Why did Pei Wei dig through the trash at Panda Express?

Pei Wei is sparring with its fast-casual rival in an online marketing campaign highlighting menu transparency.
Photograph: Shutterstock

In recent months, Asian fast-casual chain Pei Wei Asian Diner has begun taking direct aim at its closest competitor, Panda Express, in its marketing efforts.

Last month, Pei Wei launched a TV ad highlighting its orange chicken as “Wei better” than the competition’s offering.

But Pei Wei’s latest public relations move takes the rivalry a bit further:

Pei Wei claims it hired a private investigator to determine the ingredients in Panda Express’ orange chicken, Brandon Solano, Pei Wei’s chief marketing officer, told Restaurant Business.

“We got all of their boxes, from their trash,” Solano said, calling out the chain’s use of frozen chicken and saying the ingredients are “a mess.”  

Panda Express, in a statement to RB, said it pays attention to consumer requests, such as adding more "health-forward" offerings and removing trans fats from all items, and would begin listing all ingredients in its “core dishes” on its website in the next year.

“Deeply rooted in this work is a foundation of transparency and care; when a guest calls, we take the time to discuss allergens and nutritionals, as well as the full ingredient list upon request,” the statement said. “While these types of changes take time to scale and achieve our standards, we believe that a strong food philosophy is an important part of this promise and our culinary innovation team is hard at work to bring this vision to life.”

Pei Wei, which has about 200 units to Panda Express’ more than 2,000 locations, also petitioned the Food and Drug Administration last week to ask that restaurants be required to disclose their menus’ ingredients. The chain has also created a consumer petition on that had more than 1,500 signatures as of late Monday morning, demanding menu transparency.

Pei Wei has said that by 2020 the brand will eliminate all artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. It also published the full list of ingredients for its top-selling orange chicken. The chain plans to release the ingredient lists for all of its dishes in coming months.

“In terms of using Panda as a trampoline to get our message out there,” Solano said. “We’re a small brand with a limited budget and we really feel like consumers are being fooled by our largest competitor. … It’s provocative, but I don’t want to work on a campaign that nobody talks about.”

The menu transparency campaign also features Pei Wei’s Twitter handle, @PeiWei_Tiger, mocking Panda Express for serving frozen chicken and counting down the days since Pei Wei demanded Panda Express divulge its ingredients.

“This is building brand awareness,” Solano said of the campaign. “I also think it’s building Pei Wei as a leadership voice in the restaurant industry. … It’s the smaller brands, it’s the upstarts, who have always pushed for and led change.”

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