VCU Dining talks Panda Express

Austin Walker
Staff Writer

Panda Express will be one of the largest restaurants in the campus to accept meal plans and will be open until 1 a.m. Photo by Brooke Marsh

For months, a red “NOW HIRING” banner has created much anticipation over the opening of a Panda Express on the corner of Grace and Shafer streets, although its completion is lagging behind schedule.

The restaurant will accommodate student meal plans from 5 p.m. until closing, will be one of the largest on-campus restaurants and will be open until 1 a.m. —which will likely mean competition for Nao & Zen.

The most recent expected opening of the restaurant was set for Tue, Jan. 27 and students were disappointed by the delay.

Kristan Cole, Marketing, Trademarks & Licensing Manager for VCU Business Services stressed that the matter does not fall under the category of budget, and was due to unforeseen construction issues that the building has faced. Cole declined to comment further on the matter.

The Panda Express meal plan will offer a “Panda Bowl” for a single block. The bowl comes with a regular priced entree, including the signature Orange Chicken, as well as either fried rice or chow mein and a fountain beverage. Although some franchises of the chain do not offer vegetarian entree options, the on campus location will.

“Meal Exchange always becomes a balance between serving the 35,000 students, plus faculty and staff, and always ensuring that they have something to eat, as well as taking care of the students on dining plans because we have about 9,000 students on dining plans,” said Tamara Highsmith, Manager of Sales and Services for VCU Dining Services.

The fate of Nao & Zen, the only other restaurant on campus dedicated to serving Asian cuisine, is still up in the air. The VCU Dining Administration meets annually to discuss the effectiveness of all the dining locations on campus.

It’s going to take some time following the opening of Panda Express to determine if it will serve as a replacement, but Michael Martin, Resident District Manager of ARAMARK, said they may not interfere.

“I look at the (student) commons as a total different entity,” Martin said. “The places I’m worried about being cannibalized are the Cane’s and the IHOP and Shafer Court dining. Is it in direct competition? Yeah, I mean it could be.”

Panda Express, which has a much stronger presence on the West Coast, is beginning to open more locations on college campuses in the East. Old Dominion University has one, which Martin described as being very successful.

While there has been difficulty bringing the location to full service capacity, the staff of the restaurant have already been fully trained at the restaurant’s Midlothian location due to last Tuesday’s expected grand opening. In September a table was set up in the Student Commons that encouraged students to apply, and the staff is comprised mainly of students.

At the Laurel & Grace Place, where the hours run until 3 a.m., security guards are stationed at the doors to prevent unauthorized access to the building where students and faculty are. Currently, there are no plans to station a guard at the Panda Express, but there’s no opposition to the idea either.

“If there’s a need we’ll certainly provide it,” Highsmith said.

The interior of the building is modern, with some faux-leather couches against the walls, chairs constructed of wood and metal, large televisions that serve as the menus as well as one in the dining area that will broadcast VCU sports games.

The dining area is large, with nearly 70 seats available to customers and a patio dining area to be opened when weather permits. There are two large sets of double doors located at the front of the building, with the two seating areas separated by the counter where the food is displayed and served.

Once there’s an assured time for the store to open, a celebratory event has been planned.

“When we do have a date, we’re going to have a grand opening celebration, and because (Panda Express) is a different type of store for us, they’ll have their own team come in,” said Kristan Cole. “We’ll have our lovely panda mascot getting pictures, we’ll have a prize wheel, lot’s of giveaways.”

The decision to open a Panda Express came after a student survey that was conducted in 2010 showed that Chinese cuisine was in high demand by VCU students. Following the opening of this restaurant, the only thing that will be missing is a burger shop that offers meal exchange.

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