Grilled to Perfection: Dining at YakiYan
Japanese barbecue has found a home in Hacienda Heights. Gigi Cheung is spearheading Panda Restaurant Group's most recent concept, YakiYan. The upscale restaurant strays from Panda's other fast casual franchises such as Panda Express and Hibachi-san. YakiYan's fine dining experience includes a set menu of high quality meats. Each dish is executed with a modern touch, which compliments the sophisticated atmosphere. From the tables to the restrooms, every inch is carefully designed to amaze guests.
By George Ko and Natalie Mark
Photos and video by George Ko
GR: Can you introduce yourself please?
Gigi Cheung: My name is Gigi. I was born and raised in Hong Kong. I immigrated to the United States years ago, and I work at Panda Restaurant Group.
GR: What is your role and your history with the Panda Restaurant Group?
GC: I’ve worked for the Panda Restaurant Group for over 25 years. I’ve been in different roles throughout my career. I was in Human Resources for a number of years doing compensation benefits and four years ago I transitioned into this operation role. Currently, I run the Panda Inn restaurant which is a hibachi style, fast-casual concept primarily in malls and universities. I run the catering arms of the Panda Inn restaurant, and a Japanese sit-down called Wasabi in Universal CityWalk. YakiYan is the newest concept that I am responsible for. My team and I developed this concept two years ago and the restaurant has been open for six months now.
GR: What is your background and how did you get into the Panda Restaurant Group for a career path?
GC: I came to the United States after I graduated from high school. The only reason why I wanted to come to the United States was because I wanted to go to Disneyland. When I was a kid, I loved watching the Olympics. In 1984, the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles. I thought being close to a city that once held the Olympic Games was a great attraction. I asked my parents to let me to go to the United States. Initially they were very resistant so I had to fight my way there. Eventually, my dad let me go on one condition: I had to support myself. I had to get a job and find my own way to pay for college. I said, “Deal! I’ll do that.”
GR: Where did you end up going to university?
GC: I went to San Diego State. The second condition was for me to go to San Diego because I had a distant uncle who lived there. I landed in San Diego and got my undergrad degree in accounting from San Diego State. Then I got my MBA from UCLA.
GR: How did you get into the Panda Restaurant Group?
GC: Because my dad told me I had to find my own support, I worked in different restaurants. I worked as a hostess under the table because as a foreign student I wasn’t supposed to work. I’ve bussed tables, pushed the dim sum cart. Then I got married and got my green card. Then I started working for Panda as a server in the San Diego Panda Inn and the rest is history.
GR: Was your experience at Disneyland all you dreamed of?
GC: Pretty much! I think it’s really the happiest place on Earth. It’s magical.
GR: The attention to detail at Disneyland is incredible. I’ve noticed every person at Disneyland picks up trash when they see it. It goes anywhere from the lowest to the highest paid employee.
GC: That’s similar to our Panda culture, too. Andrew Cherng, our co-founder and co-CEO does the same thing. When he sees trash on the street, in our restaurant, or in front of someone else’s restaurant, he will pick it up.
GR: Many people don’t know that the Panda Group has many different restaurants aside from the famous Panda Express. Can you talk about the different types of restaurants within the Panda Group and their histories?
GC: A lot of people associate the Panda Restaurant Group with Panda Express because currently we have over 2,000 Panda Expresses throughout the United States and internationally. A lot of people think Panda Express is the parent of Panda Inn but it’s the other way around. The Panda Restaurant Group started with Panda Inn. In 1973, our first Panda Inn opened in Pasadena, California. Panda Express didn’t exist until 1983. Around the same time Panda Express opened, we also opened a concept called Hibachi-San in the mall because Panda Express is normally located in malls. Ever so often, there are empty spots open in a mall, and the landlord will approach us to see if we want to take up that location to open a different concept. Andrew thinks that’s a great idea. Rather than have someone else come in and compete with them, we might as well take up the spot and develop a different concept with a different strategy.
GR: That’s one of the most ingenious business idea. How many different restaurants is Panda Restaurant Group in charge of?
GC: We have Panda Inn, Panda Express, Hibachi-San, Wasabi, and YakiYan. Those are the restaurants we run ourselves. But we also make investments in other restaurant concepts like Pieology, Just Salad, Ippudo, just to name some. We also invest in Uncle Tetsu.
GR: Aside from being the king of Chinese fast food in America, Panda Restaurant Group is basically a venture capitalist firm for new restaurant concepts.
GC: You can say it that way too.
GR: What is YakiYan’s origin story? How did you bring this concept to Hacienda Heights?
GC: YakiYan (Yakiniku) originated in Taiwan under Wild Prime Restaurant Group. Andrew and the ex-chairman of the Wild Prime Group are good friends and wanted to do something together to bring the concept from Taiwan over to the United States. They want to give Taiwanese people opportunities in the United States to better their lives. That’s the origins of why YakiYan was brought to the United States in the first place. After we signed a contract with them, we did more research. We found out in order to stay competitive and to create a niche for ourselves, we needed to transform the concept and upgrade the service, the meat, the ambiance.
