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Posted at 8:14 AM ET, 11/22/2010

Story pick: The man behind Panda Express

By Michael S. Rosenwald

I'm a Panda Express guy, by which I mean if I'm at the mall, and I'm in the food court, I look around, I try some samples, think about some Mexican, perhaps a Philly cheesesteak, maybe a salad, very possibly some Subway, but I almost always wind up at Panda Express -- orange chicken, please.

At the mall, Panda Express is as ubiquitous as The Gap, and as Black Friday approaches, Bloomberg Businessweek has a terrific story this week that goes behind the scenes at the fast food chain. Written by Karl Taro Greenfeld, who writes with a novelist's eye, the story reveals that the private company's owner, Andrew Cherng, built his fast food Chinese empire with a devotion not to sauces, or all things fried, or noodles, but to self-improvement. Cherng, a devotee of the Landmark Forum, a controversial and aggressive version of the est self-awareness training course, "urges his Pandas to maintain healthy lifestyles and eat a well-rounded diet; he recently challenged the Pandas to run three miles in under 36 minutes."

I loved this detail in the story: "Spending time with the Pandas is unlike visiting almost any other corporation. Where else will an employee walk up to you, as one store manager did to me during a corporate meeting, give you a hug, and say: 'Hi, I’m Francis Yee, and I’m making a commitment to being more open.'"

Something must be working. Panda Express does $1.4 billion in revenue a year, in large thanks to sales of orange chicken, which 75 percent of its customers order. But there's more than just self-improvement going on, as the story makes clear. Cherng is a crafty restaurateur. To wit, as Greenfeld puts it: "The Panda breakthrough...was figuring out how to serve appetizing Chinese food—and fast. The cafeteria-style steam table was the key, but the problem was making food served in that manner look fresh and appetizing. Cherng's innovations were simple: the huge cooler full of fresh vegetables that you see at every Panda and the open kitchen design that lets the customer view the food as it's being chopped, prepped, and cooked. The impression one gets, even if the food has been in the wells for 45 minutes, is of freshly prepared food."

By Michael S. Rosenwald  | November 22, 2010; 8:14 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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Oh, just great. Now I'm craving orange chicken. Looks like I'm heading to Panda Express for lunch.

Posted by: GreenMeansGo | November 29, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

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