Next time you belly up to the counter at Panda Express for some orange chicken, remember this: The employees serving you really like their jobs.

It’s not a common refrain heard in the fast-food industry, where workers are often the butt of jokes or harassment, especially in the 2020 days of mask mandates.

Panda Restaurant Group, a family-operated company based in Rosemead, has been making crave-worthy entrees for nearly 50 years and says it sticks to a people-first mentality. The chain has grown to 47 restaurants in Orange County with 695 employees.

The company is among the top honorees in 2020’s Top Workplaces program, its sixth consecutive award.

This year was especially trying for restaurants as the coronavirus locked down many dining rooms across California. Panda, with 2,200 locations nationwide, pivoted to delivery and curbside service while investing millions in protective gear and safety protocols for its employees. Its philanthropic foundation, Panda Cares, donated more than $5 million worth of personal protective equipment to hospitals and provided more than 50,000 meals to frontline workers.

In the early days of coronavirus restrictions, Ru Chen, PRG’s regional director of operations, said the company applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan “to ensure we would be able to take care of our Panda family.” The company opted to return 100% of its loan, Chen said, “so that other eligible small businesses could benefit from the program.”

Panda Express in Hacienda Heights, CA, on Monday, Oct 29, 2018. The restaurant chain, owned by Panda Restaurant Group, was voted by as one of the Top Workplaces for employees to work. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“As a family-owned business that started out with a single restaurant, our company can truly empathize with small businesses during this time,” he said. “We know many of our restaurant industry peers are having to make difficult decisions, and we must lean in to support one another as best as we can right now.”

Its employees in the survey commended the company for offering them room to grow and a “fun place to work.” Staff also says PRG is putting their safety first. “It feels like a safe environment,” said one employee. “Management and Panda overall really seem to think about our safety first. Most people you meet here strive for the same thing — getting it done.”

Chen shared with us how PRG’s culture sets it above so many other chains in the region. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Food service is an industry with high turnover. How does PRG keep its employees happily on its payroll?

A: Panda has always had a people-first culture. If we invest in our people and our associates are happy, they will in return be able to best serve our guests. Our co-founders, Andrew and Peggy Cherngs, take great pride in creating a healthy work environment where individuals are encouraged to grow professionally and personally.

Q: If my daughter wanted a job at Panda, how would you sell her on the working environment?

A: Panda is a fast-paced work environment with tremendous opportunities for growth. While we offer competitive pay and benefits, what’s even more valuable is the mentorship and leadership she would be exposed to. Many associates have shared that they find purpose and a sense of belonging within the Panda organization and co-workers become a second family.

Q: Tell us about the success stories in the Panda kitchen…

A: Daniel Pelagio is one of our most respected leaders. He’s been with Panda for 26 years. He started as a dishwasher and quickly learned how to cook from the chefs. With grit, determination and a desire to become better, he rose to assistant manager, training leader and eventually regional director of operations. He has influenced and impacted hundreds of Panda associates’ lives.

Q: Shifting to the pandemic, how did Panda pivot during lockdowns?

A: We have continuously invested in new health and safety measures to uphold our commitment to high operational standards. This includes implementing contactless service, reinforcing proper handwashing every 15 minutes, supplying our associates with face masks and gloves, as well as creating social distancing and limiting capacity guidelines in stores as recommended by the CDC.

Q:  Were benefits enhanced during the pandemic?

A: We have invested more than $25 million in additional benefits for our people, including health and safety pay, store closure pay, change of operations pay, appreciation pay and leave share program. We have also established a Panda aid COVID-19 health hotline made up of medical specialists who can take calls 24/7 for associates who are facing mental or physical health concerns.

Q: Tell us about any surprise successes during the pandemic …

A: We recognized that grocery stores were running low on supplies and that it was challenging to find food at an affordable price. Panda launched a Family Meal promotion for $20, which is a $40 value. Our guests found this promotion highly beneficial for their families and helped generate sales for our stores.

Q:  What is PRG looking forward to in the New Year?

A: 2020 has taught us to be nimble and agile. It has been a challenging year for everyone, but it also proved to me what an incredible company we are part of. Panda not only ensured our associates and guests were taken care of, but also our co-founders and company truly lived into our Panda value of giving.

Panda Restaurant Group

Founded: 1973

Industry: Restaurants

Headquarters: Rosemead

OC employees: 1,132

Website: pandarg.com

Quote: “2020 has taught us to be nimble and agile. It has been a challenging year for everyone, but it also proved to me what an incredible company we are part of.” Ru Chen, PRG’s regional director of operations

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By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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