Drop the burger, grab the chopsticks

Students and families on spring break crowd around Panda Express at Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood on March 30. (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

By Sarah Yee and Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

Tangy Orange Chicken, steaming Beijing Beef, Kung Pao shrimp, topped off with a crisp, warm, savory chicken egg roll — and it may be coming to your neighborhood.

Panda Express, a company still privately owned by two first generation Chinese Americans, hopes to expand its presence in Washington state, a place well known for its large Asian population and Chinese food scene.

History

Andrew Cherng, who was born in Jiangsu, China, opened Panda Inn in Pasadena, in 1973 with his father, master chef Ming-Tsai Cherng. The restaurant was one of the first to introduce Mandarin and Szechuan cuisine to Southern California. Panda Inn was a success.

In 1983, Panda Express was created in response to an opportunity to service mall goers in Glendale. Panda Express quickly became a fan favorite and its expansion continued to include freestanding locations, drive-thrus and special events venues such as sports stadiums, airports, and universities. As the organization grew, Andrew’s wife, Peggy Cherng, who earned a doctorate in computer science, gave up her career designing high-tech systems for a defense contractor to help her husband full time. She took over as president in 1997 and was chief executive officer (CEO) from 1998 to 2004. The couple also enjoys spending time on Panda Express’ philanthropic arm, Panda Cares. Its purpose is to bring hope to children in need by directly serving the health and education needs of underserved children.

From left to right: Panda Bear, Maggie Yee-Choi, and Angel Yee at Panda Cares event (Photo by Sarah Yee/NWAW)

Panda Express was a pioneer in the quick-service food court restaurant concept. Over the years, the Cherng’s Panda Restaurant Group, Inc. expanded the company and by 2007, it opened its 1,000th location. It also achieved $1 billion in revenue for the first time in company history — beating every other Chinese fast food chain in the country.

Even with the immense success the Panda Restaurant Group has achieved, Andrew Cherng still serves as chairman and co-chief executive officer.

“Andrew and Peggy are very active in  all parts of the organization,” said Mavis Chan, Panda Restaurant Group Area Coach of Operation Manager of the Seattle area.

The Cherngs also takes an interest in the well-being of all employees. “Andrew and Peggy are dedicated to making sure that all associates are living inspired lives … which include continuous learning, developing others, and living healthy lives,” said Chan.

Business model

Panda Express is known for its humanistic approach in the fast casual food industry.

With nearly 1,300 stores, Panda Express pays its restaurant employees more per hour than nearby fast casual restaurants. It also offers subsidized health care coverage to eligible employees and pays 80 percent of employee health insurance premiums.

“We want to inspire others to better their lives,” said Chan. “Part of this is providing good benefits, which in the end, brings good financial result, which will bring back better benefits for our people, too. It’s a whole cycle. When we put focus on our people, they put better focus on our guests, which brings out benefits for all sides.”

Panda Express strives to stay a family business. It is privately owned and doesn’t franchise locations.

The local scene

Currently, there are 45 Panda Express locations in Washington state, though the company wants to expand to 100. Cities scouted for expansion include Seattle, Tri Cities, Bellevue, Issaquah, Yakima, Walla Walla, and Spokane.

And who’s at the helm of this operation?

Much of Panda’s talent is diverse. The Panda Restaurant Group likes to promote people from within, so those who start off working in the restaurants can eventually achieve success in a managerial spot with hard work.

It is common for associates to be with Panda for more than 15 years. Many started out at Panda Inn as waiters, moved on to manage Panda Express, and are now vice presidents.

Running a restaurant, though rewarding, involves a lot of hard work. “I like the continuous learning and growing within the company,” said Chan, speaking on why the commitment is worth it to her. “The more I do, the more I learn, the more I better myself and my associates. That’s the energy I value about the company. We’re constantly changing and growing.”

Community involvement also motivates team members.

Panda gives back

This year, Panda Express hopes to participate in the Bite of Seattle for the third year. It has been a sponsor for the Children’s Costume Parade during Lunar New Year in the International District and for the Dragon Boat Festival at Capitol Lake in Olympia.

“A dragon boat requires about 20 to 24 people to row. It takes a whole team to achieve the same goal together and cross the finish line, not a few people but the entire team. If the boat flips, everyone goes down together,” said Chan. “I see that this as a great opportunity in training my teammates what teamwork is about. In addition, it’s an outlet to reach out to the community and share the Chinese culture.”

Four years ago, the Panda Express team in the Seattle area started sharing Lunar New Year traditions at local elementary schools through the Panda Express Learn with Me program.

“We share stories with kids. Kids are fun. They have the gift of imagination. They are filled with hope and are excited to learn,” said Maggie Yee-Choi, a manager at a Panda Express restaurant.
During a visit to Tukwila Elementary School, the Panda Express crew enjoyed a video together about Lunar New Year history and traditions. They played a trivia game with the students to stir up the atmosphere.

“We gave laisee (red envelops) with gold chocolate coins to the kids who could answer our questions,” said Yee-Choi. “Younger kids, such as second-graders, tend to be shy. Fourth- and fifth-graders were more active. More of them showed enthusiasm and threw their hands up in the air for the prize.”

Every year, Panda Express is also active with Panda Cares, which started in 1999.

“It promotes our company’s value in the spirit of giving,” said Helga Tjam, a Panda Express Area Coach Operation Manager of the Seattle area. “We want to give back to the community, as well as bring hope to children.”

Other than Tukwila Elementary School, Panda Cares also helps Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the Special Olympics Washington, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, United Way of King County, Mariner High School, Spruce Elementary, and Cedar Valley Elementary, among others.

Chan says that getting involved with Panda Cares is very easy. “Non-profit organizations are encouraged to submit an application to Panda Cares by visiting a local store or by completing it on www.pandacares.org.” ♦

Sarah Yee and Stacy Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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