Wow Bao is set to open a new location that will be missing something big: waitstaff.
The quick-service Asian chain will open Chicago’s first restaurant with fully automated service Dec. 1.
Customers will order and pay at a kiosk and pick up their food from one of a dozen LED-lit cubbies, which will display their name on an LCD screen when their food is ready. Wow Bao is also introducing a new app in tandem with the Near North restaurant so visitors can order on their phones.
There will still be cooks preparing the chain’s steamed buns, noodles and rice behind the scenes, but they will be invisible to customers. The only staff customers will see will be a“concierge” or two tasked with guiding them through the order process and assisting with problems.
But are Chicagoans ready for this restaurant of the future, devoid of human interaction? Wow Bao President Geoff Alexander thinks so, noting that Wow Bao has always been a leader in technology, adding self-order kiosks and online ordering in 2009. And because customers are already accustomed to digital options at the chain, Alexander said the automated restaurant “is a natural evolution for us.”
The new technology has failed to catch on in markets outside of San Francisco for its creator, Eatsa, a grain bowl and salad chain that scrapped its own plans for a Chicago store and announced last month that it was closing existing sites in New York, Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, Calif.
But Wow Bao is betting heavily on automation. The chain plans to double its locations next year, implementing the new technology at all new sites. The Near North restaurant will be Wow Bao’s sixth location in Chicago and 14th overall, including a delivery-only location in Los Angeles and stadium, airport and college campus outposts.
“Was the world ready for Facebook? Shopping on Amazon? It’s the same thing in restaurants,” Alexander said. “Hospitality is evolving.”
Technology in the restaurant industry is changing quickly, with even large chains like McDonald’s rolling out mobile order and payment systems and installing ordering kiosks in restaurants. For restaurants, there are a number of benefits. Orders that come through kiosks or on mobile phones can be placed more quickly and with fewer errors. Customers also tend to spend more when ordering electronically, and the technology allows restaurants to scale back employee hours.
Alexander said Wow Bao’s order kiosks are overwhelmingly preferred by customers.
“There are times when we have no one in line at the cashier, and six or seven deep at the kiosk,” he said.
Alexander admits that it may take customers time to adjust to a restaurant without any waitstaff, but he said he believes that the model is a sign of where the restaurant industry is headed.
“Are we early? We may be. But the world changes in a heartbeat, and we’re not far off from it becoming mainstream,” he said. “We are going to help make it mainstream.”
Wow Bao is the first restaurant chain to license this technology from Eatsa, which is operating just two locations in San Francisco as it tests and builds out its brand.
Eatsa also hopes to pursue other deals that involve licensing its technology to established chains, CEO and co-founder Tim Young said.
At Eatsa, Young said, customers place orders and get their food in less than 90 seconds, which is comparable with fast-food service. He added the model also takes out “pain points” that can be present at restaurants, including the slowdowns and glitches that can occur between different apps and in-store technologies.
But John Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group, said that while there are clear benefits to technology in the restaurant industry, full automation may not sit well with customers — especially older generations.
“We’ve got to remember that the restaurant business is still essentially a human-to-human endeavor,” he said.
Wow Bao, which was founded in 2003 by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, recently got an undisclosed investment from Chicago private equity firm Valor Equity Partners to accelerate its growth. Valor Equity has an existing partnership with Eatsa.