UNLV is a fertile training ground for Panda Restaurant Group — one of the most successful fast-casual companies in the U.S. and internationally, with more than 70 restaurants in the Las Vegas market alone. According to Vice President of Operations Royce Chow, nearly half of Panda’s local restaurants are managed by UNLV students or alumni.
“UNLV has been a source of bright managers who are helping us grow,” Chow says. “There have been so many alumni who have worked at Panda over the years that, honestly, we’ve lost count.”
But one of many alumni who have put down roots at Panda is Oliver Wu, ’13 BS Hospitality Management. Now, as UNLV's William F. Harrah College of Hospitality is set to launch a new fast-casual concentration made possible by a gift from Panda Restaurant Group co-founders Andrew and Peggy Cherng, Wu reflects on how his UNLV education — and a surprising conversation with Royce Chow — led to a robust and growing career at Panda.
Please share a little about your background — where you grew up, your education, your family.
I spent my early childhood in Taiwan until the age of 13, when my parents decided to send my sister and me to Southern California for a chance at a brighter future. I studied at Fullerton College after high school for two years before transferring to UNLV. During school, I worked at a tea shop to support my education.
Why did you choose UNLV?
Having worked at the tea shop and wanting to start a career in a fast-paced industry, I decided to pursue a degree in hospitality. The ever-changing landscape and never-the-same-days at a restaurant always excited me. UNLV has a great program and also happens to be in one of the most fast-paced cities in the world. Las Vegas is a combination of everything I was looking for — excitement, learning, and opportunities.
When did you start working at Panda, and what made you decide to embrace it as a career?
While I was in my senior year, I was looking for a part-time job. One day, I visited a Panda Express location near my place and the manager asked me if I needed a part-time job. I was thinking “Great! This is what I need.”
I did not think working at Panda would become my career at first, but Royce Chow, our current zone vice president, visited our store and my career and personal growth trajectory changed in that moment. I still remember I was very nervous and was running through the possible conversations that Royce and I might have about my store and performance. Then, Royce walked in, greeted me and asked, “Do you own a house?”
I looked at him and was in shock. “What does that have to do with anything?” I asked myself. The next thing I know, we had about an hour conversation about how I may own my first house one day — tips, financials, the process — all of the complexities! I was very curious and asked him, “Why are we talking about this?” He then told me that he believes it is important to create roots and a sense of family, and one of the most important steps is to own a house. And he wanted to help me to achieve that dream.
Three months later, I purchased my first house. That was the moment I knew Panda Express is the place I belong because it became more than a job; Panda became a second family. To this day, Royce and I remain close. He has been a supervisor (I recruit for his region), a mentor, a friend, and an older brother. As a recruiter for Panda, I get to help others discover their journey and purpose through the growth and learning opportunities we offer here. That is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do every day.
What is the greatest challenge of your job? How did UNLV prepare you for the challenges?
As a recruiter, one of the most important skillsets is knowing how to work with different types of people, whether it be the leaders I’m supporting or candidates I’m interviewing. It is also the most challenging part of the job, navigating so many different personalities and tailoring strategy and communications for each. I believe that the most important aspect is teamwork and collaboration, which I experienced and learned at UNLV through group projects and campus activities.
What helped me to excel quickly at Panda was majoring in hospitality, where I took courses that were immediately applicable to my first assistant manager role at Panda and equipped me to drive for results with my team. After four weeks, I was promoted to general manager, a role in which I really focused on recruiting, interviewing, and associate engagement.
What do UNLV graduates — what special skills or qualities — do they bring to the Panda family?
I see most of my interviewees from UNLV share common qualities such as career ambition, can-do attitude, willingness to learn, and wanting to excel in both life and career. Most UNLV candidates also have strong communication skills. Perhaps that is due to the fact that the campus is very diverse and is a pool where different cultures and languages gather. Being at UNLV, you are exposed to diversity and different ways of communicating with people.
What excites you about the proposed fast-casual concentration at the College of Hospitality?
I remember having this similar conversation with my mother a couple years ago. She told me that working in an office as an office manager, you get to do all the critical thinking and planning on how to make things work. Working in construction, you get to put in physical labor and sweat. Working in marketing, you get to be innovative and create attractive new ideas. Now, working in fast-casual hospitality, I get to do EVERYTHING. A fast-causal restaurant challenges us both physically and mentally. I am excited to see how UNLV can prepare more future leaders in this segment and help them to excel in their careers.
Who is your hero?
I have three heroes in my life. My mother was my first hero. When I was a kid growing up, she was the solution to everything and provided for the family. Royce Chow is my second hero. He always challenged me to expand my way of thinking, and he is the role model of “walk the talk.” Andrew Cherng is also my hero. His immigrant story, from humble beginnings to where he is now, is incredibly inspiring to me. Peggy and Andrew built the largest Asian dining concept in the U.S., and they’re not slowing down! They put their influence and resources back to help our people and our communities that truly make a difference in people’s lives.
What advice do you have for UNLV students today?
Life may throw many kinds of challenges at you. Growth happens when discomfort is happening at the same time. So, my best advice is learn to embrace the uncomfortable as it will build your strength to take on more in life. And always remember to give back and be appreciative for what you have. That way, good fortune will always find you.
Was there a person or an experience at UNLV that stands out as the most pivotal or inspiring?
At UNLV, there are three instructors who shaped me into who I am today. Professor Dana Cotham’s hospitality law class was tough, but being in her class taught me that hard work pays off. Then Professor Sunny Kim’s accounting and technology class honed my quantitative analysis skills, which I used when working at Panda managing store costs and also at my current job as a field recruiter. Lastly, Arte Nathan’s class improved my critical thinking and drive for innovation in business. I am forever grateful for the education I received from all the professors.
What would others be surprised to learn about you?
I used to compete in gaming and achieved top 16th team on a game in Taiwan years back. I am still a gamer today! I believe in work hard and play hard!