As Asian immigrants who turned a Los Angeles-area mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant into a multibillion-dollar corporation, Andrew and Dr. Peggy Cherng know a little something about living the American dream.
They also know a little something about what’s required to achieve that dream: Hard work and perseverance. Ingenuity, adaptability, and humility. A whole lot of guts. And a little bit luck.
Each of those ingredients was essential to the Cherngs growing their Panda Restaurant Group into one of the nation’s largest, most successful privately owned restaurant companies — including more than 2,200 Panda Express stores. It's made the Cherngs the undisputed champions of the fast-casual restaurant concept.
But the couple, who this year celebrated their 45th anniversary, will be the first to tell you that genuine life fulfillment comes not from an annual revenue report but rather what you do with those revenues to improve the lives of others. Call it the secret ingredient to truly living the American dream: giving back.
“Giving is essential for us,” says Peggy Cherng. “Giving allows us to show our appreciation to communities that embraced us.”
Adds Andrew Cherng: “We didn’t have a lot growing up, so we are very blessed to have what we have today. Giving back and helping others are our way of paying it forward — it’s simply a question of why not give back when we can?”
Through the years, academic institutions have benefited greatly from that giving philosophy, as the Cherngs have donated millions of dollars to support various university programs. UNLV became the latest benefactor when the Cherngs recently donated $5 million to the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality. This historic gift, announced during a small celebration on September 10, will be used to enhance current programs and create new ones — including a first-of-its-kind fast-casual concentration.
It continues a valued relationship that began several years ago when the Cherngs relocated to Las Vegas and were introduced to Hospitality College Dean Stowe Shoemaker. Not long after that initial introduction, Andrew Cherng began serving on the Hospitality College’s Dean’s Global Advisory Board.
“Since moving to Las Vegas, we have gotten to know the community as well as Dean Shoemaker,” says Andrew Cherng. “We believe in his vision and passion for the fast-casual space and know the [new fast-casual] program will help so many students discover a great career path and financial success.
“UNLV’s hospitality program and staff are top-notch, and we want to be part of developing these students and providing them with opportunities to thrive in all aspects of their lives. We look forward to the program growing and becoming very relevant under UNLV’s leadership.”
Shoemaker calls the gift “transformative” for the college.
“With this gift, I and future deans will be able to ensure that the educational opportunities presented to students are at the highest level,” he says. “What’s especially inspiring is the primary motivation for Mr. and Dr. Cherng has always been trying to improve the lives and opportunities of people — that’s their core philosophy. They practice this belief every day as they run their business. And their success has allowed them to give back to organizations that share their same beliefs.”
The relationship between the Hospitality College and Panda Restaurant Group goes far beyond a friendship between the Cherngs and Shoemaker. In fact, of the 70 Panda Express restaurants based in Southern Nevada, no fewer than 30 are managed by current Hospitality College students or alumni. Additional alumni left the Southern Nevada market to assist with Panda’s national growth, having been promoted to leadership positions. On top of that, dozens of UNLV students work as associates at Panda’s local stores, including one at the campus Student Union.
“We have been fortunate to recruit UNLV alumni who are growing in the company,” Andrew Cherng says. “Many have since transferred out of state to open up Panda stores in other markets, taking their knowledge from UNLV and their Las Vegas Panda experience to help others.”
More than just a paycheck, all of the current and former UNLV students who have worked for Panda have benefitted from the organization’s deep-seated ambition to enrich the mind, body and soul of every associate. It’s a culture that Andrew Cherng says places a strong emphasis on developing not just better employees but better people “in a way that inspires them to better their lives and see more possibilities for themselves, for each other, and for our company.”
Shoemaker, for one, has witnessed first-hand the positive impact of that employee-first philosophy.
“Our students who have chosen to work with Panda have truly had life-changing experiences,” Shoemaker says. “For not only do the Cherngs educate their associates on how to better do their jobs, but they also spend a lot of time educating them on how to lead better lives. They truly are concerned about the holistic view of the employee, not just what the employee can do for them over the course of their daily eight-hour shift. And that’s rare.”
Also rare: A university’s hospitality program offering students the opportunity to learn the complexities of the fast-casual restaurant industry that Panda has dominated since the first Panda Express opened in the food court of a southern California mall in 1983. A spinoff of the Panda Inn full-service restaurant that Andrew Cherng opened a decade earlier in Pasadena, California, the original Panda Express served customers top-quality Chinese food but at a faster pace and lower price point.
When Panda Express proved an immediate hit, the Cherngs set about expanding to additional food courts, and later brick-and-mortar establishments. By 1993, the company had opened its 100th Panda Express location. Today, Panda Restaurant Group operates more than 2,200 restaurants (including dozens under the Hibachi-San brand of Japanese teppanyaki grills). Those establishments — which are spread across 49 U.S. states/territories and 12 countries — are staffed by more than 40,000 associates.
Given the immense success of Panda Express across nearly four decades, it’s no surprise that many competitors over the years have jumped into the fast-casual game — which means those Hospitality College students who choose to pursue the fast-casual concentration are poised to have a distinct advantage when they enter what is an ever-expanding job market.
“Peggy and I have enjoyed great success through Panda, and we wanted to help provide an education and curriculum for the fast-casual industry to help young talent see the possibilities in this sector,” Andrew Cherng says. “Fast-casual restaurants continue to be one of the fastest-growing industries, even in the midst of the pandemic. We believe the fast-casual sector is still not well understood, but through this specialized program, we’ll be able to introduce this exciting entrepreneurial career to more young talent.
“Students who choose the fast-casual concentration will be able to learn everything that goes into running their own business, from cleaning the store to business strategies for growth.”
That opportunity to gain a broad range of skills is a big reason why Shoemaker believes the new concentration, which will launch its first class in the spring semester, will be a big hit with current and future Hospitality College students.
“Managing a fast-casual restaurant is very technical,” he says. “It requires financial knowledge; it requires human-resources knowledge — the understanding of human behavior as you try to build a team. It also involves lots of peaks and valleys, if you consider the breakfast, lunch and dinner rushes, as well as a broad understanding of all of the operational aspects of running a restaurant. The people who run these restaurants are well paid because of the talent it takes to run the operations.”
And who knows? Maybe a future UNLV Hospitality College student who completes the fast-casual concentration will one day create their own restaurant concept, work tirelessly to grow it into a multibillion-dollar business, and live their version of the American dream.
Certainly, nothing would be more pleasing to Andrew and Peggy Cherng — especially if that future entrepreneur was generous enough to pay it forward.
“Our mission is about supporting people in our industry,” Andrew Cherng says. “That includes support through education, health needs, and related charities. We believe strongly that generosity can become contagious the more you practice it.”
And practice they have: Since establishing their philanthropic arm, the Panda Cares Foundation, the Cherngs have raised more than $216 million. That’s in addition to countless personal gifts, such as the one bestowed upon the Hospitality College.
“This gift shows that Mr. and Dr. Cherng have faith that the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality is heading in the right direction and that they want to help us continue to move forward,” Shoemaker says. “It shows they believe our college isn’t just educating students but truly changing their lives.”