If you mention a certain American restaurant chain that's named for China's signature animal to anyone who's more inclined to talk about chasing the best version of shengjian mantou than food court exploits, don't expect much in the way of conversation. Panda Express might be shorthand for mainstream-Americanized-Chinese-food-for-the-masses, and its signature orange chicken loved by many and mocked by a few, but the story of Andrew and Peggy Cherng's empire has distinctly Southern Californian roots. With 1,600-plus outlets in the U.S. and a few locations abroad, the Rosemead-based Panda Restaurant Group ranks among the country's most profitable fast casual restaurant corporations, and the Cherngs are comfortably ensconced on the Forbes 400 list.
After immigrating to the U.S. in 1966, founder Andrew Cherng, in partnership with his father, Master Chef Ming-Tsai Cherng, scraped together loans to open the first Panda Inn in a modest stand-alone building surrounded by ample parking lots on Foothill Avenue just east of Sierra Madre Villa. While the diverse Chinese population of Southern California was well established at that time, Panda Inn reached a different demographic near the foothills of the San Gabriels, and shifted mainstream perceptions of Chinese cuisine.
Panda Inn earned three stars from the Los Angeles Restaurant Writers Association in 1983, alongside some of the city's most vaunted food institutions, including Perino's, Scandia, The Windsor (now The Prince), L'Orangerie, Michael's, and Chianti. (Some of these were on the rise, while others had already seen their best days.) Los Angeles Times restaurant columnist Lois Dwan pointed to the Panda Pasadena as one of two "helpful exceptions" to what she perceived to be the general status quo: "The Chinese have been politely serving us chop suey for more than 100 years on the theory that we knew what we wanted, and they are not about to offer any incriminating advice at this point."
Before Panda Express took off, Cherng had gotten into other ventures, such as the upscale Plum Tree Inn restaurants, first in Chinatown and next in Santa Monica. In 1984, then-L.A. Times critic and celebrated food writer Colman Andrews called the Santa Monica Place location "the world's first yuppie Chinese restaurant." When dishes marked "spicy" on the menu failed to meet that description, however, Andrews was disappointed. "Even yuppies like a little pungency now and then," he griped. (Cherng is no longer affiliated with the still extant Chinatown Plum Tree Inn.)
Andrew Cherng operates the family-owned company in partnership with his wife, Peggy, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science and was formerly an engineer at McDonnell Douglas and Comtal/3M before becoming Panda Restaurant Group's Co-CEO. The original full-service sprawling dining room still stands today, albeit updated, along with Panda Inns at Universal City, Glendale, La Palma, Ontario, and San Diego's Horton Plaza. A 40th anniversary menu that culls from its broadly billed Mandarin and Szechwan flavors and cooking traditions is available through the end of the year. The mai tais at Panda Inn are generous and the food elegantly presented, with retro and contemporary flourishes (a dendrobium orchid garnish here, some microgreens there). In line with Panda Restaurant Group tradition, it's accessible food, not necessarily targeted to those who comb the San Gabriel Valley and online message boards (or The Nosh) in search of micro-regional styles or hyper-specific dishes.
As for the most recognizable and ubiquitous branch of the brand, Panda Express is also a distinctly local tale. Real estate developer Dan Donahue and his brother Terry, UCLA's longtime head football coach, approached Cherng in 1983 with the prospect of opening a quick-service restaurant in the Glendale Galleria. (That retail complex is currently undergoing a major facelift to compete with its formidable neighbor across the street.) Despite changes and the Panda Restaurant Group's continual retooling of their own products and concepts, rest assured, orange chicken isn't going anywhere. Here, the carefully spoken Andrew Cherng talks to KCET Food about the chain's origins and what's changed in the past 40 years.
How and why did you select the original Panda Inn location?
That was the location we could afford.
How big was it?
The original restaurant was about 3,500 square feet.
Was that a daunting amount of space?
No, it's not that big for a restaurant.
How was it different from other Chinese restaurants at the time?
Most restaurants at that time were serving maybe chop suey. There was no décor. This was a little bit more -- at least it had a dining element in it -- and different cuisine. It was a full-service restaurant, and we were trying to do a little bit better food, in my opinion.
Your father was the chef. Was it hard for him to source ingredients?
Not particularly. There were enough Chinese restaurants then already.
Was most of your original clientele familiar with Chinese food?
At that time? No, not very well.
Were there certain dishes people responded to?
Early on, the dishes we served were very popular were moo shu pork, and "three ingredient taste," which is chicken, beef and pork. That was very popular.
Did you adapt any dishes to American palate?
We tried to serve dishes that I thought were delicious. I don't know how to adapt to American taste. I wouldn't know how American tastes would be.
So you served the food your family loved.
Yeah, that we thought was good.
How have you noticed tastes evolving over the past 40 years since opening the first Panda Inn?
I think businesses are always evolving. So how specifically? People order more fish, more seafood. But people have choices.
How did Panda Express come about, and why do you think it resonated?
We did very well at Panda Inn. I got invited to open at the mall [Glendale Galleria]. What resonated was good food, prepared quickly and delivered in a format inexpensively, at very good value.
With so many Panda Express locations thriving, what motivates you to keep maintaining the few Panda Inn restaurants?
You don't forget your mother ship. That's where everything started. You don't forget about where you come from.
Is there something about being based in the Los Angeles area that you think has helped contribute to the success of the Panda brand?
I would say so. Very much so.
How has being an entrepreneur here impacted the business?
Being in California, it's not as entrenched as, say, the eastern United States. People move around, most of us are new to California. So they don't have a habit of this is their own restaurant that they go to. They try different things. That is very helpful to a new business.
What are your personal priorities vis-à-vis the business at this point in your career?
I always focus on growing our business not only for the quantity, but to do it very, very well. It's about relationships, about the details, about the execution.
Your father was a master chef. So do you and your wife cook much?
No. She dabbled at cooking at home once in a while, but we have many capable chefs.
What are some of your other favorite local restaurants?
Probably eat out much more at our places. We don't have a steady place that we visit. We eat around and look new concepts and different places. Our standing place would be Pasadena Panda Inn.
In nutshell, can you tell the story how orange chicken came about?
We are always experimenting with different dishes. Orange flavored chicken came about maybe by variation of originally with the bone-in chicken, and became without bones. But it's more of a process of at Panda we're always trying different products, different dishes, and this one is very well received, and will be for a long time.
What market would you really love to reach?
One day I would like to be in China. That would be a big deal.