Panda Express is planning to debut its new Panda Digital Kitchen concept in San Francisco on March 12, marking the chain’s first location that will focus solely on fulfilling online and app-based orders for delivery and takeout only.
The 210-square-foot space with no dine-in seating, which is part of a shared kitchen facility, is about one-fifth the size of a typical Panda Express kitchen, Evelyn Wah, executive director of brand innovation at Panda Express, told Nation’s Restaurant News.
The kitchen will feature some new, more efficient equipment, she said, but workers will still hand-cut vegetables and cook in small batches, as is the chain’s standard in all locations. The Panda Digital Kitchen will operate with two to three employees at a time, including an assistant manager and one or two kitchen workers preparing and cooking online orders.
Wah described the location as being centrally located near major freeways, with ample parking for delivery drivers and customer pickup. Drivers and pickup customers come in through the lobby of the building to collect their orders.
Last June, Panda Express, which is owned by Rosemead, Calif.-based Panda Restaurant Group, debuted a new, in-house delivery platform called Panda Delivers that allows customers to order delivery directly through the chain’s website or app. The chain continues to work with third-party firms for the actual delivery, however.
At the Panda Digital Kitchen location, customers will be able order through the company’s own digital channels or through third-party delivery platforms.
Delivery orders have more than tripled during the pandemic, and more than half of Panda Express’ digital orders are for delivery, Wah said. She noted that since the launch of Panda Delivers, the chain has completed more than 1.5 million delivery orders.
The chain’s volume of digital orders, both for delivery and pickup, has grown more than five times in less than a year, she said.
“We’re continuing to build out our digital capabilities to provide our guests with a seamless experience throughout their journey,” said Wah. “This includes elevating the design of our website and mobile apps, adding new ways for our guests to order Panda, as well as enhancing our store design to allow our guests to conveniently pickup their food.”
Panda is also developing new restaurant concepts, slated to launch later this year, that will feature what Wah described as new, innovative menu items that can be eaten on the go. She also said the Panda Digital Kitchen concept could expand to additional locations.
“We’re always looking for additional opportunities to grow and considering additional markets,” she said.
Wah said all of the chain’s dining rooms have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic.
“At Panda, there is a dedicated team working with our venue partners to determine the best guest experience while still ensuring the safety of our guests and associates,” she said. “Our dedicated COVID-19 task force has strategically mapped out a reopening approach for our restaurants using our established safety protocols.”
Panda Express, which has more than 2,200 U.S. locations, was recently ranked as the top restaurant chain in the country for following COVID safety protocols in a nation mystery shopper survey conducted by research firm Ipsos. The chain exceeded industry averages in several categories, including its use of signage to maintain social distancing and occupancy levels (for customers ordering takeout), the use of one-way entrances and exits, and the wearing of masks and gloves by employees.
“Every venue is unique and has a specific plan,” said Wah.