The newest piece in a $10 million project to improve The Village at Medford Center is Southern Oregon’s first Baja Fresh.

The official grand opening takes place at 10 a.m. Thursday, but a soft and not especially quiet opening occurred last week.

Owners Heather and Russ Koehler, both Medford natives, said they decided to open the restaurant out of a genuine love of what they describe as fresh, healthful food.

“Every time we would drive north or south, we would plan our trips to make sure we stopped at a Baja Fresh. We finally called to ask, ‘Why don’t we have one in Medford?’ And their answer was that they needed someone to operate a store here. So we said, ‘We’ll do it!’ ” said Heather Koehler.

Baja Fresh originated in California in summer 1990 and has grown to more than 160 stores, including some international locations.

“Lots of people have moved from Southern California and from the Portland area. There are really only a handful of people who have come in so far and told us they’d never been to a Baja Fresh before. Most people know what it is,” she said.

Koehler said Baja Fresh isn’t a fast-food restaurant. It offers a casual feel, fresh ingredients and free chips and salsa to munch on while menu items are made to order.

S&B James construction President Allen Purdy, whose company is the general contractor for the renovations at Medford Center, said the opening of Baja Fresh coincides with completion of phase one at the shopping complex.

Purdy said the 50-year-old center, acquired in 2014 by LBG Real Estate Companies LLC, is undergoing a transformation into a regional entertainment hub.

Exterior improvements so far have included outdoor seating, a plaza, redesign of the southerly entrance, pavers, landscaping and a sign tower. Last fall, a new theater space opened that is home to the nonprofit Collaborative Theatre Project.

“The LBG group that bought it has high expectations, and they’re dumping a lot of money into it to make it a desirable development. ... With Baja Fresh coming along, it’s going to be a really sweet marriage,” Purdy said.

Purdy said upgrades to the commercial development were “a long, long time coming.”

“They’re anticipating two or three restaurants ... along with a lot of additional exterior renovations. We’ve been focused on getting phase one done and getting Baja Fresh open,” said Purdy, noting that work is underway for a Firehouse Subs opposite Baja Fresh.

“Everything is really coming along. Baja Fresh is revealing the new look this area will take on,” Purdy said. "This new restaurant is really a great fit for The Village.”

— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.