Last week, a restaurant listing on China’s Yelp-like app Dianping had a certain corner of the foodie internet wondering whether American Chinese fast food brand Panda Express had opened an outlet in China.
Some of America’s most famous fast food chains have localized heavily in the hopes of winning over the Chinese market, so in some ways, it might make sense if Panda Express was eyeing the country for expansion — even if their offerings are really distant culinary cousins of Chinese dishes rather than close relatives.
In the few days after its opening, what appeared to be Panda Express’ debut restaurant in China won a host of attention on social media, a shout out from the country’s national TV network, and some not-terrible reviews. Yet today, a Panda Express executive disowned the restaurant, calling it “a fake” and a “fraud.”
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The story started when a restaurant identifying itself as “Panda Express 熊猫餐厅” opened in Kunming, a city in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. The new outlet came with a nearly-identical logo and similar decor to the US chain. State TV network CGTN took to the Twitter-like Weibo platform to announce that, “the biggest American Chinese food chain in the US, Panda Express, has opened its first store in China, a local shopping center has confirmed.”
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However, on Monday, co-founder and joint CEO of Panda Restaurant Group (which owns Panda Express), Andrew Cherng, delivered a strong statement via the China Cuisine Association’s website, saying “I am telling everyone truthfully that the recent hype in China recently on ‘America’s Panda Express Opens a Restaurant in Yunnan’ is fake. It is a fraud.”
Update: This has now been followed by a full statement in English:
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Before the news broke that the restaurant was not a real Panda Express, reaction on the Chinese internet had been mixed. The reports were met with bemusement on social media, with some wondering why an American Chinese outlet would try and go toe-to-toe with Chinese Chinese restaurants and others confused as to why they’d open in Kunming instead of somewhere like Beijing or Shanghai.
Nevertheless, not all reviews of the restaurant were negative. “I come here almost every day,” reads one four star review on Dianping. “The restaurant ambiance is quite Western in style, and the food is affordable and delicious.”
Customers looking for an authentic Panda Express experience were less positive. “I went to the restaurant with excitement before I quickly got disappointed,” writes one such visitor. “No choice for bowl or plate, no Lo Mein, no Beijing Beef, no Crab Rangoon. And of course, no fortune cookie.”
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With 2,174 locations across the US, Panda Express was founded by Chinese American couple Andrew and Peggy Cherng in 1983. Although the brand opened branches in Korea and Japan in 2014 and 2016 respectively, Cherng was once quoted as saying, “China does not need Panda Express. The competition there is way too fierce and our food is created for non-Chinese customers.”
Cover photo: A (real) Panda Express branch in the US.
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