Emerging Brands

Marc Lore's Wonder is reinventing the meal

After conquering e-commerce, the serial entrepreneur set out to fix food delivery. He created a new kind of restaurant in the process.
Wonder currently has four locations, each housing 15 to 20 restaurants. It calls itself "a new kind of food hall." | Photos courtesy of Wonder

The words above the door at Wonder on Manhattan’s Upper West Side read: “A new kind of food hall.”

Standing in the lobby on a recent afternoon, next to a beverage cooler and a shelf of menus, founder Marc Lore is pondering the fit of that label. 

“A new kind of food hall” isn’t wrong, he reasons. Like food halls, Wonder houses multiple restaurants in one place. But the similarities mostly end there.

Lore came to the restaurant industry fairly recently, after a momentous run in e-commerce. Around the turn of the millennium, he began building a series of increasingly bold online companies—The Pit, Diapers.com, Jet.com—that would go on to be acquired by titans like Amazon and Walmart. Those efforts made him a billionaire. They also set a high bar for what he might do next. And Lore is not one to shy away from a challenge.

Wonder, a sort of self-contained restaurant solar system with its own supply chain, tech stack and logistics network, is his biggest idea yet. And it is far more than a new riff on the food hall.

For one thing, Wonder owns all 19 restaurants in the building at 2030 Broadway. Some it created from scratch, others are the product of partnerships with high-profile chefs, and still others are local and regional favorites that sold their rights to Wonder. They all come out of the same 2,800-square-foot kitchen. 

And most customers interact with these restaurants from home, using Wonder’s app to order pickup or delivery by a uniformed Wonder employee. The dining room off to Lore’s right has just a handful of tables, and only about 5% of guests order in person at the small front counter. 

Lore said he’s been calling Wonder a “delivery-first food hall.” That gets a little closer to the point, as improving food delivery is Wonder’s raison d’etre. But, Lore admits, even that description needs explaining. Because it doesn’t begin to suggest what is perhaps Wonder’s biggest innovation—an end-to-end food manufacturing and production process that has significantly reduced the time and expertise needed to prepare its meals. 

Indeed, the question of what, exactly, Wonder is is an ongoing topic of discussion among company brass.

“We haven’t, I don’t think, landed on that long-term,” said Daniel Shlossman, Wonder’s recently hired chief marketing and growth officer. 

But they all seem to agree it’s something new.

“We’re creating a new category, kind of like what Stouffer’s did with the TV dinner,” said Chief Culinary Operations Officer Al Lanza, who led Wonder’s menu development. “It didn’t exist and now it was a thing. This didn’t exist and now it was a thing.”

That new category? “Fully integrated, high-quality, delivery-only food,” said Denny Post, the former CEO of Red Robin and a Wonder advisor. “It’s almost a new kind of grocery. It’s finished food.”

Lore’s ambitions for the company are just as lofty. The billionaire entrepreneur has already raised more than $850 million for the business, a sum he says will break $1 billion by early 2024. By the end of this year, Wonder will have 10 locations, and Lore says there could be as many as 7,000 one day, all over the country.

There is half-joking talk of an eventual Super Bowl commercial, and far more serious plans for an IPO. Lore believes there’s a path to a $1 trillion market cap for Wonder, which would make it bigger than Meta, a hair smaller than Amazon, and by far the most valuable restaurant company of all time.

If that sounds impossible, well, that’s kind of the point. Lore sold his very first startup to The Topps Co. for $5.7 million. He founded an e-commerce empire on a notorious loss leader (diapers) and went toe to toe with Amazon at Jet.com. He has long-term plans to construct a utopian city from scratch in the desert.

“He’s done incredible things in the past multiple times,” said Shlossman, who left his job as CMO of Sweetgreen and moved his family across the country to join Lore at Wonder. 

“I would never count Marc Lore out,” Post said.

