You might have been to Panda Express countless times, and sampled as many dishes on their menu as you could, but there are still facts about that food chain that you didn’t know about. Long before there was McDonald’s, Chinese restaurants have always littered the American landscape. Bringing in exotic flavors and secret recipes to the American dining room was a welcome addition to the melting pot that is the American cuisine. And of all the American Chinese restaurants, Panda Express stands out not just because of its long and successful history, or the fact that they have over 2000 locations in the US, Canada, and Europe, but also because of the wide variety of its dishes. Many of those dishes have proved to be quite popular among customers over the years. From Orange Chicken and Beijing Beef to the aptly named Firecracker Chicken Breast, and Kung Pao Chicken, this fast-casual restaurant chain always strives to add new and delicious items to its menu. Here are some of the things that would surprise you about the largest Asian restaurant chain in the country.
10. Family-Owned and Operated
The company behind Panda Express is called The Panda Restaurant Group. It was established by a couple, a real couple as in a husband and wife couple, and opened their first restaurant in 1983. To this day the company doesn’t allow any type of franchising or licensing. Every store in the chain is owned and run by the company itself. This is in contrast with popular fast food chains around the country where any store owner could buy the licensing and operate it under their brand. The only exception in the case of Panda Express is the stores on campuses. These are usually owned by the respective universities. But apart from that, the Cherng family have full control over every menu item, supplier, and salt shaker in the 2000+ restaurants around the world. What this means from a consumer’s perspective is the consistent quality of food and service in every branch. It doesn’t matter if you live in a big city or a small town tucked in the middle of nowhere, you’ll always get the same type of food and cordial service. I’m sure you must have noticed the difference in quality between a New York City fast food branch and its counterpart in Kiousville, Ohio. Panda Express guarantees the same top-notch food in its chains wherever you go.
9. The Owners Met at College
We mentioned that Panda Express is owned by a single family. But did you know that the couple first met and fell in love during their college years? Back in the seventies, Andrew was a young student studying Applied Mathematics at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas when he met Peggy who was studying Electrical Engineering at the same school. They both fell in love and in 1975, full 8 years before the first restaurant in the sprawling chain was opened, they both got married. One might be tempted to speculate that Panda Express is the product of that love. Over 40 years later their marriage is going strong just as their restaurant chain. But it wasn’t a stroke of luck that got them where they are now. Before Panda Express, Andrew had opened Panda Inn with his father. In the beginning, they were struggling with the lack of business. And it wasn’t until Peggy joined Andrew in the restaurant business in 1982 that things started to look up. The next year the couple established the Panda Express business and two years later the second restaurant was opened in 1985. It’s no wonder the family won’t allow outsiders into the business.
8. Orange Chicken is a Topseller
This signature dish was first served on a Panda Express table back in 1987. This recipe created by Chef Andy Kao in a Hawaii restaurant became an instant success. Kao strove for perfection using a balanced flavor that captured the spirit of the Hunan Province cuisine along with pieces of spicy crispy chicken that was all his own. But it’s the orange sauce that really sets this unique dish apart from other fried chicken recipes. Orange has a distinct flavor that makes it more suitable for dessert than main courses. But Kao used it to make a spicy and memorable chili sauce then glazed and caramelized the resulting thick sauce. The dish was a hit and it immediately spread to the rest of the locations. To this day Panda Express sends out a food truck serving orange chicken to tour the country and promote the chain. And just to show how successful that dish has become, the chain sells about 80 million orange chicken meals on average every year. Not only that, but the dish has become part of the mainstream fast food fare and you can find it served in school cafeterias and military messes all over the country. Not bad for a dish that was inspired by the sweet and sour traditional Chinese dishes.
7. Technology-Driven Chain
When you hear the words technology and fast food chain in the same sentence you can’t help but wonder what that means exactly. Is it the payment system that the cashiers use? Or is technology used to fry the chicken just right to ensure every piece reaches the customer as the original chef intended it? Well, it’s a bit of both. Technology is part of everyday life these days and it’s hard to imagine any business that would operate without the help of computers and software. Speaking of which, Panda Express was one of the early adopters of software in their operations and management of the big chain. We’re talking about the 1980s when they first started using computers in the restaurants. To put that into perspective, that was before Bill Gates had rolled out his ubiquitous Windows OS and long before there was something called Linux either. This embracing of technology was spearheaded by Peggy Cherng who had a strong background in computer science and realized early on the need for technology to boost their restaurant operations. This included streamlining the ordering at the stores, there was no internet then and ordering online wasn’t a thing yet. Software was also used to keep track of the hot-selling items and gathering data about the changing tastes of the customers all year round.
