The Pandas are in an affectionate mood. Seventy-one Panda Express managers are gathered in the banquet room of the Dynasty Restaurant in San Jose, California, waiting in line to make a commitment in front of their colleagues to improve themselves — and the business.
They are wearing orange T-shirts advertising their newest entrée, Kobari Beef. “I’m feeling saucy,” the shirts read.
They call themselves “Pandas” because they are employees of Panda Restaurant Group (PRG), a privately owned, 1,350-location “fast casual” Asian restaurant chain with $1.4 billion in annual sales.
Part of being a successful Panda is buying into a process that founder and co-chief executive officer Andrew Cherng, 62, calls “a continuous commitment to sharpening yourself.”
That means standing before your fellow Pandas and speaking honestly and openly about your personal and business failings.
It also means a lot of hugging. Here is a typical share by Tina, who is from store 538: “I didn’t have a good relationship with my dad.
We didn’t talk, and he treated me unfairly, I always thought. If he called, I wouldn’t pick up. I wouldn’t call him back .”
Tina begins crying, her voice faltering.
“I didn’t realise that I was hurting myself by holding on to what happened in the past. I needed to let that go. I can’t keep this anger inside me because it just hurts me, it keeps me a prisoner. I have to let that go to go forward. That’s the commitment I am making.”
When she is done and returns to her seat, she is embraced by a half-dozen fellow Pandas, including Cherng, who nods at the progress she is making.
Cherng is an avid consumer of self-improvement programmes.
He 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.
He has since 2003 been a participant in Life Academy, a Taiwanese organisation that follows a “life manual” dedicated to the “advancement of the human spirit.”
He is a devotee of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements.
Recently, Cherng has become passionate about the Landmark Forum, a programme that utilises Werner Erhard’s EST methodology, which Psychology Today described as one that, “tore you down and put you back together.”
According to the group’s literature, Landmark improves everything from personal relationships to business performance.
It is a kind of programme Cherng has been relying on for almost a decade.
“I see the benefit of Landmark to the human race,” he says. “If you quit Panda tomorrow, I still want you to go to Landmark.”
During the sharing, it becomes clear that every one of the 71 managers present has already attended the introductory Landmark Forum and many have completed the Landmark Advanced Course and Landmark Communication Course as well.
The classes are intensive, three-day sessions where participants are urged to shed their past, break down obstacles to personal growth, and “bring about positive and permanent shifts in the quality of your life.”
Cherng, perhaps emulating the Landmark coaches he has learned from, runs his regional meetings more like encounter groups than corporate conferences.
He stands in the back of the room, arms folded, nodding as he listens to his managers share their pain, sorrow, joy, and pleasure, and pumps his fist when he hears an inspiring share.
He has silver crew-cut hair, a round face, appraising eyes, and a slight underbite, all of which are reminiscent of an Asian Pete Rose. He wears casual clothing, today a Patagonia hoodie, khakis, and loafers.
The Panda Express story is many great American stories all in one.
It is the classic immigrant story: Cherng and his chef father, Ming Tsai Cherng, who died in 1981, were fresh-off-the-jumbo-jet Chinese émigrés who built an empire one location at a time, starting with a Panda Inn in Pasadena in 1973.
It is also the great American entrepreneur story of a little guy borrowing $30,000, opening his own business, and working seven days a week to make it a success.
It is the story of a happy marriage that is also a thriving business partnership. Cherng met his wife, Peggy, who has a PhD in electrical engineering, before he opened his first restaurant.
The restaurant industry in general has been suffering through two years of declines, but the sector called “fast casual,” which is basically non-burger fast food, has bucked the trend, according to Bonnie Riggs of NPD Group.
In August, Asian-themed fast casual food — driven by Panda — was up four per cent, while the industry as a whole was flat.