The women behind Jollibee and Panda Express | Inquirer Business

The women behind Jollibee and Panda Express

A reader, whom we will call Rita, writes:  I am inspired by the women leaders you mentioned in “Women in Family Businesses” (Feb. 26, 2016). I am printing out articles about them for my children to follow. I was a homemaker until my husband passed away 11 years ago, then I became an entrepreneur so that my children can continue studying in exclusive schools.  I started a food business at home, and through word of mouth, and with God’s grace, our customers increased and our business is growing. My eldest daughter is now helping me, and my son will join us when he graduates.  Can you write about two other women leaders, one local and one international, preferably in the food business?

My Reply


Rita, I am touched by your story, and I congratulate you on your strength and willpower on starting a food business without the help of even your spouse, may the Lord rest his soul.  I know you would like to remain anonymous, but someday, I hope to feature you in this column.

Per your request, let us now look at two women heads in the food business:  Grace Tan Caktiong of Jollibee and Peggy Cherng of Panda Express.


Grace and her husband Tony Tan Caktiong, both engineering majors, started the first Jollibee outlet in 1975 soon after graduating.  Their place began as an ice cream parlor, inspired by Magnolia stores.  Upon their customers’ request, the couple started serving hot dogs, cheese and chicken sandwiches, and soon after, hamburgers and fried chicken.

In an interview in 2013, Grace told ABS-CBN that like many entrepreneurs, she and her husband had to be the jack and jill of all trades:  cashier, server, janitor.  Grace famously quipped that she even had to clean the toilet when necessary.

Aside from hard work, the couple also possessed creativity and the drive for perfection.  They did not have to reinvent the wheel, after all, Metro Manila already had a slew of burger places by then.  Grace and her husband bought existing burgers, sampled them, practically dining on burgers for a year.

They analyzed what it is that really makes a great burger. Their efforts paid off:  Jollibee burgers are tasty and not dry, with the right combination of sweet, tangy, salty—perfect for the Pinoy palate.

What I admire most about Grace is her heart.  I had the privilege of working with Grace in judging the Jollibee Family Awards some years back, and I saw firsthand her wisdom, generosity and compassion.  In the past, I had discussed with Grace about the thrust of the Jollibee Group Foundation, and I am glad that education is their priority.

Feeding hungry students is a must.  My graduate students, teachers all, tell tales of woe:  public school kids crossing rivers and trudging miles to come to school with no breakfast, teachers shelling out for pan de sal from their meager salaries, children fed junk food from parents too busy to care.  If a child is hungry or malnourished, not even the best teacher or resource can make a difference.

Jollibee does not give out food indiscriminately.  Taking a page from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jollibee partners with the Department of Education to effectively identify and help recipients of its feeding program.


Panda Express

Peggy Cherng is also an engineer.  After getting her doctorate degree, she worked for 3M and McDonnell Douglas.  But in 1983, Peggy and her husband Andrew (a mathematician) founded Panda Express, a Chinese restaurant chain in the US, which has since branched out to various countries, including the Philippines.

Andrew’s father, popular chef Ming Tsai Cherng, had already been operating the Panda Inn restaurant with his son for a decade.  But it was only in 1983 when the business took off:  not as a fine-dining restaurant, but as the outlet Panda Express, first launched in the food court of Glendale Galleria, a California mall.

Using her engineering background, Peggy systematized operations, ensuring that accounts were kept tidy and details threshed out in a professional manner.  Soon, the business grew, serving favorites such as kung pao chicken, Beijing beef and orange chicken.

By 2007, Panda Express already had $1 billion in revenues. Four years later, its first international outlet opened in Mexico.

Andrew and Peggy’s daughter is now working in the family business, and so far, succession appears to be smooth.

Peggy is active in Panda Cares, the company’s foundation that gives food to children in need and to victims of natural disasters.

Someday, Rita, when your food business grows, you may also want to emulate Grace and Peggy, and give back to others in the community.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the Board of Directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center.  Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (e-mail [email protected]).  E-mail the author at [email protected]

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