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Architecture + Branding: Panda Express sheds old aesthetics and forges ahead into bright and fresh future

1-Holding court

Ever present in food courts, malls, casinos, airports, college campuses, and military bases, Panda Express currently offers its take on American-Chinese cuisine across much of the United States.

Tracing its origins to 1973 and the Panda Inn in Pasadena, California, the Panda Express brand opened its first location in the Glendale Galleria in southern California in 1983 (source: pandarg.com, americanbuildersquarterly.com, nwaretail.com, memphisdailynews.com).

In the years that followed, the brand added numerous locations, breaking through several milestones at an accelerating pace. Panda Express opened store number 100 in 1992, number 500 in 2002, and its 1,500th store in 2012 (source: pandarg.com, qsrmagazine.com, memphisdailynews.com, americanbuildersquarterly.com, fastcasual.com). Without going the franchising route, all units are company-owned and operated by parent company, Panda Restaurant Group, Inc., which operates nearly 1,800 restaurants located predominantly in the United States (source: pandarg.com, memphisdailynews.com). Along with a handful of other restaurant brands, Panda Express, the largest and most important of the sub-brands, make up the PRG, Inc. portfolio (source: pandarg.com).

Accordingly, the exponential growth has meant that the brand also needed to expand beyond the confines of the food court.

2-Red awning

The late 1980s and early 1990s would see the brand branch out beyond the shopping malls, experimenting with store-within-a-store formats, and building out retail storefronts and free-standing locations (source: wikipedia.org, memphisdailynews.com). And, in 1997, Panda Express opened its first stand-alone, drive-through restaurant, in Hesperia, California (source: wikipedia.org, memphisdailynews.com).

Whereas the brand largely lacked the opportunity to maximize/establish its own built environment design aesthetic before, moving beyond the mall definitely opened up myriad possibilities. However, the process from food court to free-standing restaurant seemed somewhat haphazard, combining an array of disjointed building styles, geometries, formats, sizes and heights.

PRG - Panda Express 1075 Veterans Pkwy Clarksville IN 1 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front view, 1075 Veterans Parkway, Clarksville, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1075 Veterans Pkwy Clarksville IN 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 1075 Veterans Parkway, Clarksville, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1075 Veterans Pkwy Clarksville IN 3 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 1075 Veterans Parkway, Clarksville, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 9090 Metcalf Avenue Overland Park KS 4 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 9090 Metcalf Avenue, Overland Park, Kansas (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1491 West Covell Blvd Davis CA 4 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 1491 West Covell Boulevard, Davis, California (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1491 West Covell Blvd Davis CA 5 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, rear 3/4 view, 1491 West Covell Boulevard, Davis, California (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 2828 S Figueroa Street Los Angeles CA 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 2828 S Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 2828 S Figueroa Street Los Angeles CA 5 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 2828 S Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 7376 Cherry Ave Fontana CA 5 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 7376 Cherry Avenue, Fontana, California (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 7376 Cherry Ave Fontana CA 3 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, rear 3/4 view, 7376 Cherry Avenue, Fontana, California (source: maps.google.com)

Furthermore, when ganged together amongst other retailers, the brand’s ability to fully apply its exterior trade dress can be constrained. At times, Panda Express would fit seamlessly into the surroundings, adopting the adjacent, ordained, localized or predominant aesthetic.

PRG - Panda Express 425 S Sunrise Way Palm Springs CA 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view,  425 S Sunrise Way, Palm Springs, California (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 3560 East Woodmen Rd Suite 140 Colorado Springs CO 3 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, side 3/4 view, 3560 East Woodmen Road, Suite 140, Colorado Springs, Colorado (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 125 N Randall Rd Batavia IL 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front view, 125 N Randall Road, Batavia, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

DSC13475 - PRG Panda Express 1933 W Burnside Street Portland OR

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 1933 W Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon

DSC13476 - PRG Panda Express 1933 W Burnside Street Portland OR

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 1933 W Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon

PRG - Panda Express 2960 South Academy Blvd Colorado Springs CO 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 2960 South Academy Blvd, Colorado Springs, Colorado (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 302 S Wells Chicago IL 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front view, 302 S Wells, Chicago, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 505 Taggart Dr NW Salem OR 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, side 3/4 view, 505 Taggart Drive NW, Salem, Oregon (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1480 Fillmore Street San Francisco CA 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 1480 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, California source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 2020 Southgate Road Colorado Springs CO 3 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 2020 Southgate Road, Colorado Springs, Colorado (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 19847 Century Blvd Suite O Germantown MD 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 19847 Century Blvd, Suite O, Germantown, Maryland (source: maps.google.com)

And other times, it stood out with bold colours and graphics, different roof line, parapet treatments, or other design variation.

