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Three hundred square feet might not sound like much—perhaps enough space for equipment storage or a large walk-in refrigerator. For Chicago-based concept Wow Bao, 300 or 350 square feet is the sweet spot.
The brand has been building its footprint largely through nontraditional spaces like airports, university campuses, and sports arenas.
“We have the luxury of having a product that is very resilient and doesn’t require a lot of training,” says Geoff Alexander, president of Wow Bao, which is under parent group Lettuce Entertain You. “We’re able to get it to where we need to get it to and then simply steam the product. … The product is really self-explanatory and then it’s able to hold on a steam table for 45 minutes to as much as an hour and 15 [minutes] without any damage to it.”
Because of this operational ease, Wow Bao has opened units in Chicago O’Hare and Reagan National Airports; the University of Vermont, Kent State, and Indiana State; and two Marriott Renaissance hotels in D.C. This month it returned to U.S. Cellular Field for the Chicago White Sox and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. Alexander also points out that Wow Bao was at CenturyLink Field in Seattle when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013; the following year when Wow Bao did not return to the stadium, the Seahawks were narrowly bested by the New England Patriots.
Beyond possibly swaying the luck of host teams at sports arenas, Wow Bao’s greater goal is to add “bao” to the American lexicon.
“A lot of higher-level chefs are getting into the ability to take a soft yeast dough and basically turn it into a taco by putting different ingredients in there, usually with an Asian influence. … The word ‘bao’ is becoming a lot more mainstream,” Alexander says. “At the end of the day, it’s eating a comfort Chinese food … in a vehicle that’s portable and that’s different for a lot of people.”
While Wow Bao’s product serves up more traditional Chinese flavors like Teriyaki Chicken, Spicy Mongolian Beef, Whole Wheat Vegetable, and Coconut Custard as a sweet bao, it has also experimented with more American flavors like a chocolate or seasonal pumpkin as sweet baos, BBQ Pork, and breakfast bao filled with ingredients like egg, bacon, Cheddar, and spicy sausage. Bao are certainly the most portable items on the menu, but guests can also order rice and noodle bowls, potstickers, dumplings, and salads.
Today Wow Bao’s operational efficiency seems second nature, and Alexander explains that it is in part due to the brand’s origins: Around 2003, Water Tower Place Shopping Center in downtown Chicago had a 350-square-foot space available at the front of the mall; in addition to the restrictive size, the area had no ventilation, meaning whatever food concept occupied the space could not cook.
Flash-forward about 13 years, and Wow Bao is finding its stride with nontraditional expansion. Alexander even has a specific litmus test for success.
“When you go to a baseball game and they walk up and down the aisles and throw the peanuts and have the steamers that are holding hot dogs, when I open up the steamers and they’re holding bao and they’re throwing them down the aisles and people are passing their money, then I know we hit it big,” he says.
By Nicole Duncan