There’s a sentiment today that cleanliness is the new ambiance. You’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant not touting enhanced measures and COVID-19-inspired changes.

Much of the protocol has become pretty standard. Temperature checks. Face coverings. Plexiglass partitions. Socially distant lobbies and seating layouts.

But as always in this constantly evolving business, execution is the great separator. In a recent nationwide Ipsos study exploring the top-performing brands with COVID-19 safety, Panda Express came out ahead. The 2,100-unit chain outperformed peers on health and safety related signage, compliance with employees wearing protective gear, and enforcing distancing measures.

Ipsos’ list differed from others in that it extended beyond perception. After surveying 2,000 people to understand which health and safety attributes were most critical in the current climate, the company conducted mystery shops to measure compliance. A random sample of 75–125 locations per brand was audited.

For Panda Express, the results reflected investments outlined in a broad COVID-19 operating guide it’s continuously updated throughout the pandemic (which we’ll get to shortly).

Ipsos found 67 percent of Panda Express locations had signage reminding customers to stay 6 feet apart, and 63 percent featured signage regarding store occupancy at the exterior. This compared to industry averages of 42 and 17 percent, respectively.

Staff at 96 percent of Panda Express venues wore masks properly, compared to F&B marks of 89 percent. Staff at 82 percent of company stores wore gloves versus the industry’s average of 72 percent.

Additionally, 58 percent of the Panda Express units visited boasted dedicated one-way entrance/exits—well above the industry measure of 27 percent. Seventy-four percent had plexiglass at the service counter. The rest of the industry: 56 percent.

Panda Express’ COVID-19 Operations Guide is something designed for external sharing, too, as it launched as a free resource to aid other restaurants. It includes everything from detailed screening and quarantine processes (sent home if your temperature is 100.4 degrees or higher, a PandaAid hotline at 833.726.3292 if you’re sick), to an example of a daily health questionnaire, to how vendors should interact with employees if they show up. Panda Express created four signs for the front entrance, like a symptom list and face mask requirement illustration.


Employees are not handing payments or receipts to customers (instead they’re conducting transactions via the cash tray), and using a tissue to grab or swipe credit cards in the event they don’t have credit card readers.

An optional, socially distant trick it suggests is using zip ties to secure chair legs to the table to ensure guests do not rearrange furniture or combine seating into groups larger than six. Close the seating near the queue, or order line, and mark the tables/chairs on the inside to keep guest farther from walkways and other customers.

Like many restaurants, Panda Express dedicated a “hospitality and sanitation leader” for every shift to clean, sanitize, and disinfect high-touch point areas, and to provide assistance to guest questions, inquiries, and to manage dining-room traffic flow.

Some other notes:

Panda Express provided employees with de-escalation training, which coaches them and offers tips to better understand and address situations when guests elect to not wear a mask.

Tamper-evident stickers for takeout pails and bags to protect food

Nationwide contactless service for on-site, online and mobile order pick-ups and delivery.

Yet, unsurprisingly, this all just scratches the surface of how Panda Express tackled the now six-plus-month crisis.

Evelyn Wah, executive director of band innovation at Panda Restaurant Group, chatted with QSR about the chain’s efforts, how it’s earned high marks so far, and where the brand—and the industry—goes from here.

Restaurant Worker Makes Custard

Firstly, congrats on the ranking. Do you think it’s safe to say cleanliness is the new ambiance these days? Was that something Panda Express identified early on in the pandemic?

Our top priority has always been the health and well-being of our associates, our guests, and the greater community, and our COVID-19 Task Force and frontline teams have worked tirelessly on implementing and refining our health and safety protocols. This top ranking honor shows us that we’re doing the right thing, and we’ll continue to operate at this high standard.  

Panda’s COVID-19 Task Force was created in January, monitoring what was happening abroad, enforcing business travel restrictions and closing our dining rooms early before government mandates. From there, we quickly implemented social distancing and room capacity limits, enhanced hourly sanitizing and deep cleaning four times a day, proper handwashing every 15 minutes, as well as health assessments for all associates.

We have a division of our Task Force that is dedicated to mapping out the current and future restaurant experience in multiple phases. Based on our research and industry insights, we know that cleanliness and social distancing are and will continue to be the top consideration factors in consumers’ choice of dining, even in the post COVID-19 world.

Let’s go back to the beginning and the Operations Guide. What were those internal discussions like?

This pandemic is unprecedented, and all we could do was arm ourselves and our people with the facts and latest updates. We partnered with two doctors who specialize in infectious disease to consult on our health and safety protocols. To ensure that our associates nationwide have access to medical specialists and to the facts, we created a dedicated hotline for them to speak to crisis care nurses about COVID-19. From an operations perspective, we focused on testing and learning in the early days prior to rolling everything out nationwide, like various models of contactless service. With our learnings, daily monitoring and external consultation, we created the protocols you see in Panda’s COVID-19 Operating Guide.

We are sharing our operations playbook to help support other local retail business that may need guidance around training and best practices. Rebuilding our communities requires all of us in the industry to work together, sharing knowledge and resources to keep everyone safe.

Diving into some of the insights, when did the PPE for all associates program begin? How challenging was that from a sourcing standpoint?

Panda is the first national restaurant brand to provide face masks for all associates, starting in April. In the beginning of COVID-19, personal protection equipment was hard to find, but thanks to Andrew and Peggy’s relationships in Asia and Panda’s strong supply chain, we were able to source enough single-use masks and gloves for all associates and healthcare workers. Panda donated over 5 million pieces of respirator and surgical masks to local hospitals to-date.

Perhaps even more importantly, how do you make sure it’s enforced across the entire chain? You beat the industry average by a full 7 points, which is rather impressive.

