is pressed.
The poplar bar, with its raw edges, was made locally in Dallas, the cages suspending libations above the bar from a Gastonia custom fabricator. A handful of televisions can be found throughout, though Davis notes this is definitely "not a sports bar" and plans to show just a handful of regional sports leaving the emphasis on connection and conversation.
Antique car hoods are painted and hung throughout, like a 1957 F100 hood painted in Mooresville, North Carolina, and a 1934 Chevrolet with wood paneling, complete with a Cheech and Chong painting (also by Rocco), a reference to the best selling sandwich.
New Location, New Dreams
With the new location comes a new model. While the former location was counter service, the Gastonia location offers table service and the addition of a full cocktail program. Davis sees this as a “family restaurant for a younger generation,” but notes that anybody is welcome. The Lucy mural is meant to give that impression — “it doesn’t matter what generation you are, this is recognizable.”
Davis dreams of growing a community in this location, making it a neighborhood staple. Davis envisions kids, dogs, and people of all generations sharing space and enjoying Pita Wheel’s expertly crafted menu on their welcoming patio and in the unique dining room. The goal is to see the patrons become regulars in this inclusive space, with the staff being in the spotlight as the camaraderie grows, with Davis himself doing what he always does and slinking into the background as he watches his team shine.
The thread of community runs through the layout of the location. The beer garden tables closest to the restaurant are meant for table service, while the eight remaining opposite the walkway are intended as community tables, much like Davis’ revered Common Market. Folks choosing to sit in that area are welcome to grab a 6-pack or individual beers in the first-come-first-served tables and can order food from the bar, where patrons can also fill disposable growlers.
Though the roll-up doors are inviting, patrons are encouraged to stop by the host stand inside the glass door, where they will then be seated — a different approach than the diner set-up at the original location. Beers in the market section will be mostly local craft selections, with domestic staples like Budweiser. The cocktail program is a nod to Gaston County, with the Midtown Libation named for the Midtown Motor Lodge, as well as a nod to pop culture with Ron Bourbondy.
During the final days of construction, hopeful patrons stopped by hourly eager for a chance to enjoy the eclectic space and a well-renowned meal. “It happens all day,” says Alyssa Moss of Moss Videography, Pita Wheel’s social media marketer. And now, those hungry folks have their chance to partake in Gastonia’s proud addition to their walkable downtown and create a vibrant community based on food, beer and a welcoming space for all. Come for the food, stay for the people.
Photo Slideshow Courtesy of Alyssa Moss, Moss Videography