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Wow Bao to close, relocate Chicago unit as it goes cashless

The fast-casual chain to reduce labor with kiosk-only systems at new units

Less than a year after launching Eatsa’s cashless ordering system at one of its Chicago restaurants, Wow Bao is ready to go all-in as a fully automated front-of-the-house chain.

The 10-unit, Chicago-based company, created by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, is closing its second oldest store later this month and relocating it to a prime spot on Michigan Avenue. The new store will become a fully tech-enabled restaurant that doesn’t require employees to take orders or call out orders for pick up.

The Jackson Boulevard store will serve its last meals on June 29. The new restaurant is expected to open after July 4.  The decision to go with Eatsa’s proprietary technology comes after Wow Bao, which serves Asian steamed buns, potstickers and noodles, gave the tech a trial run last year at another Chicago unit.  

Customers can order from a kiosk or through the chain’s app. Meals are prepared by back-of-the-house staff who place the orders in one of 12 personalized animated LED-lit cubbies. When a meal is ready, the guest is assigned a cubby number which displays on a screen. 

Wow Bao president Geoff Alexander said as the company expands, future locations will adopt these “self-serving animated cubbies” which have shown positive results so far. 

“It is incredibly well received from the consumer,” he said.

On a normal busy shift, Alexander said he might staff anywhere from three to six employees at a regular restaurant. But at these fully tech-enabled stores, he said the maximum amount of employees working per shift will be 1 to 2. One restaurant, he said, can operate with about 7 employees.

Wow Bao

He said Wow Bao is saving on labor but not sacrificing good service.  

“We’ve eliminated the cashier, and the pickup. But now, we keep someone out front to answer questions and help you. We have raised our level of hospitality,” he said. 

Alexander said the average ticket time is under 160 seconds. TV monitors in the dining room, akin to security cameras, feed images to the kitchen. If crowds begin to swarm, the back of the house knows to start cooking, Alexander said.

Besides saving on labor, Alexander said the kiosk approach allows the brand to capture valuable data about what people are buying.

“We have what you spend and how you spend it,” he said.

Alexander said he expects Wow Bao’s customer base to embrace the fully automated restaurants. The brand has had kiosk ordering as an option, along with cashiers, since 2009.

“Technology has always been a big part of who we were,” Alexander said. “For us, [this] is evolution.”

Last year, Wow Bao received a majority investment from Chicago-based Valor Equity Partners. At the same time, San Francisco-based Eatsa closed several stores as it pivoted towards selling its technology platform to other restaurant chains.

Wow Bao, founded in 2003, is scouting new locations in New York, and Washington D.C. Alexander said the company plans to open about three more stores in the Chicago area this year. By 2019, the brand plans to double its size. 

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @FastFoodMaven

Correction: June 28, 2018
This story has been updated to correct Wow Bao CEO Geoff Alexander's last name.
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