Panda Express opens its doors

WAIPOULI — Panda Express made its island debut Monday morning in the Kaua‘i Village shopping center in Waipouli.

About 100 people were on hand to check out Hawai‘i’s 12th location, and first outside of O‘ahu and Maui.

“It’s fun to try something different for Kaua‘i,” said Leana Davis, who came with her mother and siblings.

“The customers like us and welcome us,” said John Zhang, a Panda Restaurant Group trainer on hand for the grand opening. “We bring something to the community.”

Though Zhang was referring to Panda Care, the parent company’s philanthropic wing, most on hand came because Panda Express brought something else — free food.

Lured with the promise of a free meal for the first 88 people through the door, Kauaians gathered outside the restaurant for at least an hour before the 10:30 a.m. opening time.

To Zhang, that kind of interest holds promise. Over the next two years, the low-cost, buffet-style chain will open 10 more locations in Hawai‘i, including a second Kaua‘i location, a drive through, in Kukui Grove Center sometime next summer.

“If those two do $1 million per year in sales, we’ll look into another one,” Zhang said. The Los Angeles-base Panda Restaurant Group, which also operates Panda Inn and Hibachi-san, is expanding to Hilo and Kona on the Big Island, but has no plans for other islands.

“We need a population of about 40,000 or 50,000,” Zhang said. So far, Panda Express has hired 12 Kauaians, and is looking to round out the staff size at about 25.

From its inception in 1973 in Pasadena, Calif., Panda Express has grown to the largest Chinese food server in the country, with more than 800 locations in 34 states, Japan and Puerto Rico. The chain’s first Hawai‘i location, opened in 1987 in Waikiki, is consistently ranked first in sales volume, he said.

Ford Gunter, business reporter, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or fgunter@kauaipubco.com.

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