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.
Technology in the restaurant industry is evolving 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.
Wow Bao’s existing locations are already equipped with order-and-pay kiosks, and President Geoff Alexander said the stations 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 devoid of 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’s new technology is licensed from a San Francisco-based chain called Eatsa, which considered opening its own Chicago restaurant earlier this year. Eatsa, which serves grain bowls and salads using the same automated system, later scrapped its plan for a Chicago store and announced last month that it was closing its existing sites in New York, Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, Calif. Its two locations in San Francisco are the only ones that remain open so the company can “test, iterate, and build out our retail 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 is owned by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, recently got an undisclosed investment from Chicago private equity firm Valor Equity Partners to accelerate its growth. Valor Equity previously partnered with Eatsa. Wow Bao was founded in 2003. The Near North restaurant will be Wow Bao’s sixth in Chicago, although it also has a location at O’Hare International Airport. Wow Bao also has a delivery-only location in Los Angeles, in addition to a handful of stadium, airport and college campus outposts.
It plans to double its locations next year, implementing the automated model in all of its new locations.