Wonder 1.0

By all accounts, Lore was born to be an entrepreneur. He started his first business as a teenager, buying up boxes of baseball cards, sorting them into complete sets and reselling them. It was around this time that he also became obsessed with derivatives, which would lead him to a business degree and a job in investment banking. 

But Lore was not entirely satisfied in the world of finance, and after about seven years, he struck out on his own to try his luck in the booming dot-com business. In 1999, he and a childhood friend founded The Pit, a sort of sports stock market that allowed you to bet on individual athletes. They later sold it to Topps, the sports collectibles giant. Lore followed that up with Diapers.com, which spawned a family of e-commerce sites called Quidsi. He sold the latter to Amazon in 2011 for $545 million.

After working at Amazon for two years, Lore left to build a competitor, Jet.com, which he sold to Walmart in 2016 for $3.3 billion. He spent the next four and a half years as CEO of Walmart’s e-commerce division. 

By age 50, Lore had accomplished many times over what most entrepreneurs do in a lifetime. And yet his itch to build companies seemed to only intensify. At the beginning of 2021, Lore left Walmart to pursue not one, but several startup ideas, including one app that would allow people to buy empty seats in the middle of sporting events, and another designed to make its users more thoughtful. 

But the idea that really captured Lore’s imagination in this prolific period was Wonder, a food delivery concept that would give people fast, affordable access to high-quality meals at home. It would be the most complicated business Lore had ever built. But it also had the potential to be the most accessible. “It’s bigger than any other idea I could come up with,” he said. 

Wonder van

Wonder formerly used vans to finish meals steps from customers’ homes. | Photo courtesy of Wonder

Lore had observed that people were cooking fewer meals themselves and having more of them delivered. This trend, of course, was supercharged by the pandemic, when going to the grocery store or out to eat became risky. But there was a problem.

“Food delivery was exploding,” Lore said, “but people weren’t happy with the quality of the experience.” 

Even as delivery sales surged by triple digits in 2020, long delivery times were common. Lukewarm burgers and soggy fries were practically expected. It wasn’t great, but, hey, it was convenient. Lore thought, why couldn’t it be both?

The solution to delivery’s quality issues, he believed, was to move the process of actually making the food closer to the consumer. He figured their driveway was about as close as one could get.

With hundreds of millions of venture-capital dollars in hand, Wonder began assembling a fleet of Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans with small kitchens inside. It figured out how to cook food quickly inside those vans. It also developed its own restaurants, app and website, creating a closed loop it could control from top to bottom. 

In 2020, Wonder began piloting the business in the affluent suburb of Westfield, N.J. Its vans became a common sight around town and doubled as moving billboards. Before long, residents who lived outside of Wonder’s limited service area started calling the mayor to ask when it would be available in their neighborhood. 

But the vans came with an intractable problem: parking. Parking 450 vans was not only expensive, but it also presented a barrier to future growth. Wherever Wonder went, it would have to find parking, and lots of it. 

So Wonder abandoned the vans. Beginning in 2023, it would no longer be a fleet of restaurants on wheels, but a chain of more traditional brick-and-mortar outlets with a focus on delivery. Leasing buildings, it turned out, was more cost-effective than paying for parking. Plus, customers could now order from multiple Wonder concepts at once, which was not possible with the vans. 

Still, those vans taught the company an important lesson that remains central to its DNA today: how to produce high-quality meals quickly, in a small space and with lightly trained labor.

“The trucks really forced us to be super innovative,” Lore said.

Cooking on the edge

The brains of Wonder reside in a small, glass-windowed office inside the company’s research and development center in Parsippany, N.J., about 30 miles from Manhattan.

One wall of this office is covered with a network of color-coded index cards signifying Wonder’s org chart. The rest of the space is occupied by white boards filled with company values, key metrics and roadmaps. Amid this thicket of enamel and ink, there is one image that sticks out: a hand-drawn circular flow chart labeled “The Wonder Wheel.” At the center of the wheel, the hub that keeps the entire enterprise turning, are the words “Edge Cooking.”

