Panda Express opens its first branch in Manila

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AN ASIAN-AMERICAN brand has crossed the oceans to bring American-Chinese food to the Philippines. Panda Express opens its first branch in the Philippines, today, Dec. 12, in SM Megamall.

The arrival of Panda Express in the Philippines was brought about by a 50/50 joint venture between the Panda Restaurant Group (PRG) and Jollibee Foods Corp. (JFC), forming JBPX Foods. Co-founders and co-CEOs of PRG, Andrew and Peggy Cherng, were present at the inauguration earlier this week, as well as JFC founder and Chair Tony Tan-Caktiong.

“The story of how this came together started from a simple yet meaningful friendship,” said Mr. Tan-Caktiong during a speech. “A friendship between Andrew and Peggy has blossomed into a business partnership founded on mutual trust and respect. We realized that we are alike in so many ways,” he said, sharing, for example, that both their fathers had been chefs. “Both companies come from small beginnings.”

Both companies trace their origins to the 1970s: Panda Express was a fast food iteration in the 1980s of an earlier venture called Panda Inn. Jollibee, meanwhile, began as a Magnolia ice cream parlor in Quezon City, which started to serve hot meals that superseded the popularity of the ice cream. “It’s amazing how two companies can be so similar despite having been founded thousands of miles apart,” said Mr. Tan-Caktiong.

Mr. Cherng in his speech, meanwhile, said: “We are going to earn the trust of every consumer one at a time.”

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As we’ve noted above, Panda Express is not simply Chinese cuisine, but an interpretation of Chinese cuisine for American palates: their flagship product, Orange Chicken, for example, is a rendition of sweet and sour dishes popular in China.

BusinessWorld had a taste of the offerings of Panda Express during the inauguration, noting that the Kung Pao chicken was a clear favorite (we liked the nuts and the vegetables). The Orange Chicken tasted a bit familiar, but we really liked the String Bean Beef and its chicken version. One thing we can say is that everything tasted quite clean: there’s none of the greasiness and the MSG that some people dislike (or really like) in Chinese restaurants (Panda Express, in its website, says that they do not add MSG to their products, nor do they “purchase products from suppliers who add MSG”). If you’re familiar with the sensation of how Chinese fast food can taste really good when you’re drunk, this is it — except you’re sober the whole time.

During a roundtable interview with Mr. Cherng, BusinessWorld asked about bringing in an interpretation of Chinese food to a place with a rich Chinese influence. “I don’t really know what the Chinese heritage is like here. However, I think the world is changing. Our concept has really done very well with the food that we serve in America. It’s been very well-received. So why not here?”

He also added that the second-largest group employed under Panda Express are of Filipino descent, and that the company does really well in Hawaii — itself home to a large number of Filipino-American families (a 2007 article from the Honolulu Star Bulletin said that its Ala Moana location brings in $4 million annually). “I believe there is going to be an acceptance. People accept us in the Filipino community, so I think we’ll do well here.”

Asked about how many stores the joint venture plans to open, he said, “I’d be thrilled if Panda could be half as successful as Jollibee here.” (As of May this year, Jollibee operates over 1,150 fastfood restaurants in the Philippines. It has 234 in foreign markets.)

He also remarked that the partnership was forged over a period of “three or four years.” Asked about the group’s interest in the Philippines, he fixed his gaze on the crowd outside the restaurant. “I am now seeing a mall as busy as the one here. I don’t think you can find a mall in America, on a Monday, with that many people. Obviously, it’s a great market.”

At present, JFC owns the chains Chowking, Greenwich Pizza, Red Ribbon, and Mang Inasal; the franchise for Burger King in the country, the master franchise for Tim Ho Wan in the Asia Pacific region, and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf chain. On the other hand, PRG has a presence in the following countries: Canada, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, El Salvador, South Korea, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates.

“Our objective is to build one really, really successful store in 100 countries,” said Mr. Cherng in the interview. “One of the possibilities is that Jollibee will be able to take the concept to neighboring places. They already have a network of partners, and perhaps we can leverage that,” he said. Jollibee, meanwhile, already has a visible presence in the US. About this, Mr. Cherng said, “I don’t know if they need our help. But if they do, we’ll be very happy to do whatever we can.”

Panda Express stands today as the largest Asian-American restaurant chain in the US, with, at Mr. Cherng’s count, 2,200 branches. “We’ve always believed that having a nice place, where people are friendly, and they serve [something] different — you’ll win. Or you’ll do well,” said Mr. Cherng when asked about their success. — Joseph L. Garcia

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