Panda Express drops out of talks

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April 10, 2009

4:31 AM

The Marketplace — it’s a haven for students sick of dining hall food, in a hurry or just craving a burrito and some Chick-fil-A fries.

Last week, news surfaced that a Panda Express Chinese food venue would be opening and would fill the spot occupied by HomeZone.

With the nearest Chinese restaurant more than two miles away from campus, far too great a hike for even the most zealous General Tso’s chicken fans, an on-campus establishment seemed too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it was.

Panda Restaurant Group, which owns Panda Express, Inc., Panda Inn and Hibachi-San Japanese Grill,
withdrew from discussions with Aramark, the College of William and Mary food provider, late last week.

“We were very excited about talking to Panda Express,” Director of Dining Services Matthew Moss said. “We thought they would fill an empty niche on campus.”

A PRG representative said the decision to drop out of talks was a company-wide decision, and details
surrounding it, such as reasons for why they withdrew interest, could not be publicly disclosed.

Moss said PRG had previously shown a great deal of interest in opening a location on campus, and in the last few weeks had sent representatives to campus to discuss both monetary issues and brand representation.

“We wanted [Panda Express’s] products and operations adhered to,” he said. “With McDonald’s, a hamburger in China should be the same as a hamburger in New York City. It’s the same with Panda Express — the product in Richmond should be the same as the product here.”

Moss said extensive talks took place regarding implementation of meal plans and the use of Flex Points.
PRG wanted to ensure the arrangements would be worth the necessary buy-in to Aramark, and that the solution would be economically viable and sustainable.

Representatives from the College, Aramark and PRG determined that the HomeZone would be best suited to revamp as a new station.

“From a traffic standpoint, HomeZone is the least visited,” Moss said. “Zoca does well, Chick-fil-A does well, fewer people go to the HomeZone.”

Moss said, logistically, the station would have the easiest transition.

“Because of traffic flow from the back of the house to the front, and the freshness of the product, it would be easier to do an Asian concept there than the others,” he said. “We feel we will be able to transition some
of [Homezone’s] most popular items, such as the overstuffed sandwiches, to the Deli station.”

Rather than opening another Aramark-owned venue, such as Zoca or Capiche, Moss said the College and
Aramark thought it important to branch outward.

“It’s good to get a name brand concept out there,” he said. “With name-brand recognition, people know the product they’re getting.”

Discussions to bring an Asian-inspired food venue to campus began five years ago when dining services conducted a College-wide survey on preferences and opinions toward campus food.

Faculty and staff were able to participate in one-on-one interviews, while students joined focus groups to discuss their preferences.

“Recommendations by the student body said [campus dining] was lacking in an Asian concept,” Moss said.
“Three other concepts were considered, but a Chinese establishment was the clear winner.”

Moss said such a change would require an extensive renovation of the Campus Center, including the installation of a wok, additional steamers and the removal of the pass-through system for keeping previously prepared foods hot. Extra stovetop hoods would also be necessary. Moss said that the building’s age could make this renovation difficult.

With Panda Express having backed out, Dining Services is currently exploring other Asian-style dining concepts, though the station will remain HomeZone until conclusive arrangements have been made.

Moss said three other venues have been approached, though he declined to comment on specifics until plans solidify.

“We have a very short timeline now,” Moss said. “We still want to have a concept for next fall, so we’ll have to move quickly.”

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