On July 26, Panda Express will launch a vegan version of its iconic orange chicken at test locations in the greater New York City and Los Angeles areas. The new Beyond The Original Orange Chicken is made in partnership with Beyond Meat and features a fully plant-based breading and vegan sauce, VegNews can confirm. Panda Express developed a vegan version of its legendary orange chicken—which has been on the chain’s menu since 1987—in order to cater to its customers’ demands for plant-based options and attract a new demographic looking for meatless meals.
“As the creator of The Original Orange Chicken, Panda has significant brand equity in this staple American Chinese comfort food. We co-developed Beyond the Original Orange Chicken with Beyond Meat to capture the irresistibly crunchy texture of our signature entrée, while still giving our guests a plant-based option of the dish they know and love,” Chef Jimmy Wang, Executive Director of Culinary Innovation at Panda Express, told VegNews. “This partnership perfectly brings together Panda’s expertise in American Chinese recipes and Beyond Meat’s category-leading plant-based protein knowledge to create a fresh new take on a classic favorite.”
While the new vegan orange chicken is only available at the limited test locations while supplies last, its performance will inform Panda Express’ strategy of a wider launch. “With this regional launch, we’re gathering insights and learning how we can improve the guest experience with this brand new product for a wider future rollout,” Wang said. “We are confident that people will love the new menu item.”
Vegan at Panda Express
Prior to 2019, Panda Express did not offer much for customers looking for dishes made without animal products as many of its vegetable-forward items were prepared with chicken broth and animal-derived seasoning. However, after working with organization Vegan Outreach, Panda Express reformulated some of its items to remove the animal-derived ingredients, including its first vegan entrée: Eggplant Tofu (available at select locations). Other vegan-friendly options at Panda Express are Super Greens Mixed Vegetables along with white and brown rice.
While Panda Express removed chicken-derived ingredients from its chow mein when it was working with Vegan Outreach and has referred to the dish as “plant-based,” the chow mein at Panda Express is not vegan friendly as it contains eggs. Panda Express does not advertise any of its items as “vegan” due to cross-contamination concerns.
Beyond Meat gets into vegan chicken
Panda Express is the latest chain to partner with Beyond Meat to create a bespoke vegan chicken menu item. In August 2019, KFC worked with Beyond Meat on the Beyond Fried Chicken, an option that was available for one day at one location in Atlanta. After selling out of the vegan chicken in less than five hours, KFC expanded the test market to locations in Tennessee and North Carolina before further expanding the test to more than 70 locations in Southern California by July 2020. While the initial test of Beyond Fried Chicken proved successful, the vegan chicken is no longer available at the test locations and KFC has yet to announce a national launch of Beyond Fried Chicken.
And while KFC weighs its options, 400 restaurants nationwide just added a totally new vegan chicken product from Beyond Meat. After discontinuing its previous iteration of chicken strips offered in 2012, Beyond Meat spent a decade developing new vegan chicken that mimics its animal-derived counterpart in every way. The brand’s Beyond Chicken Tenders—made from faba beans and pea protein—are now available in the foodservice channel, and restaurants, including traditional chicken and wings shops, pubs, and pizza chains, are using them in a variety of dishes to replace animal meat.
Wisconsin-based chain Toppers Pizza—which added a vegan menu developed by Milwaukee-based vegan chef Melanie Manuel last year—is using the new Beyond Chicken Tenders as a topping on its new Buffalo Chicken-Less Topper Pizza and Vegan Nashville Hot & Crispy Pizza. The chain is also serving the breaded tenders as an appetizer, an approach other chains, such as Sarpino’s Pizza, are also taking. At Sacramento-based vegan chain Burger Patch—the first restaurant to introduce California’s capital to the Beyond Burger in 2017—is offering vegan versions of classic chicken dishes using the new Beyond Chicken Tenders, including a spicy and crispy chicken sandwich.
Once the option launches on July 26, all of the Panda Express locations that will offer the Beyond The Original Orange Chicken can be found here.