On a bright day in the flats of San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles, the busiest restaurant around is a Panda Express tucked into a shopping center dominated by a Walmart. Running a fast-food operation isn't like other restaurants — here, we dive into the big picture, the tiny systems, and the daily struggles of keeping a quick-service shop humming. Welcome to One Day at Panda Express.
Walnut Grove Avenue is a relatively barren stretch between the 10 and 60 freeways in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, some 12 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles. There are two big anchors to the suburb: a large Edison utility headquarters, and the corporate headquarters of Panda Restaurant Group, parent company of Panda Express. One of LA's few Walmarts looms at the end of a huge parking lot, flanked by a strip mall with a collection of standard-issue retail slots.
While many diners still think of Panda as a shopping mall staple, the chain — founded in 1983 inside the Glendale Galleria mall just a few miles to the northeast — has more freestanding restaurants than food-court spots. Here in Rosemead, a brightly colored, standalone building in the parking lot is Panda's local flagship, a model store that's testing innovations the brand plans to roll out to its other locations, including a larger dining room, flatscreen TVs, and a drive-thru.
District manager of 14 locations. Has been with Panda for three years
Manager. A civil engineering grad from the University of Tennessee
Chef. Has helped open 30 Panda Expresses worldwide. Goes by Xi, well-loved by the Panda staff
Assistant GM. Has worked for Panda Express for 7 years. Goes by Cess
Server. Used to work at a club until 4 A.M., prefers Panda
Server. She likes her new uniform, an apron they are testing out
Server. Going to school to be a veterinarian
Washes dishes and cooks. He really likes the working environment with Xi, who runs a tight shift
Server. He is studying kinesiology to be a PE teacher
Cook. Has been in America for 1 ½ years. Considers chef Xi a mentor
Cook. Has been working at Panda even longer than Xi
Server. This is his first job
There's a lot to be done in the 90 minutes before the doors open for the day, and the team can feel it. Everyone falls into an efficient routine, whether it's setting up the hot stations, firing up the stoves, or settling in to prep some of the raw ingredients that will be fired during the morning shift.
Six minutes before opening, and the entire staff has clocked in. Despite the long day ahead (this location is open from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m.), the mood is upbeat. Ana is especially cheerful, maybe because she's on a part-time schedule, which means her shift is over just after the lunch rush, at 3:30pm.
At opening time, members of the team swarm the counter where the food is displayed and served and fill the circular tubs until they're overflowing with freshly stir-fried food. Popular dishes like orange chicken, kung pao chicken and beef with broccoli mix with regional Chinese specialties like eggplant tofu and rotating chefs' specials like today's honey-sesame chicken. In total, there are 18 heaping trays of food, each with a card displaying the dish's name and nutritional content. And don't call it a steam bar: To better keep the display table at a consistent temperature, this store uses induction heat, an upgrade that saves water and energy — which means it saves money.
Three times a day — just before the lunch rush, midafternoon, and just before dinner — the staff runs temperature tests, making sure everything is kept hot enough by health code standards. This morning, the walnut shrimp registers 167 degrees, a pass.
The first order of the day is an easy one: walnut shrimp and orange chicken, plus a large raspberry iced tea. While most Panda Express locations still use styrofoam containers, the Rosemead location is testing out recyclable post-consumer paper trays. They're more environmentally friendly, but they also seem a little bit smaller. Ru says the servings are just as big as ever, though.
A bell goes off near the register, which means a customer has made a donation to Panda Cares, the restaurant's charity. Every customer is asked to give by rounding up the amount on their credit card or throwing any dollar amount into a small plastic deposit next to the register. The bell rings steadily throughout the day.
Nearly every server does a little bit of upselling, most of them asking customers if they'd like to add an egg roll to their order. Other add-on suggestions throughout the day include a bowl of hot and sour soup, a chicken eggroll (as opposed to the standard pork), or cheese rangoons (pictured above).
The lunch rush hits around 11 a.m., and in the brief lull before, everyone's hard at work to get ready, cleaning, setting things in place, or wiping surfaces.
Panda Express won't disclose the recipe for their famous orange chicken, a preparation the company says was created in 1987 by Andy Kao, now the chain's executive chef. The dish was originally conceived with bone-in chicken, but now the cooking process begins with gallon bags of frozen, breaded boneless nuggets that are ripped open and emptied directly into the deep fryer. After a few minutes in bubbling oil, they’re tossed into a wok and stir fried vigorously with the orange-flavored sauce. Next, they're shimmied into a large steel bowl on the hot bar, ready to be served.
