Building a Chinese-Food Empire

After a series of jobs in the food industry, Andrew Cherng teamed up with his dad to create the well-known chain.

An illustration of Andrew Cherng
Panda Express / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

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.

Lola Fadulu: What was your first job?

Andrew Cherng: I grew up in Asia. Just before coming to the United States, we actually moved to Japan from China. I was a high-school student for the most part. My father got me a job in the kitchen in a restaurant somewhere in Chinatown in Yokohama, Japan.

Then I came here, to the U.S. One of my first jobs was working in a school cafeteria as a dish washer. We had this industrial bacterial dish-washing machine. So there would be people working, and the plates, the silverware, would go onto this moving assembly-line-like thing. They’d go through a very hot wash. I had the job of picking up the hot plates at the end of it. And it was really, really hot. By the end of it, my hands got pretty tough.

Fadulu: How was working in a school cafeteria for you?

Cherng: It was okay. I mean, you know, it was a job. You’d have to be pretty quick because if the plate does not get picked up, the line stops. When I was in college, I also worked in the library. I did some filing and organized some shelves in the library and stuff like that. One of the more relevant jobs that I’ve done is that from the first summer, which is 1967. I actually went to New York and, for the first time, learned how to work in a restaurant. That was really an eye-opener, because that’s when I found out how difficult it is to adjust to working in a restaurant.

Working as a waiter—that wasn’t easy. I remember I took a job in Clifton somewhere. The restaurant was pretty big, and there were a couple people working, a couple waiters working. One minute, the restaurant was pretty slow, and within 15, 20 minutes, my section was totally full, and that’s probably 10 tables. I was like, “Are you kidding me? I don’t know how to do this.” And I don’t even know how I got through it. I worked in New York all through my college years, including graduate school. Just about every vacation, I would either fly up, or I would drive up from the Midwest—from Kansas when I was in college, and Missouri when I was in graduate school. So I worked five or six summers, plus Thanksgiving, Christmas holidays, New Year’s, and those times.

Fadulu: Why New York, specifically?

Cherng: My father knew some friends working in New York, and that’s where I knew some people who could help me. He got me in touch with the people who helped me, so that’s where I went. My father was a chef.

My dad actually started to work in restaurants at a very young age, in China. My dad grew up in the countryside, and he never went to school.

Fadulu: How did working in restaurants in New York inform how you went about creating Panda Express?

Cherng: We always think about getting our people to adopt to this idea of I can do more than just working, I can learn to take responsibilities, I can thrive, and I can also help other people to do the same. We like people who work hard and didn’t think they could be a manager; when we suggest it to them, we have to push them a little bit. We like that because taking responsibility is something they can learn. Restaurant people, by nature, don’t mind working hard, because it is a seven-day week. You work harder on holidays—that’s expected. If you’re looking for an easy job, you wouldn’t work in the restaurant. We need to figure out how they should grow personally.

One of our values is continuous learning, whether you go back and get a degree or whatever learning they think will help them advance themselves.