For a short time a few years ago, visitors to some Panda Express restaurants might have noticed something unusual on the menu: a firm, fruity cup of gelatin for sale.
Unbeknown to customers, the simple dessert encompassed the passion, friction and, ultimately, compromise that has propelled Panda Restaurant Group into the nation's largest chain of Chinese fast-food restaurants.
Husband and wife entrepreneurs Andrew and Peggy Cherng had a fundamental disagreement: Andrew liked the gelatin but Peggy didn't believe it was worthy to take a place alongside orange chicken, chow mein and other favorites on the limited menu.
They compromised; the couple decided to test the gelatin at limited outlets. It was a dud.
"It wasn't that good," remembered Alan Huang, the company's vice president of operations, who has known the couple for more than 20 years.
Peggy was right, and Andrew agreed to take if off the menu. But at other times, Andrew has been right and gotten his way.
It wasn't the smallest disagreement the Chinese emigrants have had in their 35-year rise to the top in the U.S. food business, nor was it the largest but it was an example of the way they let each other innovate.
"They are like yin and yang," said Senior Vice President of Field Operations Eugene Lam, who has worked with the couple since they opened their first restaurant in Pasadena in 1973. "One balances the other out. When they combine together they create almost a perfect company."
It's strong praise, but it's hard to deny the numbers.
Over the last decade the Rosemead-based chain has seen explosive growth under the couple's guidance, and is currently expanding at a rate of three outlets a week. Last year, sales topped $1.1 billion and there are now more than 1,000 restaurants in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan.
Moreover, the company has retained a spot on the Los Angeles Business Journal's list of fastest growing private companies for the past seven years, and has made frequent appearances on other lists, including best employer and largest minority-owned companies.
It's this kind of performance that has led the Business Journal to choose the couple as the latest inductees into its Business Hall of Fame. Past honorees include Alfred Mann and Richard Riordan.
And the Cherngs highly educated immigrants who rose from modest roots while raising a family show no sign of slowing. While they have loosened the reins a bit in recent years three years ago Peggy gave up the chief executive slot they are still in the office nearly every day and are the sole directors. They have their eyes set on almost doubling the company's revenues to $2 billion by 2010.
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