Panda Express sells close to 70 million pounds of orange chicken a year — it's the restaurant's most popular dish by orders of magnitude. Kao will retire this year, after almost 30 years on the job.
A dozen customers arrive all at once, including the first Panda Restaurant Group employee of the day, who's rocking a red lanyard. Panda corporate staff get a 20 percent discount in the restaurant, so many will drop by for lunch over the course of the afternoon.
Two middle-aged women place identical orders: a kid's meal each, with half brown rice, half steamed vegetables, and grilled chicken. They explain that they prefer the child-sized portions because they have less carbs.
1. Beijing beef 2. Beef with broccoli 3. Cream cheese rangoons 4. Shanghai beef 5. Eggplant tofu 6. Honey walnut shrimp 7. Chicken egg roll 8. Mixed vegetables 9. Sweetfire chicken breast 10. Kung pao chicken 11. Grilled teriyaki chicken 12. Chow mein 13. Black pepper chicken 14. Fried rice 15. Veggie spring roll 16. Honey sesame chicken (seasonal special, not available at every store) 17. Orange chicken 18. Mushroom chicken
Two customers take a seat near the bathroom hallway — there wasn't enough Beijing beef out, so they have to wait for their orders to be completed. They politely decline an offer from Ru, the Panda district manager, to give them free fountain sodas for their trouble. Ru presses, and they both relent, goofing around as they fill up their cups. Three minutes later, their Beijing beef is bagged and on its way out the door.
Three TVs in the dining room are supposed to be turned on to display a series of promotional cultural montages but instead they're tuned to three different kinds of ESPN.
Xi is busy mopping the main floor. He might be obsessed with keeping the floors perfectly clean, even if they look unblemished from prior polishes — he often takes breaks from the kitchen to give the floor a swipe. Although he is the head chef of this branch, it seems as though he also feels personally responsible for maintaining its cleanliness.
Xi emerges from the steamy kitchen for the sole purpose of reaching over the counter to fist bump a friend from corporate in line at the hot bar.
One of the servers mumbles to a co-worker that it's a slow lunch day so far.
Suddenly the room is full — there are now twelve people waiting to order, which in this small space means that the line is practically to the door.
The line hits the doors; there are bells ringing for charity donations every minute
A monitor by the drive-up window displays a ticker that tracks the time it takes to complete each drive-thru transaction. Throughout the busy lunch hour, Ru's eyes dart up to the screen every few seconds. The team's goal is to spend no more than three minutes and 30 seconds per car. Ru calls out "96 percent!" — the number of transactions so far today that have hit that mark.
The line isn't running to the door anymore — in fact, there's no line at all. The team just crushed more than a dozen lunch orders in a matter of minutes, and they're all caught up.
He emerges from the back of house with a round plate and fills it with white rice, then a few pieces of beef with broccoli, some lo mein, pepper chicken, and two fried honey walnut shrimp. He goes to the cash register to get a nod of approval from the cashier, and then heads to the soda fountain for a Diet Coke. He sits down in the dining room with his tray to eat.
Xi waves to a customer. "I love my customers," he says. "No customers, no job!"
Xi spent 21 years cooking in China, in Yangzhou and considers what he cooks at Panda to be "American" food (or mei guo zai in Mandarin). The CEO of Panda Express visited his restaurant in Yangzhou, and recruited him to come to America.
Since then, he's helped open 30 Panda Expresses around the world, has worked at about 100 of them total, and most fondly remembers his time at a Panda Express in Korea. He doesn't modify official Panda recipes without an okay from the corporate chefs, but makes a killer Lion's Head meatball soup that's served only to the staff. Xi says attempts have been made to poach him to cook at other restaurants about 7 or 8 times.
All the managers are trained to fill in for any position, so when someone needs to start a batch of Beijing beef, Ru is on it. Halfway through, Xi steps in and takes over.
A batch of steamed vegetables hits the trash bin — after too long on the table, their color had changed too much.
Cleaning duties are assigned out by the general manager on a weekly basis. Additional day-of cleaning duties are assigned as needed, and if an employee has free time, he or she will often be asked to take on an additional cleaning task. It's a major part of everyone's job.
The staff goes through a handful of cans per week, which Ru brings in to them. Shawn's used to the long hours. He used to get up at 6 a.m. to study for the Panda manager's curriculum.
They're also both wearing pretty formal black dress shoes. When asked why they didn't wear something more comfortable despite having to stand on their feet all day, they say that they insist on maintaining higher standards with regards to their uniform.
