OPINIONOperations

How Wow Bao found success in the restaurant-retail crosshairs

Retail Watch: The steamed bun concept started as a restaurant brand and is now in more than 6,000 grocery stores—with more on the way.
Wow Bao
Wow Bao is steadily expanding its retail presence. | Photo courtesy of Wow Bao

Retail Watch

I could probably go ahead and make a bao bun be the logo for this column.

I realize that sounds like a left-field choice, but few brands exemplify the restaurant-retail intersection better than Wow Bao.

That’s the restaurant concept founded in 2003 by Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, which opened its first location that year in the entrance of the Water Tower Place shopping mall on Michigan Avenue.

By 2012, Wow Bao’s steamed buns could be found in a handful of Chicago grocery stores. And five years later, the company was acquired by Valor Equity Partners, with a mission to ramp up the brand’s growth via tech investments. (Lettuce still owns a piece of the company.)

I caught up with Geoff Alexander, who joined the brand in 2009 as CEO, on the floor of the National Restaurant Show Saturday.

Today, Wow Bao has three brick-and-mortar restaurants (down from a high of eight locations pre-COVID), seven airport locations, more than 800 virtual kitchens, and its fresh and frozen bao buns can be found in a total of 6,000 grocery stores.

I asked Alexander, who remains a Lettuce Entertain You partner, if he believed Wow Bao’s future lay in traditional restaurants when he started with the company.

“When I took over Wow Bao in 2009, I just saw growth,” he said. “I saw this food should be everywhere all the time. My personal goal was to be more recognizable than the Golden Arches, to have potstickers be bigger than the chicken nugget.”

To that end, Wow Bao continues to refine its retail strategy, expanding from three original bun flavors to 10 options today (including dessert varieties), with plans to debut soup dumplings and potstickers, too.

Originally, the company was selling six-packs of frozen buns for $8.99 to $9.99. “That’s not going to work,” he said. “You can get an entire Digiorno pizza for $5.99.”

So, the company scaled back to four bao per pack.

In early 2022, Wow Bao met a contact at Walmart—the country’s largest grocery retailer. By that fall, the Bao concept went down to Walmart HQ in Bentonville, Arkansas, to make its pitch. (If you ever run into Geoff, ask him to tell you the mortifying story of when he couldn’t identify Arkansas on a map during that meeting and nearly scotched the deal.)

Geography lesson aside, Walmart started carrying five Wow Bao SKUs in its stores in August 2023. The retailer has since expanded to 10 Wow Bao products.

Wow Bao, Alexander said, currently owns 91% of the frozen bao market—with plans for much further expansion.

He hopes to see the buns in more than 10,000 grocery stores soon.

In October, Wow Bao plans to debut its new two-pack, c-store-ready product at the big NACS Show in Las Vegas. The product comes in a microwaveable steamer bag.

Alexander sees opportunity for Wow Bao to get into non-traditional spaces, from “airlines to Amtrak, cruise ships, health care, military bases,” he said. “This is a food everybody will eat. It’s portable, no mess, authentic, delicious flavors … I see this being everywhere.”

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