Wow Bao is Food On Demand’s next Outstanding Operator.

The Chicago-based Asian brand is no stranger to innovation, consistently pushing the envelope with omnichannel creativity and expansion in non-traditional formats.

Wow Bao recently celebrated 20 years, racking up an impressive roster of presence in various verticals. 

The bao concept started out in several Chicago brick-and-mortar locations. In 2010 it became one of the first in the industry to introduce self-ordering kiosks. 

Geoff Alexander, Wow Bao CEO

Omnichannel creativity

Foreshadowing a major retail presence, Wow Bao’s product then entered the grocery sector, with its consumer-packaged goods (CPG) available in a handful of Chicago stores in 2012. Today, its CPG line continues to see major growth across the country. 

“We ended 2022 in about 350 grocery stores, and ended 2023 close to 5,000,” said Wow Bao CEO Geoff Alexander—adding that the goal for 2024 is three times that amount. 

In 2020, Wow Bao began entering dark kitchens and became available as a virtual brand, allowing operators to bring in additional revenue outside of their core offerings. The brand is currently present in over 700 dark kitchens across the U.S. and Canada.

Alexander attributes Wow Bao’s success as a virtual brand to the product’s cuisine as well as bao being so versatile and easy for operators to execute.  

“It’s the cleanest form of cooking and everybody and anybody can boil water, which allows it [production] to be very easy to do,” said Alexander. “We have great, chef-driven recipes that have allowed us to have fantastic tasting food, both from a traditional Asian flavor, as well as more Americanized flavors.” 

Wow Bao’s CPG line is available in 5,000 stores across the country.

As a nationally recognized brand, Wow Bao has consistently partnered with new types of food service operations. Currently it’s available in airports, universities, hotels, and e-commerce sites including Amazon.

Wow Bao even entered the metaverse, becoming the first virtual brand to offer an NFT-based rewards program for loyalty.

Its products are also available in hot food vending machines throughout the country—a unique concept for on-the-go consumers. 

Revisiting the definition of a restaurant 

Since its inception, Alexander says the company has learned a lot as it continues to adapt. 

“I could talk to you for days and years about everything we’ve learned,” he said. 

When asked what’s been challenging, he says it’s addressing the negative connotation surrounding the virtual brand space. 

On opinions that the virtual brands era may be “over” Alexander confidently disagrees, saying he believes the space is still in its early stages and will continue to evolve—adding the company just signed on a 350-unit restaurant group to deploy Wow Bao in over 100 locations.  

Wow Bao’s automated vending machines.

For Wow Bao, the company’s growth in various verticals echoes a commitment to continue investing in innovation.

“We see all of this opportunity for restaurants to explore,” said Alexander. “There’s so much excitement whether it’s from drones or autonomous drivers or what’s next, and there is so much opportunity and growth in the area,” said Alexander. “That’s why we’re betting all in on the dark kitchen model, but also why we’re diving further into the CPG model and trending further into the food service side.”

Referencing a speaker who joined Alexander on a recent panel, he adds, “it might be time to revisit the definition of a restaurant.”

“The mindset is that you go to a restaurant, sit down, order from a waiter, they bring your food, pay the bill and leave,” he said. “But restaurants are so different now with what you can experience, it’s very exciting and we’re thrilled to be part of that team that’s leading the charge by exploring all of these different avenues.”

The Outstanding Operators Program is highlighting 20 innovative brands taking creative paths to success with all things off-premises. Winners receive a $1000 charitable donation to the organization of choice and will be recognized on-stage at the 2024 Food On Demand Conference. Register today!

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