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Eatsa’s technology shifts to Wow Bao

Asian fast-casual chain becomes first concept to license automat-style tech platform.

The Wow Bao fast-casual chain, recently purchased by a tech-focused private-equity firm, announced today it will become the first concept to license the frictionless technology platform behind automat-like Eatsa.

When Wow Bao’s new unit opens in Chicago on Dec. 1, it will feature several kiosk-enabled ordering stations, with finished orders of steamed buns and noodle bowls appearing from behind 12 LED screen-covered cubbies.

Valor Equity Partners, which quietly acquired a controlling interest in the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Concept in June, is also an investor in Eatsa. Last month, Eatsa shuttered five units, keeping open two San Francisco stores, with a promise to focus on selling its technological model to other brands.

All new Wow Bao units will feature Eatsa’s technology, says chain President Geoff Alexander. The tech-savvy Asian concept, which has employed ordering kiosks and mobile ordering since 2009, currently has two leases signed and two units in lease negotiations in Chicago, with plans to expand throughout the country, Alexander says.

“This is our new brand format,” he says. “This is not a one-off.”

Says Alexander: “When Eatsa first launched two years ago, I knew this was going to be changing the industry. … This is going to change the way people dine.”

Eatsa’s platform will be modified to fit with Wow Bao’s playful brand aesthetic, with animation and graphics throughout the new restaurant. One or two greeters will work front of house to explain the technology and welcome guests, Alexander says. The 1,100-square-foot unit will have counter seating for about 10-15 diners.

Should concepts be nervous about adopting the technology of a brand that was forced to close the majority of its units? No, says Eatsa CEO Tim Young.

“Eatsa had no trouble in making the experience work,” Young says, adding that the chain’s tech model got largely positive consumer reviews. The chain struggled, however, in scaling its bowl-based food concept to far-flung markets, he says, and opted to focus on the ordering platform while concentrating on restaurant service in just one city.

Eatsa’s technology also includes back-of-house metrics that provide real-time data about how many customers are being served at all times, allowing the restaurant to provide almost up-to-the-minute details on when mobile orders will be ready, he says. Multiple ordering kiosks (the number’s determined by a concept’s line length during peak hours) should speed throughput, he says.

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