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Emerging Brands

Wow Bao acquired by tech-focused equity group

The high-tech advances promised by the new majority owner of the Wow Bao fast-casual chain may soon come into focus as the private-equity firm taps what it describes as its other distinctive advantage, a deep experience in scaling up ventures.

Valor Equity Partners, which quietly purchased a controlling interest in the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises concept in June, says its mission is to “technologically enable and accelerate the growth of Wow Bao.” The Asian concept has been an innovator in restaurant technology almost since it was created by LEYE in 2003. It was one of the first operations, for instance, to adopt self-ordering kiosks, introducing that now common quick-service restaurant feature in 2009.

Valor says its past investments have included Eatsa, the automat-like concept where customers place their own orders and retrieve them by sliding open a door on a holding cabinet. 

The Chicago-based investor says it has also worked with Tesla and Space X, Elon Musk’s disruptor companies.

It did not say how much it paid for a controlling stake in Wow Bao, the fifth LEYE concept to pass into other hands. Others are Maggiano's Little Italy, Corner Bakery CafeEd Debevic's and Big Bowl, which has since returned to the fold.

LEYE remains involved with Wow Bao, says chain President Geoff Alexander, though “over the long term, there will be separation in different departments.” The concept still makes use of the LEYE test kitchen.

He declined to provide specifics on any operational changes that were made following the acquisition, but said the biggest change will be a step up in Wow Bao’s expansion rate. “We’re going to be growing at a very, very fast pace,” he says, adding that the brand has signed letters of intent with landlords that would bring their units into the double digits within the next year. 

Expansion will focus on traditional units rather than delivery-only outlets or Wow Bao’s retail business, he says.

Alexander would not detail any technological advancements headed for Wow Bao, but he says they are imminent, thanks to Valor’s investment.

“Speed of service has always been really important to Wow Bao,” Alexander says. “This concept lends itself to tech-enablement. Valor sees how it can play into that.”

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