The Sweet Love Story Behind Panda Express

What do you think of when you hear about Panda Express? Orange Chicken? Chow Mein? Broccoli Beef? Best Chinese food chain in America? Probably all of the above. What you may not associate the fast-food giant with, however, is a family-owned business, and one run by two college sweethearts at that.

Who you now know as the husband-wife duo that ranks among the top 250 richest Americans, Andrew and Peggy Cherng (above) met as young college students in the 1980s while studying for their undergraduate degrees at Baker University (via Business Insider). Andrew had immigrated from China to the U.S. to study mathematics at Baker, and that's where he met Burma-born Peggy. After falling in love, the two moved to the University of Missouri for higher education. There Andrew earned a master's degree in applied mathematics, and for Peggy, it was a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

Call it a drastic career change if you may, but Business Insider reports that Andrew Cherng used to spend his summers in New York as a young boy, waiting tables at Chinese restaurants. In fact, his father happened to be a chef himself, so you could say that restaurant savvy ran in the blood. And so, in 1973 Andrew and his father opened a sit-down Chinese restaurant called Panda Inn in California, after which he opened the first-ever Panda Express in 1982 with Peggy.

College sweethearts and Panda Express co-founders have been married for over four decades

Andrew and Peggy married in 1975. They opened the first Panda Express in a mall in California in 1983 (via Reader's Digest). The chain's website notes that by 1993, only 10 years later, Panda Express already had 100 stores across the country. A huge part of the success, it seems, was Peggy's background in engineering. Peggy introduced technology to the way Panda Express tracked its inventory, ordered stock, and operated overall, a practice that, asĀ Business Insider reports, Panda Express was the first Chinese restaurant in America to try out.

Ever since then, Panda Express boomed into a leading American Chinese chain in the U.S. Forbes reports that Panda Express currently has over 2,200 locations that stretch from across the U.S. in the west all the way to South Korea in the east (and several countries in between), all bringing in a total of $3.5 billion in sales each year.

For the Cherngs, however, Panda Express remains more or less a family-run business. Andrew and Peggy prefer to operate most of the chain's locations themselves instead of taking the easier route of franchising. Even the family's second generation, Andrew and Peggy's daughters Andrea and Nicole, have taken up roles in marketing and catering to manage an empire that was born out of love.