Panda Restaurant Group Inc. on Wednesday pulled the wraps off the first of two new prototypes the company is testing for standalone units.
The 2,000-square-foot Bright and Fresh prototype opened in Balch Springs, Texas, a Dallas suburb, offering new architecture, décor and signage from previous units. A second test design, called Blocks of Flavor, will open later this fall in Memphis, Tenn., offering 2,400 square feet and 55 seats, a few more than the Balch Springs’ seating of 40 to 45.
“This concept is more contemporary, simple and fresh,” said Tabassum Zalotrawala, vice president of architecture, engineering, facilities and strategic sourcing, at the opening of the Bright and Fresh unit. “It has more glass and metal on the exterior than the Blocks version.”
Panda Express debuts new prototype 
Other changes at the store, the 150th in the Dallas market for Panda Express, include new trade dress. “We’re testing some new signage to diminish the word ‘Express’ and give more power to the word ‘Panda,’” Zalotrawala added. “And there’s a much more close-up shot of the bear.”
The new store design also includes several environmental initiatives, Zalotrawala explained. “On the inside, we went with different styles of seating and lighting, which is all LED [light-emitting diode] and much more energy friendly,” she said. And most of the dinnerware and packaging is compostable. “That’s going to be a huge thing for Panda,” Zalotrawala said. “I believe there are varying shades of green, and Panda has taken a stand to do the right thing.”
The cafeteria-style order line at the newly opened prototype features new overhead digital menu boards. The unit also boasts a new playlist of music, which tends toward Asian contemporary, and new uniforms for the staff members.
Panda Express has tested communal tables in a few stores, but has taken it full-bore in the Balch Springs prototype, Zalotrawala said. “We see people coming in as large parties and it works better,” she said. “Also, when you have free Wi-Fi, it gives you more flexibility.” Panda Express has free Wi-Fi in select locations, noted Zalotrawala.
The biggest differences between the two new prototypes, she added, is that the Texas versions goes for the “less is more” decor with few photos on the wall and more textures in walls and tabletops. The Memphis prototype is modern but it is “warmer,” with different windows, Zalotrawala said.
“The Bright and Fresh concept is an exciting step for Panda Express as we further expansion throughout the country,” said David Landsberg, chief financial officer for Panda Restaurant Group, in a statement. Panda Express founders Andrew and Peggy Cherng also attended Wednesday’s grand opening.
Founded in 1973, privately held Panda Restaurant Group is based in Rosemead, Calif. and has nearly 1,500 restaurants in 42 states, Puerto Rico and Mexico.