Peggy Cherng's Path to Billions

The Creation of the Panda Express Empire

Hey! Justin here, and welcome to Just Go Grind, a newsletter sharing the lessons, tactics, and stories of world-class founders! Today is a free edition of the newsletter. Free subscribers get access to 1-2 founder deep dives per month. Want full access? Upgrade to Just Go Grind Premium today:

This Harvard-Founded AI Startup Grew 5x in 2023 (And You Can Invest)

Here’s a fantastic startup inviting Just Go Grind readers an early opportunity to invest.

Out of free articles? lets you legally bypass articles behind the paywall with a single subscription, all while using AI-powered recommendations to send the coolest content your way.

They’ve already raked in $1.7 million from Afore, Halogen, & more. And talk about moats:

  • 50,000+ registered readers and 5x year-over-year growth rate

  • 110 top publisher deals secured, including Forbes and the Miami Herald

  • Featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, and Fast Company’s “World Changing Ideas” Honoree

The team (former journalists and engineers out of Harvard and MIT) wants to revolutionize the $60B media industry now: with 3rd party cookies disappearing and a presidential election coming up in the fall, all eyes will be on the news cycle in 2024. 

Invest as little as $250 in Zette on Wefunder before early bird terms sell out.

Interested in sponsoring Just Go Grind? Learn more and get in touch here.

Peggy Cherng, Co-founder, Panda Express

Peggy Cherng - Panda Express

Peggy Cherng, together with her husband, Andrew, founded Panda Express, the largest Asian-segment restaurant chain in the United States.

Today, there are around 2,400 locations and the company does an estimated $5.4 billion in annual sales.

In the process, Peggy has become the 10th richest self-made woman in America.

Her story and the growth of Panda Express in the past 40+ years is remarkable.

Let’s get to it.

Early Days

Peggy was born in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 1947 and grew up in Zhangzhou and Hong Kong.

After coming to the United States for college, she met her future husband, Andrew, at Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas.

While she transferred to Oregon State after receiving a scholarship, the two of them stayed together, reuniting at the University of Missouri where Peggy eventually earned a master’s degree in computer science and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

They eventually moved to LA, with Andrew helping his cousin manage a Chinese restaurant and Peggy working at McDonnell Douglas and Comtal, which was acquired by 3M.

She also worked as a hostess nights and weekends at Panda Inn, the 3,500 square-foot restaurant Andrew started in Pasadena in 1973 with his father. To finance the venture, Andrew used $60,000 from an SBA loan, family, and friends.

It was the precursor to Panda Express.

But it’d be a decade until that started.

Born from Andrew’s desire to have a restaurant of his own, Panda Inn opened after a year of research by Andrew and it was a struggle for him initially:

We opened Panda Inn on June 8, 1973. The whole family — my parents, a brother and sister — all worked at the restaurant for free. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in San Gabriel and didn’t have any money.

Andrew Cherng

But Andrew was optimistic:

I was so sure that we were going to do well because I know our food, and I know the other Chinese restaurants. [They don’t have] very good food.

So when [we] opened, I thought, “We’re gonna kick butt!” But those days, the customers didn’t come easy. It took a lot of effort.

Andrew Cherng

That effort included offering deals like three entrées for the price of two or a free cocktail for coming in.

From the start, Andrew wanted to differentiate Panda Inn from the competition:

Most restaurants at that time were serving maybe chop suey. There was no décor. This was a little bit more —at least it had a dining element in it —and different cuisine. It was a full-service restaurant, and we were trying to do a little bit better food, in my opinion.

Andrew Cherng

Despite those early struggles, Andrew had grand ambitions, wanting to eventually open 100 restaurants. Little did he know, with Peggy’s help, they’d open many more.

Starting Panda Express

After early struggles, Panda Inn developed critical acclaim, as mentioned in a PBS article:

Panda Inn earned three stars from the Los Angeles Restaurant Writers Association in 1983, alongside some of the city's most vaunted food institutions, including Perino's, Scandia, The Windsor (now The Prince), L'Orangerie, Michael's, and Chianti. (Some of these were on the rise, while others had already seen their best days.)