The goal of edge cooking, like edge computing, is to bring the final product closer to the end user. In Wonder’s case, that leads to faster service, better food quality and happier customers. For Lore, edge cooking (and really, Wonder itself), boiled down to one question: What if you could cook a Bobby Flay steak in six minutes, and have it at the customer’s door in another six? 

When Lore started Wonder, he had no prior restaurant experience. He had no idea if the above scenario was even possible. That would ultimately be an advantage. But industry veterans took some convincing. 

Chef Al Lanza had spent nearly 30 years in kitchens. He had been a sous chef at the Michelin-starred Le Bernardin and corporate executive chef at giant noncommercial feeders like Compass. When he first heard Lore’s idea, he thought, “There’s no way.” 

Then he actually met Lore. “After two meetings, it was pretty clear what a visionary he is,” Lanza said. He came away convinced that what Lore was proposing could be done, and joined Wonder as head of culinary operations in 2019 to begin pursuing the six-minute steak.

The chef set up shop in a Manhattan WeWork office with a TurboChef oven and a virtually endless supply of steak. His goal was to reverse engineer a grilled filet mignon from Bobby Flay’s steakhouse using Wonder’s system, which involved cooking the beef sous vide and then finishing it in the TurboChef to get a crispy sear. The desired result: a steak identical in taste and quality to Flay’s, but far more scalable. 

“We cooked this one steak over and over and over again for a while, until we got a grasp of the oven, because there’s 4,000 permutations of that oven,” Lanza said.

After two months, smoke from all the cooking got Lanza kicked out of the WeWork, and it took Wonder another two years to get the steak right. But it did, at least as far as Flay was concerned: Bobby Flay Steak is now one of the 23 restaurants under Wonder’s umbrella.

Next it tackled pizza, successfully reproducing a “wood-fired” pie without wood or fire. It has used the same process to recreate brisket from Tejas Barbecue in tiny Tomball, Texas, cheesesteaks from Atlanta hot spot Fred’s Meat & Bread, and pork chops with caramelized apples by chef Marc Murphy, a restaurateur and TV personality known for his appearances on “Chopped.” 

In Wonder’s early days, Murphy let the company set up an R&D kitchen in the basement of his event space in Tribeca. He also worked with them to create a Wonder brand of his own, called Mainstay. 

“It was really wild to see the whole birth of it,” Murphy said. He recalled how Lanza and his team would watch him cook something, measuring the recipe “down to the grain of salt.” Then they would replicate it the Wonder way.

“Once it came to the plate and we’d do tastings, I’d be like, ‘Holy cow,’” he said. “It just blew my mind how consistent they were getting it and how good it was.” 

Neither Lore nor Lanza would reveal exactly how Wonder pulled this off. They cited “proprietary programming” of the TurboChefs—novel combinations of temperature and wind speed, adjusted for each menu item. “We’re doing stuff that no one’s ever done with these ovens,” Lore said.

Just as important is Wonder’s “cloud cooking” operation, which takes place in a food manufacturing plant in New Jersey. There, its steaks, burger patties and other proteins are cooked sous vide by the tub-full, pizza dough is parbaked and sauces are mixed. The partially cooked food is then portioned, packaged and shipped to one of nine cross-stops and then to Wonder’s three stores in the Upper West Side, Chelsea and Westfield. (A fourth opened Thursday in Brooklyn.) 

From there, it’s stored in refrigerators until it’s ordered and finished, then handed off to couriers and delivered to customers’ homes, which are all within a six-minute car or e-bike ride. Wonder’s average “order-to-eat” time is under 30 minutes.

All of its menus can be executed using three pieces of equipment: TurboChef ovens, water baths and self-venting automated fryers. For restaurant staff, much of the job amounts to pushing a button on the oven. This makes the concept easy to replicate in different settings.

“We can put this kitchen in a shoe store,” Lore said. And yet the simple setup unlocks a wide range of culinary possibilities. 