PRG - Panda Express 5020 El Cerrito Plaza El Cerrito CA 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front view, 5020 El Cerrito Plaza, El Cerrito, California (source: maps.google.com)

Additionally, not averse to taking over former tenant spaces, Panda Express built up a varied repertoire as it built out its store portfolio.

PRG - Panda Express 7040 Old Keene Mill Road Springfield VA 5 2012 https___www.google FORMER LT (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 7040 Old Keene Mill Road, Springfield, Massachusetts FORMER Liberty Travel (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1605 South Riverside Avenue Rialto CA 2 https___www.google (2) FORMER HV

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 1605 South Riverside Avenue, Rialto, California FORMER Hollywood Video (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1605 South Riverside Avenue Rialto CA 8 https___www.google (2) FORMER HV

Panda Express, rear 3/4 view, 1605 South Riverside Avenue, Rialto, California FORMER Hollywood Video (source: maps.google.com)

Admittedly, few brands manage to maintain a perfect score for brand adherence in the built environment. Considerations with regards to site, geography, local ordinances, building codes, and zoning, inject some level of design accommodation. Additionally, inherent variation, tweaks, and improvements also make for locations that can vary, slightly or profoundly, from one another.

However, establishing and maintaining common design elements can help bring together disharmonious designs under a broad brand umbrella.

In the case of Panda Express, red awnings, or red awnings with a checker-board motif, over the window openings became an oft-repeated, and brand defining design element.

3-Purple reign

Over the course of the 2000s, Panda Express had largely moved beyond relying primarily on the red awning.

Adopting a rectangular, narrow and deep, the freestanding restaurants averaged between 2,100 to 2,500 square feet in size (source: nwaretail.com, gerdingcollaborative.com). Although the geometry is rather straightforward, a minimum of articulation, mainly centered at the entrances, break up the otherwise long wall expanses.

PRG - Panda Express 9815 East 71st Street Tulsa OK 1 Aerial https___maps.google (2)

Panda Express, aerial view, 9815 East 71st Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 9815 East 71st Street Tulsa OK 4 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 9815 East 71st Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 9815 East 71st Street Tulsa OK 6 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 9815 East 71st Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

Additionally, the opaque nature of the rear portion of the restaurants telegraphs the customer arrival portion from the support/delivery portion of the floor plan. Large windows adjacent the entrances only add openness to the customer dining area, and provide natural lighting.

PRG - Panda Express 4728 E 21st Street Tulsa OK 3 2011 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 4728 E 21st Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 342 W Baseline Road Mesa AZ 3 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 342 W Baseline Road, Mesa, Arizona (source: maps.google.com)

Framed entrances are commonly found on two sides, the front and the side wall opposite the drive-thru side. Brightly coloured aluminum and glass doors continue the storefront transparency provided by the large windows. Serving both ingress and egress functions, no additional exit doors vacate the customer area.

PRG - Panda Express 1505 S King St Honolulu HI 5 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, side 3/4 view, 1505 S King Street, Honolulu, Hawaii (source: maps.google.com)

An additional employee-specific door is typically located around the back of the restaurant. Often matching the red awnings, the kitchen/support area door is at times concealed into the adjacent wall surface.

PRG - Panda Express 1104 Malabar Road SE Palm Bay FL 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, rear 3/4 view, 1104 Malabar Road SE, Palm Bay, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1104 Malabar Road SE Palm Bay FL 3 2011 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, rear 3/4 view (circa 2011), 1104 Malabar Road SE, Palm Bay, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Designed with a flat roof, cornices at the top of the parapet walls add a distinctive touch to the elevations. Also, combining the entrance articulations with a higher parapet wall, also finished off with a wrap around cornice, further accentuates the customer entrance/arrival points.

The traditional red awnings, along with white-clad gooseneck light fixture, cover the large window openings.

PRG - Panda Express 1405 Northeast 163rd Street Miami FL 4 2011 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, side 3/4 view (circa 2011), 1405 Northeast 163rd Street, Miami, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 1405 Northeast 163rd Street Miami FL 5 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, side 3/4 view, 1405 Northeast 163rd Street, Miami, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Evocative of Chinese temple architecture and ceremonial Chinese gates/arches that dot Chinatowns in several North American cities, the small roof with upturned edges at the entrances is a clear nod to the brand’s Asian vocation.

DSC04496 - PRG Chinese gate Boul Rene-Levesque and Rue St-Laurent Montreal QC

Chinese gate, Boulevard René-Lévesque and Rue St-Laurent, Montreal, Québec, Canada

Claiming purple as an accent colour, the majority of the building’s exterior skews towards an orange hue/tan colour.

EIFS (Exterior Insulation and Finish System) cladding is the overwhelming material of choice. Nevertheless, locations featuring materials such as brick, CMU (Concrete Masonry Units) and cultured stone can be found.

