Geoff Alexander wants bao – steamed buns with various fillings – to be as ubiquitous as the Chicken McNugget, and he thinks his company, Wow Bao, is going to play a big part in getting it there.
Thanks to a new CPG deal, this could very well happen. Wow Bao, a fast-casual Asian street food concept, has announced the expansion of its retail presence through a new partnership with Walmart, the largest retailer in the world. The deal will grow Wow Bao’s CPG business exponentially, from its current 1,000 grocery stores to over 4,000 in the U.S. Walmart stores will feature five bao flavors, including teriyaki chicken bao, Mongolian-style spicy beef bao, Chinese-style BBQ pork bao, Thai-style Curry chicken bao, and coconut custard bao. The latter two flavors are exclusive to the retailer.
This is a big win for a company that “didn’t really take its retail business seriously until last year,” Alexander, president/CEO, said in a recent interview. That’s not to say it’s new, however. In fact, Wow Bao, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary later this month, has a bit of a scrappy CPG story. That story dates back to about 2014, when Alexander personally knocked on the back door of a local grocery store in Chicago and asked if they would carry the product.
“We had freezer cases inside two or three of our restaurants and we took the product and repackaged it into CPG where people could take it home. I thought, why not just take these boxes and see if a store nearby would take it,” he said. “And they did.”
Alexander then went to another grocery store in a Chicago suburb and asked the same thing and they agreed. About a year later, he got in touch with a buyer at Jewel-Osco, a supermarket chain in Chicago, and then Sunset Foods, and then Mariano’s. All of them agreed to carry Wow Bao’s products. Along the way, the company picked up a couple of distributors, which helped beef up its presence. That uptick was exciting, Alexander said, but it required a little more focus.
“We were in about 300 grocery stores, but we weren’t really taking it seriously until last year. That’s when the team decided internally, we needed better looking packaging, and we did a complete rebranding of the product. Once that came into place, we started looking at what we could do with this product,” he said.
In October 2022, he and Brandon Tammaro, who leads Wow Bao’s supply chain, visited Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and secured an agreement that would put its product in about 1,500 stores of the retailer’s highest income stores. About six weeks ago, Walmart shared that it was going to adjust that presence up to 3,048 stores.
“Good phone call to get but then we had to ramp up our production really fast,” Alexander said. “You can’t prepare for that, but fortunately we have a good relationship with our co-packers, we have a team that wants to be successful and has a can-do attitude. Nobody is going to say ‘no’ to Walmart.”
This opportunity completely changes the game for Wow Bao’s CPG business, and the company has adjusted accordingly. Tammaro has been tasked with ownership of the channel and Wow Bao recently signed a relationship with a national broker to become the sales arm moving forward.
“We now recognize we have something special. We have a chance to get much, much bigger,” Alexander said.
This deal entails two-thirds of Walmart’s footprint, so there is room to grow there, for instance. There are also stadiums, campuses, airports, cruise ships, gas stations and c-stores. On the latter three, Alexander said, “we haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re chasing it.” He also throws out the possibility of going international.
“Our product works everywhere and if you have a product that can be everywhere, it’s your responsibility to make it happen,” he said. “We’re going to leave no stone unturned.”
Notably, Wow Bao is expanding its CPG lineup to include more products, from potstickers to a molten chocolate lava cake. Alexander said there are about 15 new offerings in the company’s pipeline. Perhaps the biggest opportunity, however, comes from its signature bao products. Bao has experienced a significant increase in demand alongside a staggering increase in demand for Asian cuisine. That said, there is still a chunk of Americans who are uninitiated and that is what excites Alexander the most about Wow Bao’s Walmart deal.
“With this, we can get our flavors out to Middle America where bao is unfamiliar to a lot of people. It’s been around for thousands of years, but more people haven’t had bao than have had bao, and Walmart is giving us an opportunity to change that. I think the response is going to be incredible and I see more people getting involved in this space,” he said. “The more people know about bao, the more we’re able to show off how good ours is. My goal is to make Wow Bao a household name. I want to be as iconic as the Golden Arches.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]