They take a moment to pray over their meal before digging in.
He's been doing this obsessively all day. The vegetables can sit in the walk-in for a maximum of 48 hours after being sliced. They're right up at the front of the kitchen on display, with a large sign declaring that fresh veggies are cut daily.
A pre-dinner slow period settles in as some of the day team's shifts come to an end. The staff's scripted greeting of “Hi, welcome” is delivered with noticeably more fatigue than it was earlier in the day. The mood is subdued.
Total average service time at the drive-thru has climbed to 2:33, and the service goal percentage hovers at 92%. Erica takes over working the window from Hilda.
Shawn steps in to keep the front line moving. The staff weren't ready for all of this at once, and aren't as prepped as they like to be for this many customers. They're worried about running out of some dishes, especially with kitchen staff stepping away from the woks to help keep the lines moving.
It's the first time the employees seem to lose their cool, and the rush to plate and push out orders takes its toll. The kitchen is a flurry of bumping hips and calls for hot item refills. Erica grinds her teeth into a smile and politely asks several drive-thru customers to pull around to the parking area so their food can be run out to them.
He's stepping in to play the role of runner now, ditching the dining area to hand off completed drive-thru orders to the customers waiting in the parking lot. Back in the kitchen, a cook finishes one batch of orange chicken and immediately dumps another bag into the fryer. The line of customers inside has grown to 10 people.
Shawn senses the frustration in the room as his staff struggles to keep up with the pace of orders. "That is one challenge that Panda has," he admits. "How do you wok almost all of your food in a fast-casual environment? We can prep ingredients, but ultimately we want to keep our batches low to avoid waste."
With that, he grabs a towel and begins to clean up the whirlwind of small messes that have accumulated from the dinner rush.
One customer clocks a service time of 6 minutes, which ups their average time to 2:54 and drops their goal percentage to 87%
He’s wearing a brace for his lower back, and he's not the only one. With long hours on their feet, this is a physically taxing job for everyone.
Here's how the drive-thru works: A pad near the menu board senses if a car pulls up and alerts the server's headset. A timer starts. The server takes the order via headset and punches it into the POS, which relays it to the team on the hot line, who adds that order to the normal flow of customers.
From there, those to-go containers are picked up, turned around, and bagged at a little station just behind the hot line. The ticket is returned to the bag so drive-thru server can eyeball it against the physical order.
As long as everything moves smoothly, there are no issues. The biggest challenge comes when hot line runs out of items, and the drive-thru has to send cars to wait in the parking lot. Then the whole process slows down, because the workers have to figure out which car gets which order and run it out there. It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep drive-thru moving, because if not it gums up the hot line with ticketed orders, drives down their timing totals for everyone for the day, and means more hands doing more manual stuff out of the normal flow of customer orders.
He comes into the kitchen to shake Jacinto’s hand and say goodnight, and he taps the backs of the workers at the hot bar as he heads out for the night.
A cook slowly comes back from break and approaches the griddle. He’s bare-headed Ru calls out “Where’s your hat?” and he looks back wordlessly with a knowing, sweet smile. He’s young. He heads into the back to grab his hat and returns quickly.
Eleven men sit together at one long table. They'd conferred on their shared order and left the business of placing the order (and paying) to the two of their party who stand in line. They're all in casual slacks and polo shirts — golf attire. They came from Whittier Narrows Golf Course nearby, and speak in Korean the entire time. At one point, they take a vote on something, with 9 out of 11 men raising their hands in what looks like approval.
A drive-thru customer is asked to wait in the parking lot after receiving an order that's missing a portion of chow mein. The order is corrected and run out, but now it's missing some fried rice, which Steven returns to get and runs back to the car. Coming back to the restaurant, he shrugs: "We get a lot of customers. It just goes like that sometimes."
It's almost closing time, and Cess can feel it. With no in-store line and no one at the drive-thru, she takes a moment to herself, mimicking someone who might slide down the wall out of pure exhaustion. A beat and she's back up, laughing. She flashes a smile, adding that the busy night is "good for sales at least," before kissing her bicep like a prizefighter.
"Every night," he says, ladling garlic paste into a new container.
The end-of-night cleaning procedure generally starts with the restrooms, then proceeds to the dining room, display table, and the rest of the kitchen. Each employee is tasked to cover the details of a specific area and surface. Even the sidewalks outside the stores get a scrub, to remove any dirt or dried gum. Once the restaurant is meticulously cleaned, time to shut off the lights and go home.