At this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, QSR caught up with restaurant executives to get their take on 2023’s biggest topics and what’s on the mind of operators. We’ll share their insights and observations from the floor, thoughts on the future, and what matters most headed into the back half of the year and beyond.

The first interview is with Geoff Alexander, president and CEO of Wow Bao.

So tell us what innovation you have your eye on at the Show?

For our business and what we’re doing, we’re so heavy in delivery, it’s always about how do we continue to make the delivery experience that much better for the end user. Because the food has to travel, and who knows how long the food takes to get there. So we’re really looking for, whether it’s packaging or something else, ways to enhance the experience. I don’t know what the answer is—that’s why I’m looking for it. Other, smarter people out there are figuring out what you can do for the delivery experience.

I think the delivery experience goes beyond just packaging, right? It goes to how do you keep the food hot. What can you add to the packaging? What can you add to the order? What can happen on the way from Point A to Point B that you can get credit for that we haven’t thought about right now? We’re looking in that direction.

Give us your thoughts on what appears to be the topic of choice this year—artificial intelligence?

I think for restaurants, there’s great use for it. When you look at reservation systems. You look at drive-thrus. You look at customer service responses. I think it can be really, really exciting. I had an experience with one of the AI reservation systems and I went through about 12 questions to get to the reservation, and the whole time I didn’t know it was AI until I stumped them on my last question, and you could tell it wasn’t a person. It’s really exciting what’s going to happen.

What about behind the scenes? 

If it can help with the food quality—food being cooked better, recognizing temperatures so you don’t overcook or when to re-prep or anything to that effect—I think that can be a great experience. 

Look, we have a lot of conversations about making things easier for the guest and better for the guest. It has to start with making things easier and better for the employee. If it’s easier and better for them, it translates to the guest. I don’t think any of this technology is doing anything to hurt the employee. An AI tech solution can make their jobs more seamless, so they are able to concentrate on other aspects of customer service. I think you have to get buy-in from the employee to embrace it, and in the long run, it will make their spirits better and their job easier, which then translates to the guest.

What’s the most innovative thing Wow Bao is doing?

I think we do a lot of things. I think our vending machines are pretty innovative. The digital collectibles that we’re coming out with. We’re going to use that to enhance the loyalty program in a way that no one else has done or is doing, which is very innovative. Especially as we’re really the only virtual brand that offers loyalty at this scale, and now we’re taking it to another level. You know, we did self-ordering kiosks in 2010. Twelve years later, now everyone has self-ordering kiosks. What we’re doing today in the digital space and with web3 I think you’re going to see a lot of players in the next three to five years get involved, and we’re going to be at another level from where they are when they do.

What do you say to somebody who doesn’t believe in kiosks now?

To me, that means they have the wrong kiosk. When we put it in in 2010, I remember we were building the kiosk and a technician was literally lying on the ground on his back and putting cables in. And someone walked in and started ordering. The adoption is immediate. So I disagree with someone saying ‘they’ll never use it, it doesn’t make sense’—they’re everywhere. And at the time that we did it, it was airports, movie theaters, and ATMs and banks. That was it. Now, even your phone is a kiosk.

OK, so let’s fast forward to NRA Show 2024. If it’s AI this year, what’s on everybody’s minds this time next year?

Off the cuff, quick answer: what’s happening with automation from the driverless cars to the drones, I think there’s going to be something that we haven’t experienced yet that’s going to be more autonomous like that. And I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be. But when you look at Bear Robotics with their robot that’s going around as a busboy, and there’s a driverless car two aisles over, I think you’re going to see an evolution that’s going to merge those two things—it’s going to be a whole other level. The robotics people are just on a next level with what they’re creating.

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