“Within those three [pieces of equipment], there’s nothing you cannot do,” Lanza said. 

Many restaurants, one box

One of Lore’s big breakthroughs at Diapers.com had to do with boxes. 

He learned that it was most efficient to ship items in the smallest possible box. So the company began stocking a wider variety of box sizes and then developed software that told pickers the right one to use for each order.

Years later, Lore lies awake at night puzzling over a similar unit economics problem. Except it has to do with restaurants rather than diapers.

“How many restaurants can you fit in a certain amount of square feet?” he said. Wonder has 23 brands today and will reach 30 soon. “I’m already thinking about, well, how do you get to 50, how do you get to 75, 100?” 

There’s a reason Lore is so intent on growing that number: It’s one of the most important parts of the Wonder Wheel. Edge cooking turns the wheel. But restaurant selection determines how fast it spins. 

According to Lore, the more restaurants Wonder can offer under one roof, the more customers it can reach. That means more sales. And the more sales Wonder can depend on in a given area, the smaller its delivery radius can be. A smaller radius leads to faster deliveries, which leads to better food, which leads to more sales. And now the wheel is turning. 

Mr D's Tablescape

Food from Mr. D’s, a fried chicken restaurant in Lorman, Miss., can now be found on the Wonder menu. | Photo courtesy of Wonder

Wonder’s restaurants already span a variety of cuisines and price points. You can get a cheeseburger for $7.95, a Cobb salad for $12.95 or a ribeye for $44—plus a $2.95 delivery fee and a tip. There is fried chicken and poke, sushi and pizza, Indian, Mexican, Greek and Spanish. Coming soon: ramen, Chinese and chicken wings. 

And while some of these restaurants are created from scratch by Wonder, many are names customers will recognize. There are collaborations with well-known chefs, including Flay, Murphy, Jose Andres and Nancy Silverton. There are also popular mom-and-pops, such as beloved Brooklyn pizza spot DiFara and Mississippi institution Mr. D’s fried chicken. Wonder acquired the rights to these independents under a unique deal: The restaurants get cash and stock in Wonder, and Wonder gets to use their brands and recipes without ever paying a cent in royalties.

“It makes our financial model way better,” Lore said. And it gives Wonder instant credibility.

Maydan, a Middle Eastern concept in Washington, D.C., was one of the first restaurants to sign on with Wonder. It had just been named one of the best restaurants in the U.S. by Food & Wine and Bon Appetit. Owner Rose Previte saw Wonder as a way to take Maydan places it wouldn’t otherwise go.

“How else are we gonna get our food to people in New York and New Jersey?” she said. “It was a way to get our name out there.”

At Maydan, much of the food is cooked over a giant fire pit in the middle of the restaurant. The menu is rooted in traditional techniques and Previte’s experience cooking with her Lebanese-American mother. Still, she felt it was in good hands with Wonder.

“I always felt like [Maydan’s story] mattered,” she said. “They didn’t just take the recipes and run.”

And while she acknowledged that Wonder’s version of her food will never taste exactly how it does coming off Maydan’s fire, she said the company has been able to execute items like kebabs, hummus and labneh quite well. “A lot of the menu was really adaptable,” she said.

The credibility from big names like Maydan seems to have trickled down to Wonder’s in-house concepts, which are among its most popular. The Chipotle-inspired Limesalt, in fact, is Wonder’s best-seller. Another original, Burger Baby, is in the top five. Lore credits that to the fact that Wonder has put considerable thought into each brand.

“Each restaurant we have serves a real purpose in the market,” he said. “We think they should actually exist in the market.” 

The hero metric

Wonder is not content with simply offering customers variety and convenience. To keep people coming back, the food has to be really good. And while just about every brand pledges allegiance to “quality,” Wonder appears to be actually walking the walk.

The endorsements of people like Murphy and Previte are just one sign of that commitment. “Anything I put my name on … it’s very much my face on it,” Previte said. “So I want it to be successful.”

