The Panda Restaurant Group is a true family business, run by husband-and-wife team Peggy Cherng, co-chair and co-CEO, and Andrew Cherng, who holds the same titles.
At the outset, Andrew Cherng and his father opened the full-service restaurant Panda Inn more than four decades ago. In 1983, he and Peggy Cherng went on to open the first limited-service Panda Express, headquartered in Rosemead, Calif., a chain that now has close to 1,700 units across the U.S. and $2.2 billion in domestic systemwide sales, according to NRN’s Top 100 data.
Peggy Cherng came to the restaurant world from the engineering and technology industries where she worked in software development for companies like McDonnell Douglas and Comtal-3M. As a result, she played a leading role in building Panda Express’ systems and infrastructure.
She also is the founder of Panda Cares, a company-wide initiative that helps employees give back to their own communities in various ways.
Here, an excerpt from a conversation between Golden Chain Award winner Peggy Cherng and 2012 Golden Chain honoree Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc.
Cheryl Bachelder: You moved from engineering to the restaurant industry and I’m curious how you see technology rapidly advancing our industry with mobile payments, mobile ordering. How do you think about technology for Panda Express?
Peggy Cherng: Of the technology we’re using right now, the most important is people systems, which focus on recruiting, retention and rewarding our people. The second most important is the guest systems, which yield guest feedback regarding our service and a third-party evaluation of our food safety trainers. In the same database our operators are able to look into and dissect and build initiatives for improvement. The last one would be the financial system, which is actually providing the scorecard relating to daily sales, quarterly financial data analysis about the sales, point of sales, and how we are able to further enhance each line item.
But in a lot of ways, all those things are really about a scorecard system that we can benchmark internally, knowing where we are and where we should be, and then we can learn from the best in class to further improve ourselves.
Meet the other 2015 Golden Chain winners:
CB: One of the things I so admire about your company is that you exhibit a commitment to developing your leaders. What are the traits that you look for in a great restaurant leader?
PC: The first thing we look for in a restaurant leader is a hospitality mentality. Those people like to serve. So we look for people who have a mindset of serving others, and then we also look for somebody [who] really wants to learn. In this industry, a lot is in the technology arena, but [everything is] still evolving. So we need to really be able to learn how to evolve ourselves to improve our own mindsets and then continue to improve our system processes.
And also to never give up. In our industry, we encounter a spectrum of people, and sometimes we may give up too easily on ourselves or others. But I think that I’d like to work for somebody who never gives up on themselves, and [someone who] really wants to strive and learn, and be vulnerable. So it’s really, on the personal side, people who want to be the best they can be.
Evolution of consumers and employees
CB: I love that thought. I think those who are willing to be vulnerable and open will always be growing. As you look at the future of restaurants and where we’re going, what concerns you, and what are you excited about?
PC: What really concerns me is whether we truly understand what our guests want. The guest that we serve is also evolving. I think right now, we [need to] get into the category of people 15 to 25 [years old]. What concerns me is whether or not we have the necessary system processes to really understand who they are, what they like, and if we have a good response to really be able to [meet] their needs.
Particularly, I’m talking about freshness. Right now, the trend is freshness, organic, and no artificial hormone ingestion. So the concern is how to balance what they want with cost and quality.
At Panda, we also feel that everything is execution. We can have a specific training initiative, but if it does not show up at the restaurant location, nothing else actually matters. So the concern for me is how we’re able to inspire our associates in each restaurant to really live up to the initiatives we have. The initiatives we have are about food passion in that we passionately want to produce the best food for our people.
CB: You mentioned what’s different and changing in the customer. What do you think is different and changing in our employees?
PC: I think, in most employees that I’ve seen, they want to be respected regardless of which stage of life they are in and which education level they have. It’s about the feelings part. At the same time, push them, stress them, but also have a caring mentality and attitude for them. I think all associates that we have want to grow. And [we have to ask] ourselves: Do we have an environment that allows them to grow?
If every time you look at your résumé and look at the [last] 12 months, is your résumé improving, or is it still the same? If in every 12 months you can add some more things to your résumé, then you are actually expanding yourself.
CB: One of the ways that you have lived your values is through your Panda Cares initiative. Can you tell us about that?
PC: We have five values, and giving is one of those values. We feel that we need to give back to the community. When we open restaurants, we do community service. Our giving with the Panda Cares program allows our community to know that we are there for them.
We want to allow our children to believe they are the future leaders of America, to have pride, to have joy, and to be able to contribute.
Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc. and a 2012 Golden Chain honoree, interviewed Peggy Cherng for this report.