Pei Wei pokes at Panda Express by introducing $5 orange chicken

Pei Wei's new orange chicken, now available at 200 stores in the United States, comes with a side of sass.

Pei Wei is calling its new, $5 dish Wei Better Orange Chicken, aimed squarely at being superior to the orange chicken at Panda Express. In fact, the 30-second TV commercials you'll soon see in Dallas-Fort Worth show a tiger — that's Pei Wei's new mascot — ribbing a panda bear.

"We're certainly saying, 'We're better than Panda Express,'" says Pei Wei CEO John "J." Hedrick. "But we're also saying we serve fresh, house-cut, house-battered, all-white-meat chicken, prepared when you order it."

"We want it to be good enough to feed our friends and families — and we do," says CEO John "J." Hedrick of Pei Wei's food. He's behind the launch of the new $5 orange chicken, which he believes will be a major moment for the Irving-based company.

He's been CEO of Pei Wei since early 2017 and was part of the effort to move the Pei Wei headquarters from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Irving. He's also part of a significant "brand overhaul," he explains, with a 90 percent change in staffing at the corporate level and a more aggressive plan for the future.

When the company launched in 2000, Pei Wei's model was novel: order-at-the-counter pan-Asian food that was a chain restaurant rather than mom and pop. Hedrick has heard from his longer-tenured colleagues that the employees "had to teach people 'how to Pei Wei'" in the 2000s, since fast-casual restaurants were a relatively new thing.

The company considers the launch of its orange chicken to be the biggest change in company history. To attempt to compete directly with Panda Express, the company has lowered its price to $5 for both the small- and regular-sized orange chicken. But why? Marketing, of course.

Pei Wei's new orange chicken is slightly spicy, from the dash of Sriracha in the sticky sauce that coats breaded, fried pieces of white chicken. There's some orange flavor but it's not overpowering. "We don't use orange flavoring," Hedrick says proudly, "we use oranges."

Pei Wei recently added General Tso's chicken to the menu.

Orange chicken comes with options to customize: Get it on mixed greens, white rice, brown rice or in lettuce cups. For a 99-cent upcharge, get it atop fried rice, noodles or quinoa.

Since Hedrick has joined Pei Wei, the company has also launched General Tso's chicken, a spicy dish that was never previously on Pei Wei's menu; and a new poke bowl, which hops on a so-hot-right-now trend of Hawaiian poke shops around D-FW.

But can Pei Wei persuade customers to ditch Panda Express for its $5 dish? They're literally poking the bear. "I think we can trade Panda's consumers up," Hedrick says.

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