Panda Express first introduced its Original Orange Chicken in 1987, and now, the tangy dish makes up one-third of its business. After 35 years, the Chinese-American fast-food chain returned to the drawing board to see if its customers would try a new version of its iconic chicken dish.

By the fall of 2022, Panda Express fans had something new to clamor about at all of its 2,300 locations with the national launch of Beyond the Original Orange Orange Chicken (BTOOC), a plant-based take on its most popular dish made together with vegan company Beyond Meat. 

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However, despite the initial popularity of the BTOOC, the vegan option was discontinued, leading to a petition on Change.org started by Alyssa Ridenour. “I am vegetarian, and I am addicted to this chicken,” Ridenour said in a statement. “I have been craving it like crazy, and it is madness that they don’t have it on the menu anymore.” 

Last month, the petition crossed the threshold of 5,000 signatures, a spike that reflects a continued consumer desire for the dish’s return. 

The rise and pause of Panda Express’ vegan orange chicken

Developed to mimic the original, BTOOC was first introduced to limited markets—primarily New York City and Southern California—in 2021. The BTOOC quickly became a customer favorite, creating a buzz that was reflected in impressive sales figures.

On the first day of launch (July 26), Panda Express reported selling 1,300 pounds of vegan orange chicken, with all sell-out success across the test locations. 

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“We are thrilled with the positive guest response around Beyond The Original Orange Chicken, and are humbled to share that our SoCal restaurants sold out in less than just two weeks,” a spokesperson for Panda Express told VegNews at the time. “The excitement from our guests is unparalleled, and it’s one of our most successful regional launches to date at Panda.”

This successful test launch informed the expansion of the BTOOC to Panda’s 2,300 locations in 2022, signifying Panda Express’s commitment to innovation and responsiveness to evolving dietary preferences. 

However, the idea was always to run the BTOOC as a limited-time item. 

“As part of Panda’s menu innovation strategy, we offer different seasonal limited-time offerings a few times a year to excite our guests about new menu varieties and exclusive flavors,” a spokesperson for Panda Express tells VegNews. 

Will Panda’s vegan orange chicken make a comeback?

The petition’s growing support indicates a significant consumer interest in a substantive plant-based option such as BTOOC at Panda Express, where vegan entrées are few and far between. 

Panda Express currently offers limited plant-based options such as Eggplant Tofu (availability varies by region), Apple Pie Rolls, Veggie Spring Rolls, Super Greens, and White Rice. 

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While Panda Express did not confirm that it will bring back the dish, the spokesperson explains that the chain gained many insights with its introduction. 

“From our initial regional launch in 2021 and a national limited-time rollout in 2022, we saw the positive response and learned just how great the demand is for an innovative plant-based dish like Beyond The Original Orange Chicken,” the spokesperson says. 

“The learnings we have gathered from limited-time rollouts have helped refine our operations, and we’re continuing to gain insight into guest demand for future menu innovations and offerings like plant-based dishes,” the spokesperson says.  

The spokesperson also emphasized that all items at Panda Express are cooked and prepared in shared facilities and equipment, which may not align with the dietary restrictions of strict vegetarians and vegans.

Beyond Meat’s fast-food makeover 

Beyond Meat’s collaboration with Panda Express is part of a broader strategy to introduce plant-based options in the fast-food sector. In addition to introducing its flagship Beyond Burger through major chains such as Carl’s Jr., the company is working on a global platform with fast-food leader McDonald’s to develop plant-based items for various markets. Thus far, the three-year development partnership has resulted in the launch of the McPlant. 

While the plant-based burger was only briefly tested in the United States, in other regions such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, the McPlant has found permanent menu placement. 

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Beyond Meat has worked with fast-food chains Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC under a deal with their parent company Yum! Brands to develop unique plant-based proteins and menu items. This has also resulted in spotty success in the US, with limited launches such as Carne Asada at Taco Bell, plant-based meat at Pizza Hut, and Beyond Fried Chicken at KFC

Beyond’s innovations with Yum! Brands have also been more successful abroad with the most recent launch of Beyond Pepperoni at Pizza Hut locations across the UK this fall. 

“We’re so proud to be partnering with Beyond Meat again for the launch of our Beyond Pepperoni range,” Hazell White, Head of Brand & Innovation at Pizza Hut UK & Europe, said in a statement.

“We’ve launched this in November so everyone can enjoy our great tasting pizza over the festive period, whether that’s in our Melts or on our Big New Yorker,” White said. 

While vegan options at Pizza Hut US are still slim, at Pizza Hut UK, guests can now order three pizzas topped with Beyond Pepperoni and opt for vegan cheese at no additional cost.

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