GR: What kind of restaurant is YakiYan?
GC: YakiYan is yakiniku, Japanese barbecue. Japanese barbecue focuses on original taste and flavor. Most of the meats we serve are not marinated. We use the highest qualities of meat so there’s no need to marinate the meat to mask the inferior quality.
GR: I want to talk about the space because it’s absolutely beautiful. The first thing you notice when you walk in is the incredible attention to design. What was the design process like? How did you develop the concept for the restaurant design?
GC: The concept, the layout, the surface, and the food that we serve is rooted in our mission statement. We want to provide a wholly memorable Asian barbecue dining experience for our guests. Every decision we make when we develop a concept goes back to our mission statement. If I do this, will it give our guests a memorable experience? Will I be able to wow the guests? We paid a lot of attention to the interior design. We want to give a warm and comfortable environment and ambiance for our guests. Many of our guests have told us they would never find a restaurant like this in Hacienda Heights. There are no restaurants like ours east of the 710 freeway. We are pretty much the first restaurant of this caliber. We’re a little more upscale, our customers can entertain their friends or important guests or celebrate a special occasion without the need to drive to Beverly Hills or downtown.
GR: Have you had customers drive from all over California just to come eat here?
GC: Absolutely. The furthest guest we had was a couple who flew their own plane from San Francisco. They were sitting at this table, I still remember. Two nights ago we had guests from Utah. We have guests from Seattle, Phoenix. People often ask if we are going to open a next one. I say, “Absolutely, we are.” We are planning to, and we’ve gotten a lot of suggestions: “You should open in the O.C., downtown—” as far as San Francisco or San Jose.
GR: One of the most interesting things about YakiYan is your meat selection. You have such a wide variety of meats that are exciting and flavorful. How do you select the meats, and for you personally, which was the most exciting cut of meat you’ve had here?
GC: Going back to our mission statement, our goal is to provide our guests with a wholly memorable experience by giving them variety. We serve American Wagyu, Japanese Wagyu, USDA Prime, all top quality meat. Now we are testing Australian Wagyu, too. For us, it would be very exciting if our guests got a variety of meat cuts from all over the world. That motivates us to keep testing different cuts of meat every week. Currently, we serve tenderloin, New York strip, short ribs, and ribeyes. We picked those because they are very flavorful, tender, and easily recognizable. In the past we have tested other cuts like the culotte or the zabuton or the outside skirt. Those are all good cuts too but when we consider the possibility of being recognized by our guests, we landed on our current menu. Having said that, it doesn’t mean we will stick to our current menu as it is. We continue to test cuts that are most importantly flavorful to our guests and that our guests would enjoy.
GR: Do you only have a tasting menu or is there also á la carte? What is the format a guest should expect when they eat at YakiYan?
GC: We serve the tasting menu primarily. It is a 10 course meal of meat plus side dishes and palate cleansers. We have done combinations of things. Guests will come in and say, “You know what, I’ve tried the tasting menu and I’m not that hungry. I only want a couple of cuts that I enjoy the most.” We have done that, too. We’ve also had guests at the end of the food course who say, “I enjoyed this cut so much. Can I have an additional a la carte cut?” We are very flexible. We will do anything to accommodate a guest.
GR: Can you talk more about the design of the rows of tables?
GC: First of all, this is not a big space. It’s only 2,500 square foot. We have to maximize the usage of the dining room. We also designed the kitchen in a compact way. Normally, the dining room and the kitchen in a restaurant are anywhere between 30-40% of the space. We keep our kitchen very small. It’s only 25% of the entire floor plan. We are limited by space. Second of all, we want to generate that communal feeling where people come, have a good time, and celebrate with friends, therefore we made long tables. This table can seat anywhere between eight to 12 people. Or you can be split up to fit two parties. This table provides us with the flexibility that we need.
GR: You have an incredibly beautiful bar. Can you talk about the drink program?
GC: This is more like a haphazard program. The matter of the fact is that we have a full liquor license so we might as well utilize it. We hired a mixologist to help us create some Japanese influenced and crafted cocktail. That’s become a signature YakiYan drink. If you look at our cocktail menu, the drinks are named after Japanese things. For example, we have a drink called the Bullet Train, another one called the Green Kimono, the Red Crown King, and Mount Fuji. Our goal is to have a bar that is solely Japanese, so we only serve Japanese beer and sake. When it comes to whiskey, it’s more like an evolution. We started with average Japanese whiskey because we didn’t know about the clientele here, whether they were willing to spend that type of money on a good bottle of Japanese whiskey. Then we found out they did, they appreciated the fact that they can get something they cannot usually get.
GR: Bidet culture is not very prevalent in the United States. Why did you include it in the bathroom?
GC: When we started developing this concept, we traveled to Japan for research and benchmarking. Almost every restaurant in Japan has a bidet. Since we are a Japanese restaurant, we wanted to have this Japanese toilet to complete the experience. A lot of restaurants in Japan also include amenities, the mouthwash and the toothpicks.