6. Continuous Innovation
Speaking of changing tastes, we all know what it feels like to go to a fast food chain to find the same menu on offer that was there a year or so ago. Nothing new has been added. No new dishes or different combos. That’s so boring, right? Panda Express was one of the first food chains to realize the importance of continuous innovation, not just in the menu design, but in the dishes themselves. And for that purpose, a certain location in Pasadena, California, is dedicated to just that: food innovation. Aptly named Panda’s Kitchen, the place is directly run by one of the Cherng family. Andrea, Andrew and Peggy’s daughter, is the Chief Marketing Officer of Panda Express and Panda’s Kitchen was her brainchild. It’s not a secret place though. It’s open to the public and anybody with a taste for adventure can go there and try new dishes in their experimental or ‘beta’ stage. The idea is to try everything there from new flavors to new designs and decor before it gets sent out to the rest of the restaurants in the country and the world. So the next time you find yourself in Pasadena, you can pop in Panda’s Kitchen and try some of their newest and most daring dishes. Not many of those dishes would make it into the mainstream Panda chain, so you’re guaranteed a unique experience after all.
5. Happy Work Environment
We’ve all heard about what working in a fast food joint is like. Long hours, harsh conditions, no promotions or chance to move up. But Panda Express feels like a corporation in Silicon Valley than a fast food chain. Workers are encouraged to get training and enlist in self-help seminars. The whole culture is geared toward creating a happy work environment where the employees feel enriched and have better opportunities to getting better within the job. As part of the job perks, workers get the chance to enlist in motivational and human potential workshops. Names such as Landmark Education, Life Academy, and Dale Carnegie are well known inside the chain’s headquarters. Yoga and meditation rooms are part of the recreational center in the main building. Zumba, self-defense training, and motivational speeches are regular occurrences there. But that’s not all. Andrew Cherng created a program for employees called The Panda Way that promotes a healthy lifestyle. It encourages them to exercise regularly, eat healthy food, and manage stress and anxiety in their daily lives. Such programs and care from the management is probably why the atmosphere within the offices seems less tense than it is in other companies. It’s all part of Andrew’s philosophy: a happy environment makes for happier and more productive workforce.
4. The Japanese Connection
We mentioned that Panda Express is one part of a bigger company in the same way Google is part of the parent company Alphabet. One of the Chinese fast food chain’s siblings is a Japanese fast food chain. Called Hibachi-San, the chain specializes in teppanyaki and sushi. The first restaurant was opened in 1992 in California. It was meant to ward off competition from Japanese fast food joints which were luring customers away from Panda Express. What’s ironic is that the strategy not only worked in keeping Panda Express customers from slipping away, Hibachi-San carved its niche in the market and created its own base of loyal customers. Within a few years, the second restaurant in the new franchise opened and that was followed by a third then a fourth. Today Hibachi-San operates in 28 locations across the United States. The Panda family is certainly growing. And remember Panda Inn? The first business that was struggling back in the 1980s? It too is prospering as well. Which goes to show that family business is still part and parcel of the economy and when done right, it can not only stand on its own feet but also compete with the big corporations that dominate the market.
3. The Food is Becoming Healthier
Fast food and health don’t mix, right? What with the fat, fried food, high-calorie count, saturated fat and all the other unhealthy ingredients which health experts warn us about. With that in mind, Panda Express decided to give its menu a facelift. The goal is to make the food served in the chain healthier. For that purpose, fresh ingredients are always used in the chain. Harmful compounds such as MSG have been banned within the restaurants as well as any foods used by the suppliers. Calorie count is also another big factor in the recent overhaul of the menu. Salads have a set limit of calories they are not to pass. The same goes for the rest of the items on the menu. Being health-conscious is a slow and steady process. No food chain, especially one as large as Panda Express, can change its menu overnight. This is why the strategy of encouraging patrons to choose healthier food works on many levels. One of those is the Panda Tea Bar. It offers clients a wide variety of healthy tea and fruit juices that have a positive effect on their metabolism and digestive systems.
2. Panda Express and Charity
We mentioned Bill Gates earlier. Not only is he one of the richest people on the planet, but his charity work is also outstanding. It’s people like Gates who try to give back to society and encourage others to follow suit that gives us faith in humanity. And Panda Express is no different. The company’s charity work has been growing over the years matching only its own business expansion. To date, Panda Express has donated millions of dollars to charity. This includes giving $37 million to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and $41 million to ‘The Leader In Me’ program. But charity work isn’t just about offering money to those who need it. There are other ways that every company can help too. Such as offering their products and services for free or at a discount to the institutions and NGOs that help the poor and those at a disadvantage. Panda Care is one such program that was set up by Panda Express. Every year it launches food donation programs, asks the employees to donate part of their paycheck to charity, and offer customers the opportunity to donate money to charitable causes. By setting this example and also encouraging its employees to take part in these programs, the company is showing us how a big corporation can find different ways to give back to society.
1. Panda Express Loves Hawaii
Hawaii has a sweet spot for Panda Express. Remember how the recipe for their most successful dish Orange Chicken was concocted in Hawaii? That’s not the only connection between the food chain and these beautiful islands. Hawaiians love Panda Express so much that one restaurant in Honolulu has become the most successful of the 2000+ locations worldwide. Don’t ask us why, but it seems that the lovely people of Hawaii enjoy their orange chicken and honey sesame chicken breast more than everybody else in the country. That specific restaurant which is located in a food court of all places brings in about $4 million in revenue every year. That is not to say that the other locations are not running well. On the contrary, they are doing quite well. Which is why the company keeps launching new locations regularly. From Guatemala to Mexico, Japan, and South Korea. The company’s international reach is growing. The latest location was in El Salvador in July 2018.