With six restaurants in Chicago, an outlet at O’Hare Airport, and packaged buns available in supermarkets everywhere, Wow Bao has hit its stride. You'd expect the fast-casual Asian bun spot to now focus on replication and expansion, not innovation.
But this month, Wow Bao will ushers us into a bao-filled future with what it calls its first “fully automated” restaurant in Chicago. “It’s evolution. We embrace technology,” says president Geoff Alexander. Since he joined the company in 2009, Alexander has pushed technical innovation, starting with mobile ordering and self-service kiosks. To accomplish this new experience, Wow Bao has partnered with San Francisco-based Eatsa, which developed the technology to automate service.
At the new location (1 W. Division St., Gold Coast), guests can either order in advance via an app or walk up to a kiosk and place their order. Guests are then directed to a series of numbered windows, complete with kid-friendly animations, to pick up their food. It’s almost like a science fiction version of an old-fashioned automat—except, of course, the food is cooked to order. The restaurant isn’t literally “automated," as humans are cooking the food behind the scenes, but the entire guest experience can be completed without interacting with a person.
At first glance, this might seem a bit impersonal, but Alexander insists this new system actually improves hospitality. “First of all, you order on your own. You are personally ordering, you’re making sure you get what you want—that to me is hospitality,” says Alexander. At any other fast casual restaurant, “if you’re the 50th customer, you’re being pushed through the line, and your food is being pushed to you. We don’t have to push you through the line, and we don’t have to push the food at you. We can talk to you about your day.”
The standard Wow Bao can run through between 200 to 300 people an hour, while this location can theoretically handle up to 500. The company is able to replace some labor costs with investments in the technology.
According to Alexander, this isn’t a one-off experiment. “This is the brand going forward. This is how we will brand every Wow Bao going forward.” Will other fast casual restaurants switch to an automated model? Watch this space.