The most infamous Chinese-food chain is building an empire to compete with Chipotle

Panda Express trying to leave its mall food court image behind.

The Chinese-food chain has recently taken stakes in trendy fast-casual restaurants like Just Salad and Pieology Pizza, which have a combined 111 restaurants right now, reports Leslie Patton at Bloomberg News.

The brand, which has more than 1,700 locations, is also aggressively looking to invest in other hot restaurant concepts.

Panda Express hopes the investments will help it take steps to elevate its reputation and compete with Chipotle and Panera Bread.

For instance, it plans to adopt Just Salad’s system for quick delivery to consumers, according to Bloomberg.

Just Salad is a concept that makes custom salads using premium ingredients like grass-fed steak, local produce, and fresh pita chips.

Pieology, which Technomic named the fastest-growing restaurant chain in America, lets customers build-their own pizzas with options ranging from wheat crust to gluten-free crust to vegetarian pizzas to dairy-free cheese. There are 40 toppings, and a custom pizza is $8 or less.

Pieology PizzasPieologyPieology lets customers build their own pizzas using premium ingredients.

Panda Express’ motive for investing in these properties is clear.

The American-style Chinese restaurant’s reputation is struggling, founder Peggy Cherng told The New York Times last fall.

Panda Express’ food is generally seen as more of a guilty pleasure than a popular trend like going to Chipotle.

Panda Express is notorious for selling items like orange chicken, which is deep-fried and covered in sugary sauces. The brand has responded with a new Wok Smart menu that offers entrees for 300 calories or less.

The brand is also plagued by the idea that it uses additives in its food at a time when consumers are demanding fare that is fresh and natural.

“We need to focus on basic execution,” Cherng told The Times. “No matter what, the food speaks for itself.”

Marina Nazario contributed to this story.

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