PRG - Panda Express 7013 Youree Drive Shreveport LA 6 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 7013 Youree Drive, Shreveport, Louisiana (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 7171 SE 29th St Oklahoma City OK 4 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 7171 SE 29th Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 7171 SE 29th St Oklahoma City OK 5 2011 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 7171 SE 29th Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 7171 SE 29th St Oklahoma City OK 7 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, rear 3/4 view, 7171 SE 29th Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

Adopting a formal, repeatable visual expression and architectural identity, Panda Express ultimately conditioned its clientele to instinctively associate the bold purple and orange aesthetic with the Asian food brand.

4-Dual options

Breaking established links with the past is seldom easy. However, unlike other brands that reinvent their image with pinpoint accuracy, PRG, Inc. sought to broaden the field by proposing two new prototype store design instead of a single option.

In 2012, the company revealed its “Bright and Fresh” prototype in Texas (source: nrn.com, dallas.culturemap.com, restaurantexperts.com, americanbuildersquarterly.com). Clean, modern, minimalist, and bright, the prototype introduced sleek lines, bold color accents, more glass and chrome, simulated bamboo rods, and newer materials, to the Panda Express aesthetic (source: dallas.culturemap.com, fastcasual.com, americanbuildersquarterly.com, ifiberone.com).

PRG - Panda Express 12203 Lake June Rd Balch Springs TX 1 Aerial https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, aerial view, 12203 Lake June Road, Balch Springs, Texas (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 12203 Lake June Rd Balch Springs TX 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 12203 Lake June Road, Balch Springs, Texas (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 12203 Lake June Rd Balch Springs TX 9 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 12203 Lake June Road, Balch Springs, Texas (source: maps.google.com)

Subsequently, later in 2012, store number 1,500 in Cordova, Tennessee, was the first to adopt the “Blocks of Flavor” prototype (source: pandarg.com, nrn.com, fastcasual.com, qsrmagazine.com, dallas.culturemap.com, memphisdailynews.com, americanbuildersquarterly.com). Modern yet somber, the traditional red gained added weight and stronger contrast against the black window frames, neutral and grey tones, and dark green-tinged tiled walls.

PRG - Panda Express 585 N Germantown Road Cordova TN 2 Aerial https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, aerial view, 585 N Germantown Road, Cordova, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 585 N Germantown Road Cordova TN 9 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 585 N Germantown Road, Cordova, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 585 N Germantown Road Cordova TN 10 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, rear 3/4 view, 585 N Germantown Road, Cordova, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Proposing new exterior and interior treatments, the new locations were touted as incorporating the brand’s heritage while maintaining the welcoming atmosphere that Panda Express is known for (source: fastcasual.com, qsrmagazine.com, dallas.culturemap.com, interbranddesignforum.com).

Nonetheless, the two prototypes seemed like a wholesale rejection of old designs and traditions.

5-To the victor

After launching both prototypes, Panda Express vowed to gauge customer reaction and feedback to both concepts, and incorporating the changes into existing restaurants as they are remodeled.

Combining “fresh and modern” with “an inviting and warm atmosphere” was ultimately the mandate (source: memphisdailynews.com). And, by the preponderance of the evidence, a victor seems to have emerged with the proliferation of the “Bright and Fresh” prototype design. Since its unveiling in Balch Springs, Texas, several instances of the prototype design have emerged in locations across the United States.

PRG - Panda Express 5230 Fairmont Parkway Pasadena TX 5 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 5230 Fairmont Parkway, Pasadena, Texas (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 5230 Fairmont Parkway Pasadena TX 7 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front view, 5230 Fairmont Parkway, Pasadena, Texas (source: maps.google.com)

And, with over 75 new “Bright and Fresh” restaurants expected to open in the near term, and another 50 remodels on the horizon, it seems overwhelmingly clear that the sleek modern design has gained traction in the marketplace (source: interbranddesignforum.com).

PRG - Panda Express 11480 Parkside Drive Knoxville TN 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, front 3/4 view, 11480 Parkside Drive, Knoxville, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 11480 Parkside Drive Knoxville TN 5 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 11480 Parkside Drive, Knoxville, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Nonetheless, in years past, one would have been hard pressed not to notice the bright hues and cheerful/vibrant colours of the purple and orange aesthetic, which almost always stood out from its retail neighbours. Whereas now, blending more easily into the retail landscape, one might be more inclined to completely bypass the brand, were it not for the panda graphics, and signage.

PRG - Panda Express 7784 S Olympia Ave Tulsa OK 2 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, left side 3/4 view, 7784 S Olympia Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

PRG - Panda Express 7784 S Olympia Ave Tulsa OK 3 https___www.google (2)

Panda Express, right side 3/4 view, 7784 S Olympia Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

The times certainly have changed for the brand that built its success in food courts. As such, Panda Restaurant Group, Inc. has pinned its hopes, and continued future success, on delivering their upscale dining fare in an equally upscale and fashionable environment which oddly, stands largely in opposition to most everything that came before style-wise.

 

Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.

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