Like many of America’s biggest restaurant chains, Panda Express began with humble aspirations. Andrew Cherng and his father, Master Chef Ming-Tsai Cherng, opened Panda Inn 1973 in Pasadena, California. A decade later, Andrew was approached by the developer of the Glendale Galleria—a loyal customer of the restaurant—about starting a quick-service version of the restaurant. Andrew and his wife, Peggy, both Chinese immigrants, set out to expand the concept with the goal of offering an affordable and convenient experience that could scale across markets. In 1985, it went from five locations to nine in the span of a year—and the growth boom was on.

At the end of 2017, Panda Express had 2,011 total U.S. restaurants (1,898 company-run stores) and total systemwide sales (in millions) of $3,114.8 on average-unit volumes of $1.64 million. That represented an increase in unit count of 118 locations from the previous year, which placed Panda Express as the 23rd largest quick-service brand in the country, just behind Panera Bread (2,043).

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As much as Panda Express has changed in these past 35 years, so has the landscape of American Chinese food culture. There’s no denying Panda Express played a role in shaping and evolving the discussion, and will continue to do so as it expands further.

The Panda Express team took some time to chat with QSR about the brand’s 35th anniversary, what it means to get this far, and what’s left to come.

So much has changed in the past 35 years when it comes to American Chinese food culture. What role do you think Panda Express played in shaping this? And how humbling is it to think of that enormous impact?

Thirty-five years ago, Panda Express set out to create delicious, approachable dishes with quality ingredients that blend flavors from both the East and West. Our chefs have created many original dishes, like the iconic Orange Chicken, which have become a gateway to the world of American Chinese, even acting as the first Chinese food experience for many in the U.S. Now with more than 2,100 locations, Panda Express is the largest family-owned and operated Asian restaurant concept and has become synonymous with Chinese comfort food. As the brand’s classic tastes continue to evoke nostalgia for many, Panda Express’ Chinese origin pushes the definition of American Chinese cuisine as innovation remains a strong focus for the brand. It is humbling to know the influence our restaurants have had on Chinese food culture in America and to see just how many people adore Panda Express around the world. We’re truly grateful for our guests and associates for being part of our journey over the years.

—Chef Jimmy Wang, director of culinary innovation, Panda Restaurant Group

Where do you see this culture going next? How is Panda Express staying on the front foot of the conversation?

As our guests’ tastes and preferences evolve, our priority is to consistently deliver a variety of innovative American Chinese offerings that speak to each and every one of them. There is a more sophisticated understanding of Asian cuisines today than ever before and a deeper craving for authentic flavors in innovative dishes. We see a unique opportunity here at Panda Express to explore the complexities of regional cuisines in China and bring flavors such as real Sichuan spices to the forefront in our upcoming dishes. Our vision for American Chinese offers guests a transportive experience that cannot be found anywhere else. With that said, the underlying foundation of Panda Express’ culinary innovation continues to be on the emphasis of quality from kitchen to chopstick. A focus for us in the coming years will continue to be elevating our menu and ingredients as well as creating new health-forward, better-for-you dishes such as our recently introduced Super Greens.

—Chef Wang

How has the competitive landscape changed, and how has Panda Express stayed ahead? Lately there’s been a push from some competitors in particular. How is the brand innovating to keep satisfying new and loyal guests?

Panda Express was an entrepreneurial business that was founded on the desire to continuously evolve and change. To stay true to that sentiment today, we first and foremost focus on our guests’ needs to deliver what they are looking for. We have a practice of elevating our offerings and complementing our signature classics with more health-forward choices through our Wok Smart menu. For example, we recently launched the elevated new mixed veggies Super Greens, which is packed with nutrition-rich superfoods such as kale, broccoli, and cabbage sautéed in a savory garlic sauce.

At Panda Express, we make a promise to our guests that we will continue to deliver the signature dishes they crave, such as Orange Chicken and Honey Walnut Shrimp, at the highest quality. Guided by our own aspiration to introduce more flavors and types of Chinese cuisine to an American audience, we strive to stay on top of trends and craft new offerings, such as our Taiwanese-inspired Bubble Teas offered at our Tea Bars, that we test at our Innovation Kitchen and Panda + Tea locations. These locations were specifically created to serve as a living laboratory for exploring new menu items, allowing us to receive feedback in real time. This concept has proven to be a crucial asset for our team and our understanding of guest preferences.

—Chef Wang

What does growth look like for the brand? Even with 2,100-plus locations, is there plenty of whitespace to bring Panda Express to fresh markets, and to saturate current ones?

Growth for Panda Express is two-fold. First, we are a values-driven and people-first company with the mission of inspiring better live. Our associates’ growth is representative of our growth as a family-owned business. One of my favorite stories is how Panda Express has given many of our associates the necessary knowledge and means to help them reach their dream of being a homeowner. Second, Panda Express is continuously looking for new and existing markets where we can expand our footprint, including international expansion. We are currently in 13 countries, and most recently, we launched in Russia and announced our plans in the Philippines.

—Evelyn Wah, Executive Director of Brand Innovation, Panda Restaurant Group

What are some of the key operational improvements and changes taking place at Panda Express to support this growth?

Finding the right partners and associates is the main hurdle and biggest opportunity in terms of expansion. The key to delivering consistent, fresh, and delicious American Chinese food is all about finding passionate leaders who truly believe in our company values and prioritizes people development as well as quality in all aspects of our fast-paced restaurant business. To ensure great operations consistently, we often send our top operators from the U.S. to support new store openings internationally and staff training. As Panda Express expands internationally, we are fortunate to have the right people who are aligned with our mission to work through country-specific regulations and market challenges.


How does Panda Express approach off-premises, delivery, and technology?

Panda Express recognizes guests’ busy and on-the-go lifestyle and seeks to provide easy solutions for customers to have access to high quality food in a convenient manner. In an effort to become the go-to choice for Chinese takeout, we recently improved our mobile app and streamlined the ordering process, leading to a 4.4 star out of 5 rating on iOS. Scaling delivery will also continue to be a priority to address consumer demand. In 2019, more than 1,400 standalone stores, excluding food courts and airport locations, will offer delivery through services like UberEats and DoorDash.


What would you say is the single biggest challenge in today’s quick-service market and how is Panda Express meeting it head on?

At Panda Express, we strive to find and recruit the best talent to lead our restaurants and help grow our teams. We search for dedicated associates who are values-driven and team-oriented, as well as interested in growing, both personally and professionally. To meet this challenge, Panda Express offers internal programs such as one-on-one coaching, mentorship programs and leadership courses through the University of Panda to help our associates learn and grow. Panda Express has fostered many American Dream success stories, helping Associates grow from service team members to store managers. As a result of Panda Express’ internal programs and associate success, the company has been fortunate enough to be awarded with Best Places to Work achievements throughout the years. Our goal is to continue recruiting top talent, helping our associates thrive and continue growing our Panda family.


Fast Food, Web Exclusives, Panda Express