If there were a list of the most iconic fast-food items of all time, perhaps the Big Mac would top it. Maybe the Whopper would come soon after. You probably wouldn’t have to go much further down the list to see Panda Express’s orange chicken. For so many, Panda Express is a staple of mall food courts and airports; for me, it was a key food group of my college days, when I frequented the local outlet more than I care to remember. But was there even any point going to the Chinese-American chain without getting a heaping scoop of that signature dish to lay so delectably upon an order of fried rice?
So, it was a nostalgic event, after several years, to set foot in a Panda Express in order to try a modern twist on the original. The chain has collaborated with Beyond Meat to reinvent its orange chicken in a plant-based version, using Beyond’s new chicken product: Beyond the Original Orange Chicken (or B-TOC, for short). The move was driven by a demand from consumers, who, the restaurant says, are increasingly asking for herbivorous options. But, with the reputation of such an iconic dish at stake, the long development process absolutely had to go right. They needed to recreate the same tastes, textures, and feelings of satisfaction.
Though the outlet has been going for almost 40 years, “We know that our customer base is also growing and changing,” says Jimmy Wang, executive director of culinary innovation, noting that more are becoming flexitarians, or switching to plant-based diets entirely. The company has been working on “vegetable-forward” sides and appetizers, says Jessica Chao, head of communications, who notes a movement on social media for more plant-based options. But, she says, the company hasn’t innovated to the same extent yet on the classic entrées—those “more indulgent comfort foods.”