GR: Was there a certain artist you worked with for the decoration?
GC: We did commission an artist to help us create the ceiling art piece. This piece consists of eight big and small chrysanthemum, the royal flower of Japan. That is very representative of our Japanese barbecue restaurant. For the rest of the art pieces, when I go shopping sometimes I stumble upon great pieces and I visualize how it would look in the restaurant. If I think it would look good then I’ll just buy it and put them in different places to see whether it would fit in the front desk or on the surface counter or at the bar. In the past six months, I’ve kept my eyes open for nice artwork and I’m constantly rotating them.
GR: You’re an art curator for the restaurant.
GC: I love this restaurant, so a little piece here and there all have my fingerprints on it.
GR: Who was the artist?
GC: His name is Vincent. We had gone through many iterations. The first idea he presented was a monkey. I told him it didn’t work. He started helping us a year and a half ago, and I think it must have been the year of the monkey in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. He said, “Monkey and bamboo.” Then, the next thing he came up with was a cow. He was going to do a very organic or abstract cow to hang them from the ceiling, but—
GR: —that would freak me out.
GC: I’m eating something that is hanging down from the ceiling! He came up with origami, paper artwork, all sorts of ideas. What I love about Vincent is how many ideas he comes up with. The art piece is also an inspiration for the dinner plates we use in our restaurants. Our dinner plate resembles the shape of chrysanthemum petals. I went to Beijing and selected these plates and the dinnerware. After I picked the dinner plate, the artist told me that when he created the plate, he wanted the pattern to symbolize the many obstacles in life, big or small. But after you conquer your obstacles and turn the plate over, it turns into a rainbow. I thought that was very fitting for our concept. While working on the concept in the last two years, there have been numerous obstacles we have overcome. To me right now, it’s all become rainbows.
GR: All in six months! Every restaurant has a love-hate relationship with Yelp. What was the greatest and worst thing you read on Yelp? Did you have polar reactions with Yelp?
GC: I think it’s only natural when you open a new restaurant to put a lot of emphasis on Yelp. Today we still care about guests’ feedback. We will overreact to a good or bad review. Initially our emotions get affected by a good review, but especially a bad review. We can be very depressed if we get a not-so-good review. But we also realize that the bad review is there to help us improve. We’ve actually had a lot of 5-star reviews. I told the team to stay humble. Currently we have 148 reviews on Yelp with a 4.5 average. Are we there yet? I don’t think so. We have 10,000 guests who have dined in our restaurants, but maybe only 1% or 2% put a review on Yelp. I care about what the 98% of people think of us. We talk to as many guests as we can to find out what they think, how they heard about us, how we can improve.
GR: The relationship with Yelp is a difficult one.
GC: I don’t see it as a difficult one because day in and day out we are doing the right things. The good reviews are only a natural outcome of it. We don’t do what we do just because of Yelp. We do what we do because we want to provide an excellent experience for our guests. There are times where we are not up to our own standards, so we received a not-so-good review but it serves as an important reminder to serve everybody at the top of our game all the time.
GR: The standard that I see from witnessing the way you work is at the Michelin level. How do you work with your team to keep that standard?
GC: It starts with finding the right people who share the same values as you. For example, we find servers who love pleasing guests and who make it their purpose in life to make guests happy. After that everything will be easy. Our team is blessed with growing up with the Panda cultures. It is one of continuous improvement, good enough is not good enough, and there is no best only better. Work becomes fun with that mindset. I take great pleasure in making improvements every day and so does my team. I would have to say that the team is very aligned. We are blessed with a team that shares the same values. We disagree sometimes, but most of the time when we disagree we actually come up with a better solution.
GR: Are you opening another location?
GC: [Asks off-screen] Are we opening another location?
Off-screen: Um. Yes.
GR: Is there a where?
Off-screen: Right, now we are focusing on California.
GR: So… a city?
Off-screen: There is a very high probability we will be in the southern part of the state. Although there have been inquiries about Northern California which we are listening to.
GR: Southern side of the state like Orange County?
Off-screen: Orange County is a very high probability.
GR: South Coast Plaza? Newport Beach?
Off-screen: South Coast Plaza and Newport Beach are both fabulous places.
GR: You’re making this tough!
GC: We love to own our properties when we open restaurants. That has been the Panda strategy for the past 20 years. Right now, there are 2,000 Panda Express stores and we own 600 of our properties where we own the properties. Same thing here. A lot of guests ask why Hacienda Heights and why this plaza? Because Andrew and Peggy own this plaza. They are their own landlords and it’s easier to work with a landlord you know. To answer your question, we’d like our next location to be in a place where we can purchase those properties.
GR: What was the Cherng family’s reaction the first time eating here?
GC: I think they love it. Andrew and Peggy have both been here many times. They like to send their friends and guests to here. I hope we have created something they are proud of. I have to thank them for the trust and support they’ve given our team. Along the development process there were never any doubtful questions for us. I’m grateful for everything they’ve done for us.