Panda Restaurant Group is applying the auto industry’s concept-car theory to innovate in the American-Chinese fast-casual landscape. In July, the company introduced the Innovation Kitchen store in Pasadena, California, to test new menu items that, given positive customer reception, may claim a spot on the mainstream Panda Express menu.
From front to back, the restaurant was designed to allow for experimentation in design, food, service, preparation, and equipment, says Dave Wallinga, Panda Restaurant Group’s vice president of guest marketing. “At the most basic level, the kitchen is a live testing ground,” he says. “We’ve brought together all the innovative ideas we’ve been playing with so we can better engage our guests and shape the future of Panda Express.”
The test-kitchen environment gives the brand guests’ permission to try something new, Wallinga adds. The menu features customizable salads, wraps, rice bowls, and chow mein alongside specialty dishes and a lineup of bubble teas, a staple Taiwanese drink.
The move positions Panda Express at the forefront of fast-casual Asian brands, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president for restaurant consultancy Technomic. “They own that space, but it is wide open,” he says. “Up-and-coming brands … are bringing flavor profiles that will change the American palate. We would expect brands like Panda to adjust so they don’t lose their competitive edge.”
Concentrating the company’s resources into a few locations makes it easier to manage, Wallinga says, and the Innovation Kitchen will stay few in numbers—units in Texas and Hawaii are in the works. The company’s intention is not to create and market a whole new concept, but rather to fuel innovation for the existing Panda brand with consumer input.
“Our priority here is creating the next level of experience, looking to how we serve the future needs of current as well as future customers,” Wallinga says. “It’s like a concept car. You’ll see elements on the road, but not necessarily what you saw at the show.”