13 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Panda Express
Learn about the founders' sweet story, innovations at its live test kitchen, and more surprising facts from America's biggest Chinese food restaurant.
It has a sit-down predecessor
Before Panda Express, co-owner Andrew Cherng opened sit-down Chinese restaurant Panda Inn with his dad, Master Chef Ming-Tsai Cherng, in 1973. Panda Inn still has five locations in California.
It’s a family-owned chain
Panda Express has more than 2,000 locations worldwide, but it’s still owned and operated by husband and wife Andrew and Peggy Cherng, making it one of America’s largest family-owned restaurants. Find out what the first locations of famous fast food restaurants looked like.
Both Andrew and Peggy are immigrants
Sure, the Chinese food at Panda Express might be “Americanized,” but it has authentic roots: Andrew was born in Yangzhou, China, and lived in Taiwan and Japan as a child; Peggy was born in Burma and grew up in Hong Kong, according to Forbes.
The owners are college sweethearts
The Cherngs met at Baker University and both got postgraduate degrees at the University of Missouri. The college sweethearts got married in 1975—and 43 years later, they’re still together! Make sure you know the truth behind these 12 fast food “facts” that aren’t true.
A wildly successful food chain wasn’t their original dream
At the University of Missouri, Andrew earned his master’s in applied mathematics, while Peggy got a PhD in electrical engineering. Before joining Panda Express, she developed software for 3M and McDonnel Douglas aerospace manufacturing, plus did coding for the U.S. Navy.
Panda Express invented orange chicken
Chef Andy Kao is credited with inventing Panda Express’s signature dish in 1987, four years after the restaurant first opened. Now the sweet and tangy orange chicken is a staple in American Chinese food. “It was that cross-cultural path: Take that iconic American fried chicken, and combine it with a very authentic Chinese sauce,” says Jimmy Wang, director of culinary innovation for Panda Express. Don’t miss the stories behind famous fast food restaurants’ names.
Panda Express has a live test kitchen
At the Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, California, you can see Panda Express experiment with new technology, uniforms, music, beverages, and of course food. “We don’t believe that every time we create a dish it should go to the masses right away,” says Wang. “Sometimes it’s a hit; sometimes it’s a miss, but a live audience is the best way to get engagement and to learn.” A lot of seasonal offerings started in the Innovation Kitchen, which has also featured dishes ranging from Chinese-inspired Brussels sprouts and cauliflower to grilled steak.
Mall locations aren’t its main business
You might associate the chain with food courts, but most of its locations are in standalone spots—only 2 or 3 percent are in malls, according to Wang.
They sell more than 285,000 orders of orange chicken every day
Over the course of a year, that adds up to about 90 million pounds of orange chicken—enough for every person in America to eat four pieces. Panda Express doesn’t add MSG to its food, but learn about what MSG really is and whether it deserves its bad rap.
Its charity bell is symbolic
If you’ve ever donated money to Panda Cares (Panda Group’s charity for children’s hospitals, schools, and disaster relief) after ordering, you probably heard a bell go off near the register. That tone doesn’t just announce your good deed but also symbolizes the bell that young patients at Children’s Miracle Network hospitals get to ring when they get to go home, according to Wang. Since 1999, Panda Cares has raised more than $107 million.
You aren’t tied to one side
Can’t decide if you want to indulge in chow mein or keep it healthy with mixed vegetables? Just ask the employee to give you half of each for no extra cost, says Wang.
There are other menu “hacks” to try
While there’s no official “secret menu” at Panda Express, chef Wang says he’s seen customers get creative with their meals. Try mixing hot sauce in orange chicken for an extra kick, or pour chow mein in hot and sour soup for a DIY noodle bowl. Check out these other “secret menu” hacks to try at Chinese restaurants.