The following year, Wow Bao commissioned a booth at the 100,000 person per day Lollapalooza music festival. Grocery entered the picture in 2012 at Jewel and Sunset Foods. Alexander personally walked up to his local market and pitched the product. The second time he did so, it was the store his wife frequented growing up. Alexander asked the owner to help him earn brownie points with the in-laws.
Wow Bao then became the first LEYE brand to enter an airport in 2014. Six have launched since, with No. 7 headed to Salt Lake City in the fall. Colleges—also a LEYE debut—showed up the next year when Wow Bao partnered with Sodexo to open on the University of Vermont, Kent State, and Indiana State.
“It was all about getting the name out there and the ease of execution and finding partners to work with,” Alexander says.
As noted, when Alexander arrived, Wow Bao had just three brick-and-mortars, and it wasn’t all humming. The original Water Tower unit, at 384 square feet, was busy. State & Lake and Jackson units opened in 2017. The former is still there, but the latter closed in 2018. It boasted a strong lunch business, then died after 1 p.m., Alexander says.
What he had come to understand, however, and would soon unlock the picture materializing today, was Wow Bao’s roadblocks never concerned the food. Melman gave away 50,000 baos in the concept’s first year to get the word out. He wouldn’t have done so, Alexander says, if he didn’t see the vision, too.
“The more you got the food in people’s hands and educated them on what it was, the faster the acceptance was about it,” Alexander says.
With that in mind, Wow Bao got involved with bicycle delivery. It was the third restaurant in Chicago to partner with Uber Eats when the aggregator launched. The company started doing “every charity function” it could find and set tables up to give food away, Alexander says. “It was all about how do I put my food into your hands and you see how great this product is,” he explains. “Do you want to keep working with us? That was the turning point for the brand, more than anything else.”
Valor Equity Partners took a majority stake in Wow Bao in 2017, partnering with LEYE to ignite growth across this multi-channel universe. It included the launch of the cloud kitchen concept September 2017 in L.A. December 2017 marked Wow Bao’s first fully automated front-of-the-house location. Between 2017 and 2018, three more automated units opened.
And that brings us to the present view of Wow Bao most people are familiar with. Jon Shulkin, partner and co-president of Valor, and chairman of Wow Bao, met with Alexander in August 2019 to address one of the emerging sector’s age-old quandary’s—what’s next?
Valor’s PE tentacles reach through a network of brands and geographies. Alexander wondered, why couldn’t Wow Bao sell its products out the back door of multiple brands for third-party delivery? “It was kind of a joke,” he says. “Like, we have all these partners, why can’t they just sell Wow Bao? But it was an aha moment for Jon.”
“I remember thinking, ‘what did I just say and get myself involved in.”
Wow Bao already had national distribution thanks to its nontraditional efforts. It got to work on online training materials and deepened its relationships with third-parties. Soon, Alexander was presenting the notion to peers (by the way, three of those 20 CEOs now work with Wow Bao), which circles back to the opening.
This idea, of renting a brand, so to speak, was something nobody wanted to touch. But then the country shut down and there was nothing to do but delivery. Alexander says Wow Bao focused all its energy on the idea. To refresh, literally one brand had bought in at that point.
Wow Bao’s goal was to make it as streamlined and quick as possible for restaurants, from independents to chains of every ilk, to turn the brand on and evolve stark kitchen capacity into lifeboat revenue.