Panda Express got its start back in 1973 when then 25-year-old Andrew and 23-year-old Peggy Cherng opened the first Panda Inn in Pasadena, California with a Small Business Administration loan, a loan from family, and friends and relatives who were willing to provide free labor. Fast forward nearly 50 years and the Cherngs are one of the richest self-made couples in America with a net worth of $3.1 billion and the Panda Restaurant Group is the largest Asian fast casual restaurant chain in the United States, with more than $3 billion in annual revenue, more than 2,000 locations in 43 states as wells as Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Not bad for two young Chinese immigrant newlyweds!
In 1966, then 18-year-old Andrew Cherng immigrated to the U.S. to go to college at Baker University in Kansas. He got his B.S. in mathematics, and met his future wife, Peggy Tsiang. He had been born in Burma and raised in Hong Kong. Like Andrew, she had immigrate to the U.S. to attend Baker University. The couple enrolled in grad school at Mizzou where Andrew got his M.S. in Applied Mathematics and Peggy her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.
In 1972, Andrew moved to Los Angeles to help his cousin with his restaurant, Ting Ho, in Hollywood. He worked seven days a week for $800 a month. After a few months, he and his cousin began to have serious disagreements. Andrew went out and found a restaurant in Pasadena to take over. He borrowed some money from his cousin and got an SBA loan. Together, they equaled about $60,000. On June 8, 1973, Andrew and his father, chef Ming Tsai Cherng, opened a sit down Chinese fast food restaurant called Panda Inn in Pasadena. The entire Cherng family worked at Panda Inn for free. They all lived in a two-bedroom apartment nearby. They were broke. Peggy would come to visit on breaks from her Ph.D. program. The couple married in 1975.
In 1981, Andrew's father passed away. By that point he was very comfortable taking over. In 1982, he opened another Panda Inn, this time in nearby Glendale. Peggy joined the family business at the time. About then, Andrew met the Head Football Coach at UCLA, Terry Donohue. His brother Dan was the developer building the Glendale Galleria. The Cherngs were invited to open a smaller format Panda Inn in the mall. The first Panda Express opened in October 1983. It was a success, so Cherng decided to open more Panda Express restaurants in malls. In 1985, they went from five to nine locations in one year. Soon, they opened in Southern California Vons stores.
Andrew dealt with getting the stores open and functioning. Peggy did the rest. As an engineer, systems and processes came easily to her. She implemented a marketing program that involved door hangers in neighborhoods where Asian cuisine was desirable. She created a frequent customer discount program. Peggy also brought computers into Panda Express. She networked the stores together to run the company more efficiently.
The Cherngs changed the way Americans look at Chinese food. Before 1973, Chinese restaurants offered chop suey. As more Chinese immigrants came to the U.S., they brought their cuisine. Even in the late 1980s, Chinese food was largely relegated to small mom and pop restaurants. Panda Express was at the forefront of bringing Chinese food to the American masses.
Andrew and Peggy Cherng's Panda Restaurant Group has been in business for 46 years. They have never borrowed heavily from banks nor taken a single penny from outside investors. In 1997 they had 254 stores, and revenue was $178.7 million. That is when they set the goal to be a billion dollar business. The Cherngs reached that goal in 2010 when the company had sales of $1.069 billion. Panda Express is still wholly owned by the Cherng family and so far, they've shown no desire to sell it.