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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, February 26, 2006

Panda revs up for 'MotoMania,' drive-thru

By Simplicio Paragas
Dining Out Editor

A familiar face at the counter for the past 13 years, Esther Chan knows many patrons by their first names.

Photos by Randy T. Fujimori

Randal Abrams, left, and Andrew Pygott get revved up for MotoMania.

Panda Express

Locations: Ala Moana (941-8686); Kahala Mall (739-5098); Kaneohe Center (236-0300); Windward (247-8668); Kapolei (674-1617); Daiei Waipahu (677-2237); Pearlridge (488-1238); Hawaii Kai (396-4088)

Neighbor Islands: Kaahamanu Center, Kahalui, Maui (877-5645); Kihei, Maui (879-0883)

Hours: Call for hours.

Panda Express founder Andrew Cherng has parlayed orange chicken, chow mein and fried rice into a growing empire that next year will top more than a billion dollar in sales.

Already the nation's largest Asian restaurant chain with more than 800 locations scattered throughout 34 states on the Mainland and Puerto Rico and two in Japan, Panda Express plans to open 175 new locations this year, including one each on Maui, Hilo and Kauai, and another two on Oahu.

"The one in Moanalua Shopping Center will be the first-ever, free-standing, drive-through Chinese restaurant on the Island," said John Zhang, Panda Express' area coach of operations. "We've got managers in place and a 22-foot-tall inflatable Panda ready for our grand opening in July."

A decade after opening the fine-dining Panda Inn in California in 1973, Cherng established Panda Express, which now has sites on university campuses, theme parks, shopping malls, baseball parks and even in Las Vegas casinos.

"It's a well recognized brand name," Zhang said. "When I'm flying and wearing my Panda shirt, people always ask me if I brought any orange chicken with me."

Distinguishing it from other fast-food restaurants, Panda Express training leader and Hawaii Kai's general manager Randal Abrams is quick to point out that Panda Express offers "quick service" and not "fast food."

"The closest we'll come to a french fry is with our chicken potato," he quipped. "We offer quality food at an affordable price."

Panda plates run from $5.19 for a "Panda Bowl" to $5.99 for a two-entree plate to $7.19 for a three-item dish. All entrees come with a choice of steamed or fried rice, chow mein or mixed veggies.

Favorites include the orange chicken, Mongolian beef, Mandarin chicken, barbecue pork, beef broccoli and fried shrimp.

One of the best ways to feed the family here is to order the "Panda Feast," which is enough for four to five people.

For $27, the package includes three large entrees and two large orders of steamed or fried rice or chow mein.

Panda also offers party packs, starting at $95 for 16 people, which breaks down to less than $6 per person.

"Where can you get this type of quality food for this price?" Abrams asked in a rhetorical tone. "We also have a $130 menu for 24 people, which breaks down to $5.42 and another one for 32 people that costs $5 per person."

Consistency and quality are key at Panda Express and both Abrams and Zhang are quick to credit their staff for maintaining the chain's high standards.

"We've got chefs who've been with us for a long time," Zhang said. "So the food is always consistent."

With hopes of eventually opening 30 stores statewide, Zhang is excited about Panda Express' future.

"We've been stagnant for six years," he said. "It's time to grow."

Expansion plans, though, are not the only reason Abrams is revved up.

This Wednesday from noon to 7 p.m., the parking lot fronting the Hawaii Kai store will be the site of "MotoMania."

"I've attended rallies like this in Los Angeles and Seattle, and thought we needed one here in Hawaii," said Abrams, who is the driving force behind this event. "I'd be sitting at Starbucks and I'd see 20 guys on bikes with no place to go. But now they do."

Held every first and third Wednesday, the Hawaii Kai MotoMania hopes to draw 150 to 200 motorcycle enthusiasts from all walks of life.

"I've hit the pavement trying to get word out about this," said Abrams, who drives a Suzuki Hayabusa GSX 1300R, the world's fastest bike which can reach speeds of up to 200 mph. "But once the word spreads, there's going to be a lot of energy."

Cordoned off with black-and-white checkered flags, the half dozen parking spaces will allow bikers to talk story, show off their "babies" and, of course, grab a plate of fried rice and a side of orange chicken, sweet-and-sour pork and chow funn before getting back on the road. (If you show your motorcycle keys, you'll get a 15-percent discount.)

"We want to create a Starbucks-like environment here," Zhang said. "We want people to come here to talk story. And now they can do this beyond the restaurant and into the parking lot."

For more information about MotoMania, contact Randal Abrams at 221-9851.