What it's like to visit the Panda Express test kitchen that customers are calling 'Panda Chipotle'

As Panda Express works to ditch its mall-food-court reputation, one location in Pasadena, California is key to shaping the future of the brand. 

While the American-Chinese food chain is famous for dishes like Orange Chicken, this trendy spot is the only location where you can order items like the Orange Chicken Wrap — a burrito that wraps the classic fried chicken and crispy wontons in a scallion pancake. 

The Panda Express Innovation Kitchen has served as a live test kitchen for the chain since 2014, allowing the company to gather customer feedback while testing new items. 

While at the typical Panda Express, customers build a plate from various pots of menu options, the Panda Innovation kitchen uses a model popularised by the recent influx in fast-casual chains: the build-your-own bowl or burrito option. 

Some customers call the location a “Panda Chipotle,” as customers have the option to build a rice or noodle bowl, salad, or a scallion pancake wrap.

 “We went through so many iterations of scallion pancakes,” Panda Express spokesperson Thien Ho told Business Insider.

The scallion pancake is just one dish that you can only find at the Innovation Kitchen. Toppings like green papaya slaw and pickled cucumbers, as well as new sauces like citrus ginger vinaigrette are unique to the location. 

Then, there’s the tea bar, which serves up teas, smoothies, and shakes with boba bubbles, chia seeds, and fruit jelly. This is a test that’s actually expanding beyond the Innovation Kitchen, with locations across the country adding new beverages and tea bars of their own. 

Even the design of the Innovation Kitchen sets it apart from the average Panda Express location. According to Ho, the company worked with a Chinese-American architecture firm to identify the Chinese-American aesthetics the chain wants to work into its designs. 

As a result, the location is open and minimalist, filled with clean lines and wood textures. 

When customers order, they don’t use the trays that defined the chain in its food-court days. 

While many of these changes will likely never become the norm at locations across the US, the Innovation Kitchen could be key to the future of Panda Express.

The company has recently taken stake in trendy fast-casual chains like Just Salad and Pieology Pizza and rolled out new, healthier options like Pacific Chilli Shrimp. It’s clear that Panda Express is looking for ways to keep up with the fast-casual competition — and these changes are likely being tested in the Innovation Kitchen. 

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