Learning from Panda Express’ Fried-Rice Escapade

It was like a classic rock band refusing to play its biggest hit at concerts.

The fan backlash that Panda Express saw after it switched up its fried-rice recipe in April, getting rid of long-grain white rice in the dish in favor of brown rice, was intense, to say the least.

“That may have been the worst thing I ever ate,” one Facebook commenter remarked. “Do you not know how frustrated I was with my meal because of that?” another asked.

Now, five months later, Classic Fried Rice is back—the result of a let-the-customers-decide campaign that the Rosemead, CA-based fast-casual chain devised in June in an effort to right the ship. Throughout July and August, Panda Express stores offered guests the choice of the old fried-rice recipe or the new one. Whichever sold the most during that time, Panda told guests, would assume a place on the permanent menu. Classic Fried Rice was declared the winner last week.

“Panda Express has some of the most passionate and loyal guests in our industry,” said Dave Wallinga, the chain’s vice president of marketing, in a news release last Friday. “We are humbled by their passion for our food and we honor it by bringing back Classic Fried Rice.”

Panda had had good intentions with the Brown Fried Rice move. The chain already offered both steamed white rice and steamed brown rice as an alternative to fried rice, but it was looking to take a new step on the health frontier as part of a refreshing of the brand for its 30th anniversary.

Within two weeks of the switch, though, the chain was doing damage control. An April 9 message on its Facebook page read: “We sincerely apologize if you were surprised by our new Brown Fried Rice. As our in-store signage explains, our goal is to improve Panda’s fried rice so it’s both nutritious and delicious.”

Clearly, a lot of guests weren’t on board. And beyond issuing assorted complaints about the brown fried rice’s taste and texture, they voiced another sentiment in many of their comments. One guest expressed it succinctly: “If I wanted to eat healthy,” she wrote, “I wouldn’t go to Panda. Don’t force it on us, make it a choice, please.”

That first part might have been painful to Panda execs, who were looking to emphasize health as part of the brand’s refresh. But the latter statement points to another important truth: While consumers do express interest in seeing more-healthful fare at restaurants—50 percent of consumers polled for Technomic’s Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report last year said they would like restaurants to offer more foods that they consider to be healthy—what they want most is choice.

Choice: Not replacements, not wholesale substitutions, but options, and the chance to decide what’s right for them on any given occasion. As guests ourselves, sometimes we want the fresh fruit; sometimes we want the chips—but please don’t nix one for the other.

Panda Express’ decision to launch a you-decide contest when confronted with the fried-rice backlash was smart one, but the entire episode seems all the more unnecessary given that Panda already offered guests the option of one of the most healthful side items around: steamed brown rice.

Customer loyalty is a hard-won thing, and when it comes to health-minded menu changes, operators must tread carefully. Giving customers more-healthful options without messing with fan favorites can generate goodwill from health-seekers while—importantly—not alienating those looking to treat themselves.

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Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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