Los Angeles Times restaurant columnist Lois Dwan pointed to the Panda Pasadena as one of two "helpful exceptions" to what she perceived to be the general status quo: "The Chinese have been politely serving us chop suey for more than 100 years on the theory that we knew what we wanted, and they are not about to offer any incriminating advice at this point.”

Jessica Ritz, PBS

That reputation also grabbed the attention of a very important family for this story: The Donahues.

The turning point was New Year’s Eve 1982. The next day, UCLA played Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and ahead of the big game the family of legendary Bruins football coach Terry Donahue stopped in for dinner. “We just loved it,” recalls Terry’s brother, Pat Donahue.

The family was building a mall in nearby Glendale and sugges­ted the Cherngs open a restaurant there.

Peggy was ready. Tired of trying to raise three daughters while working full-time as an engineer, she had quit her job. The Cherngs took a leap, opening the first Panda Express later that year, offering Panda Inn dishes in a speedy counter-service format. Lines stretched out the door.


People loved Panda Express from the beginning.

And Peggy and Andrew had the right blend of attributes to make it something much, much bigger.

With Andrew’s vision and endless ambition, combined with Peggy’s technical capabilities, Panda Express had a competitive advantage over many other restaurants:

By that point Peggy—who’d been working as a computer programmer at McDonnell Douglas before joining 3M’s aerospace division—had decided to put aside her engineering career to help her husband with accounting and payroll.

As the quick-serve concept exploded, she became a one-woman IT department, developing point-of-sale terminals and pattern-recognition software to track inventory, purchasing, and shifts in customer behavior.

Peggy’s technical prowess gave Panda Express an edge, as it provided the upstart company with perhaps better qualitative feedback than even the fast-food giants had at their disposal.

“The kitchen area is low tech,” Peggy says, “but the management system can be high tech—how to catch the data, how to analyze data to see what’s most salable, what’s not selling, and to determine what to offer and what not to offer.”

Ed Leibowitz, Los Angeles Magazine

Let’s take a step back to set up the crazy growth that’s about to happen in the ensuing decades.

It’s 1983.

The first Panda Express opens.

But it comes ten years after the opening of the first Panda Inn, which by this time has a second location in Glendale.

Peggy’s technical skills I mentioned earlier are going to play a massive role in how Panda Express expands way beyond what Panda Inn ever did.


By the end of 1985, Panda Express expanded from five to nine stores.

Two years in.

Nine stores.

In the 1980s they expanded rapidly, opening new locations in shopping centers throughout the country, taking advantage of the rapid expansion of shopping malls at that time.

An important lesson in riding the wave of a growing industry.

With an early digital POS system setup by Peggy, Panda Express was on another level technologically than the competition, able to easily track daily sales and which items were bestsellers.

Peggy also at times played the role of mediator and coach:

When managers struggled to work a compu­ter, she coached them. When some of the chain’s chefs were cooking chow mein with a light sauce while others insisted on a dark one, she corralled them all into a conference room at Panda Express’ headquarters and had them fight it out until they agreed on a single recipe for every dish.

Chase Peterson-Withorn, Forbes

She’d later be described as the soul of Panda.

In 1987, the iconic Orange Chicken dish was developed by Panda Express chef Andy Kao, a dish that would be immensely popular for decades to come.

The next year, Panda Express expanded into Vons:

In the late ’80s and early ’90s we began to experiment. I talked to Bill Davila [president of Vons], who was a customer. I convinced him to put us in Vons supermarkets. Then we began to put Panda Express outside the malls. I was conservative, so we opened small spaces that averaged $6,000 to $7,000 a week in revenue back then.

Andrew Cherng

By 1991, Panda Express had 18 restaurants, and that experimentation Andrew mentioned included more and more standalone locations, something that came about as a result of food courts becoming less appealing:

It’s a captive market—but you’re not able to build your own brand.

People just see you as the Chinese place.

Peggy Cherng

The expansion also included a new restaurant concept to take advantage of another market:

In the ’90s, Panda Express expanded from malls to street locations. That helped us grow rapidly. We opened Hibachi-San in 1992 to capture the market potential for Japanese food.

