Not all that long ago, many Americans thought of Chinese food as fried rice, chow mein and orange chicken. And one reliable place to find it was at the mall, at places like Panda Express.
But food court mainstay Panda Express is now in the midst of a major transformation. That means moving from mall basements to stand-alone restaurants and keeping pace with an increasingly sophisticated American palate.
"It was my entryway into Chinese food," says Devin Niebrugge a bit wistfully. The 23-year-old California transplant is enjoying a late lunch at a Panda Express in Washington, D.C. "I feel like you start with Panda Express and when you start to like that, then you go to the more local Chinese restaurants and experiment a little more."
Panda Express is now one of the fastest-growing chains in the U.S. For the past 28 years, head chef Andy Kao has worked to stay ahead of food trends.
"Before, I just gave customers a big chunk of meat," Kao said at a suburban Los Angeles Panda that was turned into a temporary test kitchen last fall. "Now I need to make sure [the] nutrition's good."
One of Panda's challenges is countering the perception of Chinese food as oily and fried. Since 2007, Panda has publicly made a point of serving 20 different kinds of vegetables all chopped in-house every day.
Freshness is a strategy it shares with other "fast casual" restaurants such as Panera Bread and Chipotle. The niche thrived during the recession by highlighting quality ingredients in meals costing less than $10. To compete in a "Food Networked" world, Kao has had to somehow showcase Panda as generally appealing yet authentically ethnic.
One secret? That fiendishly tasty orange chicken. Panda Express product manager Patricia Lui says Panda sold over 60 million pounds of it last year. Every ounce seems calibrated to clobber your pleasure centers.
"Sweet and sharp and salty," she smiles. "You don't want any one flavor to stand out. You want it to be balanced."
To create another Panda platonic ideal, Lui and Kao are in the process of testing a brand new recipe for shrimp. Such premium products (along with Angus steak and portobello mushrooms) are part of Panda's plan to go more upscale. But the bottom line is steam table sustainability.
"So we'll taste it fresh and we'll taste it held," Lui explains. "And we'll see if the flavors and textures are holding up, and if not, we'll go back to do more development work."
Of the 150 recipes Kao dreams up every year for Panda Express, only one or two will make it to consumers, usually after years of trial and error. I watched Lui and product development coordinator Adrian Lok narrow down sauces.
"We had to put out 60, 70 sauces and taste each one," Lok says. The day I visited, they'd screened it down to six. Panda did not want me to reveal the flavors, but they would be familiar to anyone who enjoys a range of Asian cuisines. Smart, says food industry consultant Darren Tristano, who points to the success of Sriracha rooster sauce. He says Americans are craving a flavor profile Panda's well-positioned to provide.
"The spiciness, that teriyaki flavor," he enthuses. "Those different types of sour and tart and tangy. They're really starting to become more appealing. In fact, if you just look at the kids' aisle for candy [in the grocery store], that's most of the types of food we see. Very tart and sour flavors are what kids are looking for."
So are older kids, like the college students who routinely devour Korean food and seek out Korean-influenced frozen yogurt, like Pinkberry. It's reflective of a changing American palate. Tristano says there are about 40,000 Asian restaurants in the U.S. that represent about 13 percent of all full service sales.
"Compared to Italian at about 11 percent," he observes. "Now Italian used to be larger than Asia, but the two have flipped over the past two years."
Tristano admits that "Asian" seems like ridiculously broad category compared to Italian, but it's in Panda's interest to play up a pan-Asian approach; one stop for Chinese, Korean and Thai.
In fact, the final version of that test kitchen shrimp that landed on Panda's steam tables last week uses spicy Thai green peppercorns. Sales are up 5 percent since the launch of peppercorn shrimp. Customer Niebrugge says Panda can innovate all it wants. Nothing would persuade her to order anything but her beloved orange chicken.
"You know it's always the biggest tray on the little buffet line," she points out. "Everybody eats it."
A few new Panda Expresses open every month, most recently in Mexico City, joining about 1,500 Pandas so far. That's 30 percent more than 10 years ago. Over the long term, Panda plans to express itself to the tune of 10,000 restaurants all over the world.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to one familiar company that's re-inventing itself: Panda Express. You've probably seen it in food courts and airports. Fair or not, it represents what Chinese food has long meant to many Americans - gloppy orange chicken or bland chow mein.
