Note: This story was published originally in the winter 2004 issue of MIZZOU, the magazine of the MU Alumni Association.
Some people might think that Peggy and Andrew Cherng have unlikely credentials for the couple who founded Panda Express, the country’s largest chain of Chinese restaurants.
Andrew earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics at Mizzou in 1972. Peggy has two degrees from MU: a master’s in computer science in 1971 and a doctorate in electrical engineering in 1974.
However, Peggy doesn’t see anything unusual about the couple bringing its science background into the business world. An education in engineering or math, she says, “is mostly training you how to think logically. You can apply that logic anywhere.”
The Cherngs applied that rational point of view to the restaurant business. Over three decades they grew a single family-owned Chinese restaurant called the Panda Inn in Pasadena, Calif., into a chain of more than 600 eateries that includes the Panda Express, Panda Inn and Hibachi-San brands.
It’s still a family-owned enterprise. Andrew is chairman of Panda Restaurant Group, and Peggy is president and CEO. The couple met in 1967, when they attended the same college in Kansas. Andrew was born in China and lived in Taiwan and Japan before coming to the United States to attend college. Peggy is a native of Burma who was raised in Hong Kong.
In 1973, just after he graduated from Mizzou, Andrew opened the Panda Inn with his father, Ming-Tsai Cherng, a master chef who had trained and worked in China. Ten years later, they opened the first Panda Express with the idea of providing gourmet-quality Chinese fare to diners in a hurry.
The success of Panda Express, Peggy says, relies on strict adherence to fresh, high-quality ingredients that are prepared daily at each location.
The Cherngs went outside the mainstream in choosing locations for their restaurants. Panda Express was one of the first chains to set up shop in malls, supermarkets, casinos, libraries and universities.
“Americans are very open to trying new things,” Peggy says. But it wasn’t simply culinary novelty that propelled Chinese food into the mainstream of American cuisine, she says. More and more, Americans demand freshness and nutritional balance in their food — and both have long been hallmarks of Chinese cooking.
And in case the Cherngs make it look easy to build an empire in the restaurant industry, Peggy cautions that it took years of hard work to promote consistent quality across the chain, to recruit and train the right staff, and then to motivate them to pull together.
She acknowledges that the couple made a few mistakes along the way and passes on a tip: “Don’t grow ahead of yourself.”