Alice Ngin dishes out advice and a sales pitch while ratcheting service of a la carte Chinese food into high gear.
Ngin, who originally is from Singapore, has worked at Panda Express in the Memorial Union Food Court for 11 years. In that time, her fast, no-nonsense approach has prompted almost a cult-like following.
“It’s fast food,” said Steven Ma, a senior in biology. “It’s my favorite out of everything here.”
Ngin addressed Ma — who speaks Spanish, Chinese and English — first in Chinese and then in English. “You’re done this term? Well, good luck to you. Don’t forget to come back for a meal before you take off.”
Ngin is known for her intensity, which inspired a Facebook group, but the page has since been deactivated.
“At first it was a group talking trash about her. Then I saw people defending her,” said Tim Stowell, a sophomore in business and a frequent visitor to Panda Express.
“I saw it,” said Melissa Waud, a sophomore in exercise and sports science. “I didn’t want to join it because I love Alice.”
Waud said some students probably misunderstand Ngin.
“A lot of first-time Panda users think she’s over the top. All you have to do is pay attention and give her 20 seconds,” Waud said. “They’re trying to get you in and out as soon as possible. She’s doing it for us. She’s helping three people at once. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s cooking the food, too.”
On a good day, Ngin and her co-workers serve 600 people. During the lunch rush, 50 people wait in line. But they don’t wait long.
“Under two minutes,” said Ngin, citing the time it takes to move customers through the line. “We have a very quick turnaround because we have so many customers. Once they know me, this is the way I operate.”
Although she’s pressed for time, Ngin makes time for the personal touches.
She once recommended an orange-carrot drink to Stowell. He recalled that she told him, “It’s good for the eyes.”
“Part of the reason I come back is because she’s so nice. She sees thousands of students, and she remembers our names,” Stowell said. Ngin even remembered his birthday, which impressed him. “Our professors don’t remember our names.”
“I check when they give me a card, and I take a peek. I look at them,” Ngin said. “Every time they come, I say the name out loud. I would sometimes go home and write the names down.”
The students are the best part of her job, she said:
“They are like my children. I don’t have children. ... It’s a good feeling. Like a mother to them. We have to take care of them. That’s my biggest sense of accomplishment.”