Since 1973, the Panda Restaurant Group has grown from their first family run restaurant in Pasadena, California to an enormous business with chains all over the United States. Their most popular, Panda Express, has more than 2,000 locations, making it the largest Chinese fast food chain in the country. The company, which debuted on Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies in 2016, is family run and also dedicates itself to charitable causes around the country, recently pledging 10 million dollars to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
The Panda Restaurant Group is also investing in alternative energy, and has begun installing EV charging stations in corporate offices as well as consumer locations around the country.
We spoke to representatives of the Group to find out what led them to make this investment, and what benefits they have gained from integrating this technology into their company.
‘The availability of EV charging stations makes a big difference for our company fleet, and having easy to use stations is a real plus for our customers. Charging stations were a no-brainer, especially once we had a third party who was able to navigate the entire system for us.”
When did the Panda Group realize there was a need for EV charging stations?
Well, we started buying electric cars for our company fleet, and we installed the first chargers just for that purpose somewhere between 2010 and 2012. At that point, the charging stations were quite rudimentary and were located a bit further from our customer parking, so they weren’t necessarily accessible to customers, but nonetheless they started to use them.
We realized that not only were electric cars becoming more prevalent on the roads, but that it was a real bonus to be able to provide charging stations to customers at our locations. Plus, there are a lot of electric vehicle incentives and rebates in California funded by utilities. At that point, we started to think about a more comprehensive program for EV charging stations that could service multiple users, and to think about solutions that would work for both corporate cars as well as customers.
Over time the demand has continued to grow, and we’ve started to work with EV connect on solutions that keep costs down for the company as well as for end users (customers), and something that can also be USP for our brand in general. It’s great to be able to offer that service to people coming here, and because it’s spread by word of mouth, we were able to gauge both the interest and utility of charging stations without having to make a major investment in marketing. Now we can start to think about advertising it as a service to customers with the benefit of having already proved its popularity.
What made you choose EV over other alternative power solutions?
We’re now also looking at converting to solar power and trying to explore how it can benefit the company. Although solar is an older industry than EV, we actually became engaged with the latter first, which I suppose is a bit different than other companies who are looking at alternative energy solutions.
But what really attracted us to EV charging stations is how easy it is to set them up, and that ultimately our biggest investment is in the charging stations themselves. It was especially easy to work with EV connect and have them show us a proposal that was so comprehensive, so we hardly had to do anything ourselves.
Ultimately, the availability of workplace EV charging stations makes a big difference for our company fleet, and having easy to use stations is a real plus for our customers. Solar is a big investment that requires a lot more thought and planning, and also means having to re-educate our staff about the quirks of a new system.
Charging stations were a no-brainer, especially once we had a third party who was able to navigate the entire system for us.
Was it an easy transition to make?
In many ways it was, but there is a steep learning curve, especially considering that everything I know about EV charging stations is what I’ve learned from Google! It was helpful though to also have assistance from Toyota, from whom we buy our company vehicles and who is one of the industry leaders in EV. They were able to really help guide us through the options available and what was best for our particular needs, and that helped us make the decision to opt for a larger system.
We started with five dual head chargers and subsequently upgraded to 30, which led to further discussions because with more power output we had to rethink costs for the supplier and the end user, which meant that in order for the system to make sense, we would have to defer some of the charging costs onto the users.
For our employees we can obviously subsidize those costs, but it’s always a complicated matter to explain to customers that a service that was being provided free of charge now carries a cost for them, because people don’t necessarily respond to that kind of change. We’ve tried to highlight the benefit of EV charging stations and our efforts to respond to the shift in automotive trends, and to make clear to customers that in order to provide this service we’ve expanded our capabilities, which does incur an additional cost.
What we hope is that the benefits outweigh the expense, and that our customers see it as a value added. Over time we’ve seen this result borne out, so that transition towards consumer charging stations has actually boosted our brand.
What are your goals for EV charging stations?
As a company, obviously cost efficiency is a goal for us. Any new service or feature that we provide has to be cost effective in order for it to be sustainable, so that’s always going to be a particular consideration.
We want to find a way to provide a service not only to our employees but to our consumers that adds value to their experience and makes our company stand out as a great place to work as well as to patronize, and that means having consistently available services that don’t put a strain on anyone’s wallet.
Our other goal was flexibility. We wanted to be able to give people a service that lets them charge their vehicle when and how they want, so that they would be free to choose how to use the service. This is why we decided to offer people the first hour charge for free, so that they could choose to use the charging stations for as long as they want without having to feel locked in to a certain time period because they had paid for it.
This has helped us to maintain that flexibility and keep both customers and employees happy, because they’re free to use the charging stations on their own terms. This is a new technology and we’re all learning as we go, and there will always be kinks and blips to work out along the way.
By maintaining that flexibility as a goal, we’re able to keep people engaged and to drive home the idea that this is a system that is meant to work for them.
Do you see it having a positive impact on your business?
The results have been fantastic, and it’s great to be able to offer this kind of service to people coming to Panda Express. We were also incredibly happy with the installation team, who were so knowledgeable and detailed, and if there was ever any issue that we had, they were immediately available to us and helped us find a solution.
As EV becomes a more mainstream feature, it’s more and more important to see the impact it has on all kinds of industries, and even though we’re a restaurant group we are impacted by this market shift. In a few years,
EV charging stations will be a feature in all types of businesses, and the consumer sector needs to be able to provide services like this to our customers. We’re all starting to become more educated about the future, and that’s always a good thing.