The compliance and commitment to enforcing these health and safety protocols is a testament to our culture at Panda and our leaders in Operations at every store. We have a people-first mentality at Panda, and prioritizing the health of our associates and guests is deeply embedded in our culture. Our associates know they each play an important role in protecting one another and the community. It’s this “You’re part of the Panda Family. We have your back” mentality that keeps our people accountable.

We also emphasize the importance of information sharing, transparency and training on these health and safety protocols. Our teams at headquarters and in operations are constantly in conversation sharing best practices, case studies and learnings with one another to refine our protocols. Our store leaders prioritize educating and coaching their associates on not only what to do but WHY these action steps are important. We’ve also evolved our internal digital communications channel to ensure that these timely updates get to all of our associates at every level.

Elaborate on the de-escalation training. This has really been a hot-button topic of late with mask wearing and enforcement with customers.

The de-escalation training provides step-by-step actions and talking points for our associates when encountering guests who are not wearing a mask. It starts with listening and understanding the guest while helping them understand what and why the mask policy is in place.

Is this something employees have really embraced? Is it a constantly evolving topic?

Even before the pandemic, our associates and managers are trained on how to de-escalate different situations. Our associates have always found the actionable steps and talking points helpful, and it does require consistent reminders, training and awareness to implement the tips in high stress situations.

Panda Express also sailed industry averages when it came to signage reminding customers to stay 6 feet apart and store occupancy at the exterior. Is this one of those oft-looked details that makes a major difference? How did Panda Express manage to be ahead of the curve?

Since we started monitoring COVID-19 earlier than most, we were fast to act on best practices from Asia. Signage is so important, as they are the first experience point for our guests. With signs for social distancing, one-way foot traffic, mask policy and modified service, we are setting expectations and being completely transparent with our protocols. I believe this has helped with compliance from our guests and associates.

Same with plexiglass at the service counter. How quick did that roll out?

We started testing plexiglass barrier in early April and began rolling it out nationwide soon after, as part of our contactless service strategy. An additional protective measure we added in August is face shields.

What kind of technology has come into the picture during COVID, especially in terms of contactless service?

In our stores, we now offer EMV payments, removing another contact point. Knowing our guests are prioritizing convenience and value amidst the pandemic, we swiftly invested in our digital futureby rolling out an arsenal of initiatives several months ahead of schedule.

Below are some of the core digital initiatives we launched this year: 

Panda Delivers: Introduced in June 2020, we accelerated the launch of our own online delivery-as-a-service program on our mobile app and website. Our digital business grew fast at over 5x since Panda Delivers launched. It also keeps our guests on Panda-owned platforms, allowing us to have a direct relationship and communication channel with them. 

First Virtual Community Fundraiser Platform –Panda Express has become the first in the restaurant category to launch a purely digital fundraising program, where supporters can participate nationwide and not be beholden to a local store. In this time of separation, we wanted to give communities a way to come together, connect, and support one another. This digital tool was created to let organizations use the full power of our nationwide network of restaurants through online ordering for delivery or takeout. Currently, we have fundraising events booked from regional Boy Scouts troops, United Way chapters, American Cancer Society branches and other notable non-profit organizations, as well as a plethora of school, community, social, and health & wellness organizations. 

Digital Gifting Program: In partnership with Blackhawk’s CashStar Consumer technology, we rolled out a digital gifting solution which provides a seamless ecommerce experience for customers in digital channels across devices. Through this technology we were able to not only simplify the experience for our guests, but also triple our e-commerce gift card sales in the first two months on the platform. By leveraging Blackhawk’s digital platform, we can cater to today’s diverse, cross-channel shopping behaviors, and deliver a customized, engaging experience for our guests.

Beyond that with off premises, how has Panda Express ensured customers the food is safe and meets their pandemic needs?

As part of our health and safety protocols, all of our dishes are made in smaller batches to ensure quality and taste. Then, all orders are safely packed in-store and secured with tamper-evident stickers for takeout pails and bags to protect food in transit.

What’s the cleaning process itself look like inside the restaurant? Do you have dedicated employees to the task?

All stores go through enhanced cleaning and sanitizing procedures, and all associates follow regulatory requirements for frequent and proper handwashing. There are also dedicated associates who are Hospitality & Sanitation Leads, responsible for cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting all high touch point areas in the dining room, outdoor area, beverage station, and restrooms. The Hospitality & Sanitation Leads also assist with any guest questions and inquiries, while managing dining room traffic flow.

How has training changed amid COVID?

Since the impact of COVID-19, we’ve rolled out several new internal resources and training programs for our associates to help them learn about the new policies and procedures that have impacted our operations. We’ve created a dedicated information and training hub, making it easier for our associates to stay up-to-date with the latest information. This has made a world of difference in navigating through COVID-19 and arming our Operation leaders with the right information to make the best business decisions for their associates and stores.

Generally speaking, what are some changes you think will stick for the restaurant industry? How is Panda Express preparing?

Guests are carefully choosing where they eat based on safety and convenience, and we believe they will continue doing so. Many of our safety measures that are already in place, like EMV payments, hand sanitizers, masks and gloves, and social distancing markers in store will continue to be an important part of keeping our stores safe. Our COVID-19 learnings and protocols will be taken into account as we design new stores with drive-thru and remodel current stores. We will also continue building on our digital platforms to make it easier and more convenient for guests to enjoy a Panda meal.

This time has also impacted our product innovation pipeline where we are focusing on elevating the Panda off-premise dining experience with higher quality core offerings, premium limited time offers and new menu innovation to better meet increased expectations of our guests.   

Customer Experience, Fast Food, Restaurant Operations, Web Exclusives, Panda Express