Wow Bao CEO Geoff Alexander kicked off the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, being held March 30 through April 1, with a keynote titled “Bootstrapping Your Brand to the Big Time.”
Growth doesn’t have to mean throwing up restaurants as fast as a brand can. There are other ways to grow, namely with ghost kitchens.
That was the prime takeaway from Wow Bao President and CEO Geoff Alexander’s keynote address “Bootstrapping Your Brand to the Big Time,” sponsored by 7shifts, on Wednesday, the opening day of the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Nashville, Tennessee.
The event, run by Networld Media Group, draws executives from leading brands to share successful ways they’ve grown franchises. Networld Media Group is the parent company of Fastcasual, Pizza Marketplace and QSRweb. The media company’s next upcoming event is a virtual pizza conference, the Pizza Leadership Virtual Summit, which will take place July 27.
In his keynote address, Alexander credited a long list of mentors for helping him realize his dreams as an executive at Wow Bao — ranging from his bosses at a grocery store while growing up on Fire Island, off the coast of Long Island, to his manager at a local bar and grill while a student at the University of Wisconsin.
He eventually applied for a management position at Lettuce Entertain You, which was owned Wow Bao at the time. Alexander then turned his attention to Vong’s Thai Kitchen and, by 2005, was working long hours in the brand. A year later, he became a Lettuce Entertain You partner, and by 2008 he was working on Asian concept Wow Bao, which had three units at the time.
One of his mentors told him not to take the position, but Alexander said he’s a firm believer in “underdog concepts.”
“I was brought in to do the heavy lifting and get the stores to perform,” he said. Success, he added, can be measured. Failure, of course, is lack of success.
By January 2009, Alexander took over the reigns at Wow Bao. At the time he company had three brick-and-mortar locations and no access to capital. In six years, Wow Bao had switched partners three times. It was Alexander’s goal to help the brand find success.
“My career had been working on the underdog concept — concepts that aren’t performing. That aren’t succeeding,” he said.
He introduced self-ordering kiosks to the brand within 12 months of joining the company, a move that increased sales by $1.89 per ticket. Order to delivery took just 45 seconds, and labor costs dropped as well.
Alexander also introduced online ordering — it had an app back in 2010 long before other brands did — and a food truck that took just one person to operate. In fact, the Baomobile, as the truck was called, was listed as one of the most influential food trucks in 2013.
Next up, Alexander said he recognized the power of social media early in his Wow Bao career and began doing all the social media himself to build brand awareness. The brand’s Twitter page was named one of the top Twitter feeds in Chicago. A few years later, the brand would be named one of the most socially influential companies alongside Starbucks, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Dunkin’.
“Wow Bao became known as being an early adopter of technology,” Alexander said. “I was willing to take on additional operational headaches if it gave us a leg up.”
In 2011, the brand’s fourth store opened but it would be three more years until the fifth opened. Without access to capital, Alexander had to find ways to grow the brand.
Today, Wow Bao’s items are in 300-plus groceries across the U.S., and the brand plans to be in another hundred by year’s end.
In 2014, the brand became Lettuce Entertain You’s first airport location, and the company is now found in college campuses as well.
In 2016, Lettuce Entertain You sold Wow Bao to a private equity firm and built an executive team to help it grow. A few weeks later in 2017, Wow Bao opened its first fully automated, tech-enabled unit.
But how could the company expand quickly?
“Not 90 days after the merger happened, Wow Bao opened in Los Angeles inside cloud kitchens,” Alexander said. “For less that $30,000, we entered one of the top markets in the country. Our goal was to crate a revenue stream for restaurants requiring little to no additional labor (with) ease of execution, scalability and profitability for the restaurant.”
The answer to such rapid expansion was ghost kitchens, or what Wow Bao dubs “dark kitchens,” as there are areas of the restaurant that are dark and have the potential for more revenue. Just three square feet can generate $150,000 in revenue, Alexander said.
“Wow Bao can help bring light to these dark spaces,” he said.
Wow Bao launched its first dark kitchen in January 2020 in a sister restaurant, before COVID shut down dining rooms. It didn’t matter, however. From January 2020 through today, Wow Bao has opened more than 600 dark kitchens across the U.S. and Canada. In August 2021, it launched an astonishing 55 dark kitchens in just one day.
“The ghost kitchen, dark kitchen, virtual kitchen — this is evolution,” Alexander said. “Evolution requires innovation. Innovation requires failure.”
About Networld Media Group
Founded in 2000, Networld Media Group is a leading business-to-business (B2B) media communications company specializing in digital media, associations and events in the tech, banking, retail and food service industries. Online properties include ATMmarketplace.com, DigitalSignageToday.com, FastCasual.com, KioskMarketplace.com, FoodTruckOperator.com, QSRweb.com, PizzaMarketplace.com, RetailCustomerExperience.com, VendingTimes.com and BiblicalLeadership.com. Annual events include the Fast Casual Executive Summit, the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit, the Bank Customer Experience Summit (BCX), the Interactive Customer Experience Summit (ICX) and the Self-Service Innovation Summit.