This month, Panda Express turned 40 years old, a milestone further demonstrating its dominance in the Asian food and beverage segment.
The company is the 14th-biggest quick-service chain in America in terms of U.S. sales, according to the QSR 50. The fast casual earned over $5 billion last year and had an AUV of $2.385, which also ranks in the top 15. Panda ended 2022 with 2,393 total domestic restaurants, and roughly 93 percent of them were company-owned.
Over four decades, the brand has distributed more than 510 million fortune cookies each year and become the largest foodservice buyer of broccoli in the U.S. Last year, the chain sold over 125 million pounds of The Original Orange Chicken, it’s best-selling entrée that accounts for almost a third of company’s sales.
The company is well-established, but has found room to continually innovate. This year alone, Panda released a new prototype, launched an upgraded loyalty program, and released its first dessert item, an Apple Pie Roll.
QSR recently sat down with Evelyn Wah, vice president of brand innovation and menu strategy, to learn more about what it really takes to become the U.S.’s largest Asian dining concept and maintain that market share.
Can you share insights into the expansion strategy that helped Panda Express establish a nationwide presence?
Our success starts with our mission—which is to deliver exceptional Asian dining experiences by building an organization where people are inspired to better their lives. Our co-founders and co-CEOs Andrew and Peggy Cherng have always believed that when an organization takes care of its own people, those associates will take good care of its guests. That people-first mindset combined with Panda’s unique position as a trailblazer in American Chinese cuisine has been key to our success today. Since our humble beginnings 40 years ago, Panda Express has grown to nearly 2,500 locations worldwide and over 50,000 associates.
Giving is one of our most important core values. As we expanded Panda Express, we appreciate the support and excitement from the communities we are in. In return, we show our love by supporting the local communities we’re in. One way is through the Panda Cares Foundation. Our associates ring the bell every day in our stores to help fundraise for local organizations, such as Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Boys & Girls Clubs. To date, we’ve raised more than $329 million to support the health and education of underserved youth.
What do you see as the future of Panda Express? Are there any exciting plans or developments in the pipeline?
Over the last 40 years, Panda Express has introduced our guests to new and original American Chinese flavors.
As we look toward the future, we’re looking to add a variety of innovative flavors and elevating classic comfort foods to our menu. Our most recent launch, Apple Pie Roll, is our first American Chinese dessert. It is a sweet and fun American Chinese creation you can only find at Panda Express and features a combination of juicy apples, fall spices, like a classic American apple pie and wrapped in a crispy and flaky wonton wrapper, like a quintessential Chinese egg roll. It’s then hand-tossed in-store in delicious cinnamon sugar for additional flavor.
What’s also exciting is that we launched Panda Rewards this year, which means more exciting ways to celebrate good fortune and good food with our guests.
What does the rollout of the new prototype look like? Any other new store designs the brand is working on?
It’s been amazing to see the positive response from the community at our first “Panda Home” store in Dripping Springs, Texas, and we are excited to open more throughout the country this year. We call it the “Panda Home” because we want it to be an inviting and welcoming place for our guests, where they can meet our Panda family of associates and experience our culture. It features a unique mashup of traditional and modern design elements inspired by Chinese architecture and motifs like the moon gate-inspired entrance, vibrant neon signs with the interior telling a story of celebration.
Most importantly, the new design will create efficiencies for operators and our guests to accommodate the increased demand for online ordering and drive-thru channels.
How has Panda Express evolved its menu over the years to cater to changing consumer preferences and trends in Asian cuisine?
We are always looking for innovative ways to create flavorful dishes that appeal to guests. We work closely with our Culinary Innovation Team to explore classic authentic flavors, stay ahead of global flavor trends, and listen to our guest feedback to continually elevate Panda Express favorites and as a source of insight for new menu ideas.
For us, innovation isn’t just about creating new dishes but also includes new ways to enjoy Panda. Later this year, we will be launching Panda Meal Bundles in our digital channel to offer a more complete experience and convenience for our guests.
We’ve also ventured into different occasions for Panda, such as beverages, snacks, and appetizers. Earlier this year, we introduced our Panda Crafted Beverages, offering guests a refreshing drink made with American Chinese-inspired bold fruit flavor. At the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, California, we’re currently testing Dim Sum Bites and have other exciting, innovative market tests in the pipeline for this year.
What marketing and branding strategies played a significant role in Panda Express’s success and growth?
Panda Express has been a trailblazer in American Chinese cuisine for the past 40 years and we’ve been unapologetically American Chinese and inviting everyone to the table.
We celebrate classic Chinese flavors but with an original American perspective that is only available at Panda Express. We stay true to our brand origins and build on these beloved flavors and dishes as we drive toward future growth.
We’re all about putting our guests first in terms of the food we serve, our overall guest experience and listening to their evolving needs and wants.
To deliver a menu and experience that our guests consistently crave, we stay close to each guest experience to understand their preferences and needs. Our team spends considerable time in store to engage and learn from guests and our operations associates, so we can offer the best dining solutions for our guests.
More than any single marketing strategy, I think our people-first mission has been key to our success. We have built an amazing team of operation associates that are passionate about our food, guests, and the communities we serve.
How does Panda Express ensure the quality and authenticity of its food across its vast network of locations?
We’ve always emphasized quality ingredients and quality preparation like wok-cooking in small batches. Wok-cooking from scratch is what makes Panda special and different from other fast casual brands.
Panda Express is often the first taste of Chinese culture and food for many people across the country and we take pride on delivering American Chinese cuisine innovation and ability to create authentic, yet approachable Chinese-inspired dishes to our guests. There is a sense of responsibility and an amazing opportunity to introduce culture and our origins in an original way with food.
Over the past five years, we’ve been focused on elevating the quality of our menu. For example, we added premium vegetables to the mix like kale and baby broccoli. We’re also the only brand in our category to serve premium shrimp all year round.
As part of this effort, we’ve been focusing on cleaning up our menu and taking a nutrition forward approach. We’ve removed high fructose corn syrup and reduced sugar and sodium across the menu. We’ve also relaunched our Panda Cub Meals to achieve National Restaurant Association Kids LiveWell with water and apple crisps.
How has the restaurant chain adapted to the challenges and opportunities brought about by advancements in technology and digital ordering?
The trends of convenience and comfort food were emphasized during the pandemic and are here to stay. What’re more, guests’ expectations of the restaurant experience from start to finish have broadened—they are placing more orders online, as well as taking food to-go, so we’ve revamped our digital ordering capabilities and focused on the take home experience.
We’ve added Panda Automated Woks (PAWs) to the back-of-house area to support the heavy work of our back-of-house associates while maintaining the quality, wok-tossed menu items that our fans have come to know and love. Automated woks reduce the physically demanding component of wok-cooking techniques for store associates and elevates operational efficiencies.
We are also planning to replace traditional flat top grills with faster clamshell grills in the future.