Now, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Panda Express is evolving as it tries to keep up with an increasingly sophisticated American palate.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's crisp and cold outside on this bustling commercial strip in Washington, D.C. But inside Panda Express, it's warm and fragrant. The colors on the wall reflect the heat of the food - citrusy, toasty yellow.
Twenty-three-year-old Devin Niebrugge has been a Panda Express customer since high school.
DEVIN NIEBRUGGE: It was my entryway into Chinese food. I feel like you start with Panda Express and when you start to like that, you might start to go to the more local Chinese restaurants and experiment a little more. It's how I learned to eat with chopsticks, actually.
ULABY: Panda is getting more adventurous along with its customers. For the past 28 years, head chef Andy Kao has worked in the Panda Express test kitchens to stay ahead of food trends.
ANDY KAO: Before, I just give customer a big chunk of meat. But now, I need to make sure nutrition is good.
ULABY: As it rapidly expands, one of Panda's challenges is countering the perception of Chinese food as oily and fried. For the past two years, Panda has made a big point of serving 20 different kinds of vegetables, chopped in-house every day, including broccoli, cabbage, string beans and mushrooms.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)
ULABY: Panda Express has emerged from the food court basement into the fastest growing segment of the restaurant business, called fast casual. Places like Panera Bread and Chipotle have done extremely well during the recession, using fresh ingredients in meals costing less than $10. And to compete in a Food Networked world, chef Andy Kao has had to somehow showcase Panda as being generally appealing yet authentically ethnic.
KAO: Yeah, I take responsibility for all the dishes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PATRICIA LUI: Including the orange chicken.
ULABY: That's Patricia Lui, a Panda Express product manager. She says Panda sells over 60 million pounds of orange chicken every year. Every ounce, perfectly calibrated to clobber your pleasure centers.
LUI: Sweet and sharp and salty. You don't want any one flavor to stand out. You want it to be balanced.
ULABY: To create the next fast food platonic ideal, Lui and chef Andy Kao have taken over a Panda Express kitchen in suburban Los Angeles. They're testing a brand new recipe for shrimp.
Premium ingredients, like walnuts and shrimp, are part of Panda's plan to go more upscale. But the bottom-line is steam table sustainability.
LUI: So, we'll taste it fresh and then we'll taste it held. And we'll see if the flavors and the textures are holding up. If not, then we have to go back and do some more development work.
ULABY: Right now, Patricia Lui and product development coordinator Adrian Lok are narrowing down sauces from across a range of Asian cuisines.
ADRIAN LOK: We had to put out 60, 70 different sauces; taste each one.
LUI: And we screened it down to these.
ULABY: Bringing in tastes from different Asian countries is a great strategy, says Darren Tristano. He's an executive at Technomic, a food consulting company. He says, look at Sriracha Rooster Sauce. Recently, it's everywhere. Americans are craving a flavor profile that Panda is well positioned to provide.
DARREN TRISTANO: That spiciness, that teriyaki flavor, the different types of sour and tart and tangy. If you just look at the kids aisle for candy, very tart and sour flavors is what kids are looking for.
ULABY: And older kids, too, like the college students who routinely devour Korean food and Korean frozen yogurt, like Pinkberry. Tristano says there are about 40,000 full service Asian restaurants in the U.S.
TRISTANO: Asian actually represents 13 percent of all full service sales. Compared to Italian at 11 percent. Now, Italian used to be larger than Asian. But the two have kind of flipped over the past few years.
ULABY: Tristano admits that Asian seems like a ridiculously broad category compared to Italian. But Panda is playing up being Pan-Asian, one stop for your Chinese, your Korean, your Thai.
The final version of that shrimp in the test kitchen landed on Panda's steam tables last week. It uses spicy Thai green peppercorns. Sales are up five percent. But customer Devin Niebrugge says Panda can innovate all it wants, nothing could persuade her to order anything but her beloved orange chicken.
NIEBRUGGE: And you know it's always the biggest tray on the little buffet line. Like, everyone eats it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ULABY: A few new Pandas open every month, most recently in Mexico City. There's about 1,500 of them total. Over the long-term, Panda plans to express itself to the tune of 10,000 restaurants all over the world.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.