Peggy Cherng

The opening of Hibachi-San in malls was strategic, launched in anticipation of competition from Japanese restaurants that would take market share away from Panda’s Chinese food.

By this time, Peggy and Andrew had already hit their stride.

Andrew dealt with getting stores opened and functioning.

Peggy took care of the rest.

With those new stores, they took a unique approach to opening them:

We have an all-in mentality. Because we’re immigrants, we have a can-do attitude. We’re also very frugal.

From 1983 to 2000, with every new store, we would take an established team to the new location to help open the store.

Every team would live in one apartment for a month, and your supervisor might sleep in the same room as you rather than go to hotels. No one complained about not having privacy. It built team spirit.

Peggy Cherng

While Panda Inn opened two restaurants in its first decade, Panda Express opened nearly 100.

Peggy would tell Bloomberg Businessweek:

In the beginning, we said we wanted to be the McDonald's of the East.

Peggy Cherng

The ambition was always there.

A Los Angeles Magazine article described what helped them succeed:

Within a decade the potent combination of Andrew’s ambition and Peggy’s data-crunching skills was responsible for more than 100 restaurants.

Peggy’s programs also enabled the company to procure with as little spoilage as possible the fresh ingredients it needed to offer a menu vastly more complex than other quick-serve places offered.

“Andrew’s vision is that he doesn’t see anything that’s not possible,” Peggy says. “But visionaries need a system and structure to provide the growth.”

Ed Leibowitz, Los Angeles Magazine

But they were just getting started.

$1 Billion in Sales

Panda Express’ expansion from malls to standalone locations to Vons was just the beginning.

In 1995, they opened their first airport outlet at Denver International.

The next year, the 200th location opened and Panda did $178.7 million in sales.

Peggy and Andrew had their sights set higher though—they wanted to build a billion-dollar revenue company.

So the next year expansion continued with their first drive-thru restaurant and the following year they opened a restaurant at Angel Stadium.

Around this time, they also considered going public but decided against it:

Luckily we didn’t. Our business mentality is to focus on people and food and less on profit. If we went public, maybe we would have had to change our philosophy.

Peggy Cherng

To get to $1 billion in sales, Peggy and Andrew started exploring other avenues for growth in 1999 when they launched their first-ever TV ads, trying to grow from 320 stores to 400 by the following year.

They spent $200,000 on creating the ads and started with a $40,000 TV campaign in Las Vegas.

Soon after, they’d target Phoenix, Seattle, Washington, and Northern California.

The ads sought to differentiate Panda Express from the competition:

Aimed at young adults, commercials for the South Pasadena-based chain combine traditional Chinese symbols with wry humor.

One spot says consumers cannot survive on tacos, pizza and hamburgers alone—an attempt by Panda to position itself as an alternative to standard fast-food fare…

The Cherngs say the commercials emphasize what they consider to be Panda Express’ chief attribute: freshly made dishes with vegetables—fare not available at typical fast-food restaurants.

Laura Kaufman, LA Times

The same year, they launched Panda Cares, the philanthropic arm of the Panda Restaurant Group.

By 2001, the Panda Restaurant Group had more than 400 locations in 34 states, 5,000 employees, and $300 million in annual sales, of which Panda Express was about 80% two years prior.

Around this time it takes about $300,000 to open a Panda Express restaurant and they planned on investing $24 million to open new restaurants in the next year.

Andrew Cherng’s goal by then?

10,000 stores.

There’s that ambition again.

In 2006 Panda Express was building 3 new stores per week and by the next year, when they opened their 1,000th location, Panda Restaurant Group as a whole reached $1 billion in revenue, with Panda Express reaching that milestone in 2010.

Of course, Peggy and Andrew aren’t doing this alone, and they take good care of their employees, not only offering subsidized healthcare for all employees but paying $1 to $2 more per hour than nearby fast-food restaurants. This is at a time when they have 14,000 employees.

What was next?

Going international.

International Expansion & Investing in Employees

In 2011, 28 years after its founding, Panda Express opened its first international restaurant in Mexico City.

They’d later expand to many others and have more than 1,600 locations by 2013.

The next year, they’d have 1,800 restaurants, $2.2 billion in sales, and launch their Innovation Kitchen to “serve as a living laboratory for exploring new menu items, new decor and new ways of serving our guests.”

