Building a Chinese-Food Empire

Andrew Cherng started working in the United States at 18, while he pursued an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Baker University, in Kansas. Starting in 1967, he began spending his summers in New York City, working in a restaurant where his father had connections. It was his first real job. The work was fast-paced, his English wasn’t perfect, and New Yorkers were ruthless, he says.

After Cherng had been working in the restaurant for six summers, his cousin, who also lived in New York, decided to open a restaurant in Washington, D.C. The new business needed a manager, and Cherng seemed an obvious choice. In 1972, his cousin moved the restaurant to Hollywood, and Cherng followed. Several months later, Cherng’s parents moved to the United States.

In 1973, Cherng and his father found a place to start their own restaurant: Pasadena, California. After six months of remodeling, Panda Inn, which would inspire Panda Express, was created. Cherng ran the dining room while his father ran the back. Cherng’s father died in 1981, before he could see the restaurant chain take off.

Panda Express now has 2,000 restaurants globally and more than 35,000 workers. I recently spoke with Cherng about his first jobs in the United States, how they differed from his father’s experience working in restaurants in China, and how he created Panda Express’s company culture.