Reporter's Notebook

Panda puts it to a vote

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A few weeks ago, when I wrote the first weekly recap of the NRN Social 200 index, Panda Express was one of the biggest gainers in the index score measuring social-media engagement. Because the brand derives almost all of its social influence on Facebook, I went over to Panda’s page to see what was up.

It turned out that the engagement on its Facebook page was not all positive. For some people, it was quite the opposite. Several customers were furious that Panda Express had recently switched its fried-rice offering from a white-rice product to a brown-rice one. Not only did they post mini tirades on the chain’s Facebook wall, but they also registered their complaints in most of the brand’s posts meant to advertise a Surf & Turf limited-time offering.

Well, Panda Express heard the criticism — really, how could it not have? — and has responded with an in-store referendum of sorts. Beginning July 3 through Aug. 31, Panda will offer both the fried white rice and fried brown rice in its more than 1,600 locations in 42 states. Whichever version sells more during that campaign period wins and gets to stay on the menu permanently.

“Our goal is to make life delicious,” Andrew Cherng, the Rosemead, Calif.-based chain’s co-founder and chief executive, said in a statement. “We listened to our guests when we began offering brown fried rice, and now we are listening again. We cannot go wrong when we empower our guests.”

He’s right, I think. Panda has nothing to gain by ignoring people’s complaints on Facebook about the fried-rice switch. I’m sure that some of these same folks lashing out at Panda via social media may have even read the riot act to the brand’s employees in person when they couldn’t find their old white fried rice at their local Panda Express.

I could understand a decision not to legitimize people who say over-the-top nasty stuff like the spirited commenter above — which has been the tack Buffalo Wild Wings has taken this year with a group of gun nuts on its Facebook page — but Panda is doing the right thing by addressing the controversy head-on.

Also, if people are motivated to vote with their stomachs and wallets in this fried-rice debate, that’s going to translate into real sales at Panda’s restaurants. Stuffing the ballot box would feel pretty good if you love white fried rice as much as some of these folks seem to. I also tend to believe there’s no better customer preference research than sales of any particular item.

So to Panda Express fans looking to make your voice heard, I say to you what my fellow Chicagoland Democrats and I like to say every Election Day: “Vote early, vote often.”

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Reporter's Notebook is NRN's newsroom blog, where our editors give their points of view on news happening in the restaurant business.

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