Over the course of 45 years, college sweethearts Andrew and Peggy Cherng have grown Panda Express from a single restaurant in a southern California mall to a 2,000-location empire around the world.
The married couple founded the company in the early 1980s and continues to own and operate every Panda Express themselves. Today, the Cherngs have amassed a combined net worth of $3 billion, Forbes estimates, making them two of the richest people in fast food.
But the Cherngs weren’t always on track to build a fast-food empire. Keep reading to learn how the Cherngs built their multibillion-dollar fortune.
- Andrew and Peggy Cherng, both 71, are the cofounders and CEOs of Panda Express, the American Chinese restaurant with nearly 2,000 locations worldwide. According to Forbes, the Cherngs have a combined net worth of $3 billion.
- The Cherngs own and operate virtually every Panda Express location themselves — they don’t franchise them out to other owners, making Panda Express a rarity among restaurant chains of its size.
- The couple also owns a highly rated ramen restaurant with locations in New York City and Berkeley, California, called Ippudo.
- The Cherngs’ tight grip on their restaurants’ operations may have helped preserve the food quality and helped the chain grow, but it has also led to some problems with employees. PRG has settled multiple lawsuits over overtime pay and hiring discrimination in recent years.
- Andrew Cherng was born in Yangzhou, China. His father was a chef, but Andrew didn’t enter the restaurant industry at first — he came to the US to study math, eventually earning a master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Missouri.
- During his undergraduate studies at Baker University in Kansas, Andrew Cherng met his future wife, Peggy.
- Andrew Cherng spent his summers waiting tables at Chinese restaurants in New York City. In 1973, he opened his own sit-down restaurant in Pasadena, California, called Panda Inn, with his father as chef.
- The opening of Panda Inn coincided with President Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to China, a watershed moment in US-China relations. As Peggy Cherng explained, pandas were viewed as “a symbol of friendship” between the two countries.
- In 1983, Peggy Cherng joined Andrew in the restaurant business, and the two opened the first Panda Express in a mall in Glendale, California.
- Born in Myanmar and raised in Hong Kong, Peggy immigrated to the United States for college. She later earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri.
- Peggy Cherng combined her engineering expertise with Andrew’s experience in food service to streamline the company’s operations and logistics. She pioneered the use of technology for tasks like tracking inventory and re-ordering ingredients, a practice other American Chinese restaurants had not yet adopted.
- Panda Express began growing rapidly, expanding to 97 restaurants within 10 years. “In the beginning, we said we wanted to be the McDonald’s of the East,” Peggy Cherng told Bloomberg Businessweek.
- Panda Express sold an estimated 90 million pounds of its best-selling orange chicken in 2018, and purchased 22 million pounds of broccoli in 2017
- The Cherngs found gold in their family-owned business. The couple is ranked No. 838 on Forbes’ Billionaires List of the richest people in the world.
- “Back in 1973 it was about making a living for the family,” the couple said in a statement to Forbes. “Today it’s about challenging ourselves and seeing what all of us on the team can achieve; living into Panda’s mission of inspiring better lives.”
- Two of the Cherngs’ three children work for Panda Express’ corporate parent, Panda Restaurant Group. Andrea Cherng (pictured below) is the chief marketing officer, while Nicole Cherng is the manager of catering and special events.
- The Cherngs frequently cite their philosophy of treating employees well and allowing them to improve and advance their careers. The couple purchased a 12-foot high, multimillion-dollar Robert Indiana ‘LOVE’ sculpture to display outside their corporate headquarters in Rosemead, California to represent that.
- “Love is the verb we emphasize with our Panda family,” Peggy Cherng told The Times. “We must respect and care for each other. We must push and stretch each other.”