Chicago steamed bun brand arrives in Columbus (and elsewhere) via ‘dark kitchen’

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Wow Bao

COLUMBUS, OHIO (COLUMBUS BUSINESS FIRST) — A popular Chicago steamed bun now is available in Central Ohio, but its appeal might be just as big among fellow restaurants as it is to consumers.

Wow Bao was founded in Chicago in 2003, one of several brands created by the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises group (a multi-concept company that Cameron Mitchell has cited as a model in the past).

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the brand had six brick-and-mortar restaurants (one of which since has closed) and six operations inside airports.

A year later, Wow Bao now boasts more than 200 locations, including an operation in Westerville and is on pace to surpass 300. Elsewhere in Ohio, you can find it in Springfield, Moraine, Huber Heights and Rocky River.

How? It’s another brand seeing rapid success as a dark/virtual/ghost kitchen – a menu that existing operators can add on to what they’re already doing to boost sales.

“We didn’t build this for Covid. There were always restaurants out there that needed this,” said Geoff Alexander, the group’s president and CEO. “If you can add another $150,000 in sales, that can be the difference between staying open or having to close.”  

Customers can’t walk into Wow Bao and find a seat. It’s a virtual brand. You order it on the internet and have it delivered to your door.

The brand’s partners include restaurants, juice bars and, as is the case in Central Ohio, hotels – all with room in the kitchen to accommodate the addition and a desire to add sales with minimal cost. Alexander said the up-front investment is a mere $800.

Part of the reason it’s so cheap is that the Wow Bao steamed buns don’t need a hood system and the restaurant company supplies the food. It also doesn’t charge a commission or royalty. Wow Bao gets paid as operators buy more product.

“All you have to do is be able to boil water,” Alexander said.

Steamed buns are not widely available, so it’s an offering with little competition. And because the brand also sells its buns in retail stores, there already is a national distribution network.

When the company first began working on the idea in 2019, the target operators were coffee shops, ice cream shops, hotels, catering companies. Alexander said poké shops and juice bars have been good matches, too. It also has deals with several large, multi-unit operators.

Wow Bao’s first dark kitchen unit opened just prior to the pandemic, but the past year has driven restaurant operators to seek new ways to add sales.

Alexander said it’s working. Once operators get through the initial few weeks of launch, sales are settling in at around $2,500 a week, which would come out to an annual total of more than $120,000 in new sales with about 40% of that dropping to the bottom line.

“This adds to sales and revenue,” he said. “We like the term ‘dark kitchen’ because we’re helping operators turn the lights back on.”

At the highest end of performance, there are two operators in Michigan that are doing $10,000 a week, said Alexander, who has led Wow Bao’s since 2009.

The brand, which was acquired by Valor Equity Parnters in 2017, always has been innovative. It was using self-order kiosks in 2010 and introduced its first app at that time. In 2017, it started opening fully automated restaurants.

Wow Bao is yet another example of the innovative ways restaurants are working together in hopes of benefiting each other.

The owners of the Columbus-founded Bravo Italian Kitchen and Brio Italian Grille are the local delivery kitchens for Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen and MrBeast Burger, among other brands.

Denver-based Red Robin Gourmet Burger has been adding Donatos Pizza to its menus for a few years now. Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern has added Cluck Norris as a virtual brand available for delivery around town.

And Mikey’s Late Night Slice makes and sells High Horse Vegan Pizza.

For more business headlines, go to ColumbusBusinessFirst.com.

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