There is also the testimony of customers themselves. And that is not hard to find, because Wonder is obsessed with what its customers think. Inside that office in its R&D facility, a board lists 50 key performance indicators. At the very top, above even revenue, is net promoter score (NPS), a widely used measure of customer sentiment. That score guides everything Wonder does. 

“NPS is like the hero metric for us,” Shlossman said. “Everything is built specifically to ultimately affect NPS.”

Each of Wonder’s stores has an NPS of 70, Lore said. That is generally considered excellent. 

Wonder is aggressive about gathering this feedback. It even asks guests to rate individual menu items from 0 to 10 and displays the averages on its online menus. A perusal of those menus failed to find any dish with a score below 8, and many exceeded 9.5. If an item is slipping, “we fix it,” Shlossman said.

When asked what convinced him to leave a C-level job at the upstart Sweetgreen for Wonder, Shlossman said it was the food. “The quality of the food we have is on a whole different level,” he said.

The path to profitability

Wonder, like many startups, is not a profitable company. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into R&D alone and continues to invest in growth, as only scale will ease the considerable fixed costs in its business model.

Lore has years of experience scaling companies and is not afraid to burn through cash to do it. He’s more concerned about unit-level profitability. “That happens pretty soon,” he said.

Each of Wonder’s three locations is on track to generate nearly $4 million in sales this year. That’s about as much as an Outback Steakhouse, Shake Shack or Cracker Barrel. The restaurants will turn a profit when they hit $5 million. And they have the kitchen capacity to reach $10 million, which would be among the highest AUVs in the industry. At that level, Lore said, four-wall operating margins would be about 20%—a strong return for a restaurant of any size.

Wonder has done this with very little marketing so far. It has relied mainly on word of mouth and the visibility of its stores. Its first major out-of-home advertising campaign is launching with the opening of its fourth location, in downtown Brooklyn.

Six more Wonders are slated to follow this year in New York City and New Jersey. After that, the company will speed up development, with plans to saturate the Tri-State area with up to 100 stores and then fill out the Northeast, which will call for a second food manufacturing plant, in eastern Pennsylvania. 

It’s a steep trajectory for such a new concept, particularly one that relies so heavily on delivery, which has begun to slow after its pandemic explosion. But Shlossman said he’s not worried about demand.

“I know the product is so good,” he said. It’s more a matter of getting the word out about it. “From an awareness perspective, we have a lot of opportunity ahead.” 

Unexpected and inexplicable

When Lore names a company, he likes to use words that are easy to say and remember. Diapers. Jet. Wag. Wizard. Wonder.

“I wanted a positive name that was like an empty vessel,” he said of Wonder. He was enchanted by the word’s connotations. Seated at a table in Wonder’s dining room, he pulls out his phone and looks up the definition: “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar or inexplicable.” 

“That’s what we were trying to do,” he said. “Surprise people with an unexpected delivery experience.”

Wonder has already accomplished a lot in that regard. But it will continue to push the limits of expectation. It has plans to automate parts of the kitchen with things like conveyor belts and robotic arms, for instance. Lore teased a new design that will have no refrigerators or cold rails.

On the front end, Wonder is experimenting with artificial intelligence to create videos of its chefs greeting the customer by name and telling them a bit about what they ordered. It’s also developing special packaging intended to make delivery feel more like eating in a restaurant. 

Beyond that, Lore has plans to expand into selling recipes, meal kits and even groceries at Wonder. “We think ultimately it’s a super app for meal time,” he said. 

In that sense, Wonder is a fitting name for the company. It traffics in the unexpected, the inexplicable and the unfamiliar. It seems to inspire awe in even the most seasoned restaurant folks.

“People put ‘transformation’ on titles a lot, but I very rarely see it actually happen,” said Post. She has worked in the industry for nearly three decades and believes Wonder is the real deal. “It’s not just disruptive,” she said. “It’s truly revolutionary.” 

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