By 2015, Peggy and Andrew have an estimated combined $3.2 billion net worth according to Forbes.

How they go to this point, aside from endless ambition and building systems to scale, is by investing in their employees.

Even further, by encouraging their employees to invest in themselves:

Cherng said employees are imbued with a sense of personal development. They are encouraged to take business and management courses. Self-help books and business leaders’ biographies are offered to employees at a discount.

Instead of primarily hiring outside instructors for the company’s office gym in Rosemead, it paid for some employees to get certified to teach yoga and crossfit training.

Employees can also access a development program called the University of Panda, which teaches skills such as public speaking and even self-defense. The company prides itself in stacking a significant number of its corporate office positions with employees who started on the kitchen floor.

David Pierson, Los Angeles Times

It’s something Peggy and Andrew believe strongly in, as Andrew described in an interview in 2015:

Our job is to develop people. When you have a good set of people and they’re in a good place inside and out—in their livelihood and in who they are—then chances are they will take care of the customer better.

Andrew Cherng

Peggy offered similar sentiments in the same interview, mentioning their goal: “To be recognized as a world leader in people development.”

These aren’t just talking points though—it’s core to the success of Panda Express.

By 2017, they had sales of more than $3 billion, and by the following year, they had more than 35,000 employees.

Their restaurants average 480 guests per day and there were more than 2,000 locations by 2018.

All of that growth came without pursuing franchising or going public.

This has allowed Peggy and Andrew to keep control and maintain consistency over the decades.

Of course, there have been struggles along the way as well.

COVID-19 was challenging for everyone in the restaurant industry, leading to lost revenue, and Panda Express employees also dealt with rising incidents of racism, which Peggy seems to have taken a stoic approach to:

You cannot control other people. So, we focus on how we position ourselves. We are productive citizens in the communities we serve. You need a positive approach to hatred.

Peggy Cherng

In response to the pandemic, Panda Express also became a leader in health and safety:

In April 2021, market researcher Ipsos named Panda Express number one in health and safety protocols in the food and beverage industry, making this the second year in a row Panda Express has taken the title.

Peggy knows earning this accolade is especially significant as the restaurant industry gets back on its feet following the pandemic. “We were able to earn trust from our guests during a time when there was so much unknown and uncertainty,” she says.

Roni Canieso, Character Media

That leadership has only continued, in more ways than one.

Peggy Cherng and Panda Express Today

Today, Panda Express has more than $5 billion in annual revenue and has 2,400 restaurant locations which generate about $2.4 million each.

93% of their restaurants are company-owned and they have 50,000 employees. The 7% of their restaurants that are franchises are mostly in airports, universities, and military bases.

Peggy and Andrew’s plan is to open another 100 locations a year in the United States and reach $10 billion in annual revenue by 2028.

Peggy, with an estimated $3.1 billion net worth, is one of only 12 self-made women on The Forbes 400.

But she’s still aiming higher:

The opportunity is still big. We plan to have more growth in the next 50 years than we did in the past 50.

Peggy Cherng

Love that growth mindset.

And Peggy’s response when asked why she doesn’t just kick back and retire?

Of course, it all comes back to growing the company:

Every single new step the company takes brings new things we must learn: more structures, more challenges, more organization to develop, something new to implement.

Peggy Cherng

Onward and upward.

Peggy Cherng’s Wisdom

In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.

Advice for those starting their careers:

I always say at the start that you have to believe in yourself. Also, you need to be curious, because only with curiosity can you learn and elevate and be better.

And I believe engineering training and math training help the mind to think, especially when we face something uncertain and unknown to us.

Peggy Cherng

A company is built on people first, guests second, and financials third.

Peggy Cherng

At Panda, the little things are a big deal for us. We cut our vegetables daily. Our sidewalks are clean, and our washrooms are neat and tidy. When the little things get done, guests will notice it.

Peggy Cherng

Thanks for reading!



P.S. Interested in sponsoring Just Go Grind and reaching 21,000+ founders, investors, and operators?

P.P.S. Want to work with me 1 on 1?

What did you think of today's newsletter?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.