Over the past few years, the Asian street food brand Wow Bao has evolved from a combination fast-casual/ghost kitchen brand that delivers dumplings across the U.S. to a leader in omnichannel and digital innovation. At the end of 2022, Wow Bao entered the metaverse and then this year upgraded its rewards program to an NFT-based loyalty program where customers can purchase one-of-a-kind “CollectaBaos” in exchange for all sorts of loyalty perks.
Then, this summer, Wow Bao quadrupled its modest retail presence to 4,000 stores selling 5-7 flavors of the brand’s bao dumplings, thanks in large part to the company’s partnership with Walmart. This is all part of Wow Bao’s plan for its bao dumpling to be “as ubiquitous as the Chicken McNugget,” whether through a takeout bag, airport, freezer aisle, or even vending machine — the brand had launched a partnership with Automated Retail Technologies to serve warm bao buns in vending machines across the country last year.
“I think it's very important that you're always evolving [as a restaurant brand] and always finding ways to be better,” said Geoff Alexander, Wow Bao president and CEO. “For me, being better is about growing the brand, heightening the experience for the guest, and making life easier for your employee. … As a small brand, we never had a lot of access to funds. So it was up to us to have to find ways to grow our brand and revenue, and that’s what led us to CPG and getting inside airports.”
Alexander said that although Wow Bao had previously been in a few hundred regional grocery stores in the Chicago area, the company “didn’t really take its retail presence seriously” until this year, when Wow Bao announced its partnership with Walmart. Alexander said the brand is lucky that its product — the steamed bao dumpling — is so versatile, flexible and easy to make, ship, and deliver, because it opens up more avenues of revenue than a concept like a steakhouse might have.
“You have to always keep looking at what’s next,” Alexander said. “Now CPG is becoming a full-fledged business for us. … We probably have another 1,000 grocery stores made up of 9 or 10 different brands and grocery stores across the country also launching in the coming month, so there's a huge runway here for us to go. Then you take the dark kitchens, airport, college campuses, vending machines, and CPG all together as one brand. We’re making ourselves known as literally available everywhere. By being in all these different vehicles, they all play off one another.”
But it isn’t enough for a brand to be ubiquitous with a craveable product — it also has to have a strong digital presence and experience. For Wow Bao, that avenue is the metaverse and (rebranded) NFT loyalty programs. Last November, the company announced its first foray into the metaverse with a new tiered NFT membership program as an extension of its current Bao Bucks rewards program.
Then, this May, the digital rewards program was extended even further by launching the minting of digital one-of-a-kind “CollectaBaos” (like NFTs) that allow owners to be part of the Hot Buns Club tiered loyalty program. With the $99 annual membership from the first minting, customers will get perks like exclusive discounts, merchandise, double Bao Bucks, and other more creative prizes that Wow Bao is experimenting with, including overnight shipping new bao flavors to members.
“We look at this as a rewards program, not a loyalty program, because in the age of delivery, no one is loyal,” Alexander said. “We’re just trying to reward people for coming back to Wow Bao. … Once we got the rewards program up and running, we wanted to enhance it another level.”
Although the metaverse exploded in popularity in 2021 and 2022, the trend seems to have quieted down a bit this year. For Alexander, that just means that Wow Bao has the opportunity to stay in the game while the technology is perfected and stay one step ahead of its peers.
“NFTs got negative press and bad connotations, but I don’t think they are ever going to go away — people are fighting for them and pushing [them] forward,” Alexander said. “We always want to be at the forefront of technology, not behind. Fast-forward 12-18 months, when other people get back into playing in the sandbox, we're going to be on to the next thing. … We believe NFTs will have more benefits over time, so if we can understand how it's been utilized today, we can be a bigger part of the conversation.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]
Hear from Geoff Alexander and other CREATORS honorees at CREATE: The Experience, Oct. 1-3 in Palm Springs, in a panel sponsored by Keurig Dr Pepper.