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Panda Express: Test kitchen, mobile app among latest innovations

Panda Express: Test kitchen, mobile app among latest innovations

Push to remain relevant also includes online ordering, new branding campaign

Panda Restaurant Group Inc. is introducing a number of innovations this year, including a new test kitchen concept, a systemwide rollout of online ordering, a mobile app and a new branding campaign.

Dave Wallinga, Panda Restaurant Group’s vice president of guest marketing, said these initiatives are part of an overarching effort to remain relevant and maintain the brand’s leadership within the Asian limited-service category.

“It’s an exciting time for Panda in that we have an opportunity to start from a position of leadership in our category, and to move beyond that from a standpoint of innovation,” Wallinga said.

The parent to the Panda Express chain will open a new test kitchen concept in June, where the company will experiment with new menu ideas, new methods of preparation, service and design.

The new Panda Test Kitchen will be a freestanding restaurant in Pasadena, Calif., not far from the company’s Rosemead, Calif., headquarters, and near the original Panda Inn that gave the restaurant group its start three decades ago.

Among the first innovations to be tested will be an in-restaurant Tea Bar featuring hot and cold tea-based drinks that the company hopes will beef up the chain’s beverage offerings. The chain is also looking to test new menu items, such as bao sandwiches and grab-and-go options.

“Initially, we’ll be looking at the very core level, testing how we structure and organize our menu,” said Wallinga. “We will be trying different models for helping our guests decide what they want to eat.”

Panda Express may also tweak its service model, according to Wallinga, so the Panda Test Kitchen is being built with a modular format to test various options.

“It really is a living laboratory for us,” he said.

The move comes as Panda Restaurant Group also rolls out online ordering throughout the 1,598-unit Panda Express chain. Later this year, the chain will debut a mobile app that will allow guests to order and pay using their smartphones.

The company expects the systemwide rollout to be complete by the end of June.

The quick-service chain has redesigned its interiors.

“We’ve been quietly testing that since late last year,” said Wallinga.

The mobile app is expected to debut in the fourth quarter and will include a restaurant finder tool, a nutrition calculator and the ability to pay using a credit card. The app will also offer a group-ordering feature in which customers can invite a friend or friends, allow them to place their own orders, with one person picking up.

Guests who order online or with their smartphones will be able to go directly to the register for pickup and skip the lines, he said. About one-third of restaurants throughout the chain offer drive thru for even easier pick up.

Wallinga said the company is also training general managers to better manage throughput issues that will come up as restaurants receive an influx of orders digitally, along with guests standing in line.

“That’s a store issue,” he said. “We’ve been rolling it out market by market, and part of our training is coaching GMs on how to manage workflow and operations.”

Branding for success

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Panda Express has also launched a new branding campaign called “Panda Anda You,” which attempts to tell the Panda Express story as a family-owned business that cares for the communities in which it operates.

The new campaign first appeared with the rollout of two new menu items earlier this year: a new version of the popular Orange Chicken with added bacon; and a Shiitake Kale Chicken Breast as a limited-time offer.

Wallinga said the goal of the campaign is to better showcase the experience of dining at a Panda Express.

“We’ve been in California for 30 years, so people understand what it means to go to a Panda here, but in new markets, many people have never set foot in our restaurants,” he said. “So you have to tell the story about our quality ingredients, that it’s fun to eat at Panda. When you walk in, there’s a lot of energy.”

Panda Express's test kitchen model features a more modern look.

The campaign will also focus on the company as a family organization that has a long history of community involvement, he said, noting, “We are very active in communities, but that’s a story we don’t talk about very often.”

Meanwhile, sales at Panda Express have been strong, with single-digit increases in same-store sales, he said. About 100 new units are scheduled to open in 2014.

The company surpassed $2 billion in sales in March. At the end of 2013, systemwide sales of domestic locations totaled $1.99 billion, rising 11.8 percent from the prior year, according to data reported by the company for the annual Nation’s Restaurant News Top 200 census. The chain ended the fiscal year with 1,586 domestic locations, including 60 franchised stores, for an increase of close to 5 percent compared to fiscal 2012.

Estimated sales per unit rose nearly 6 percent in 2013, to $1.3 million.

The company is also building its international presence, with units open in Mexico and Canada. Later this year, the first Panda Express location is scheduled to open in Dubai.

“Knock on wood, we’re having a great year,” said Wallinga.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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