Leaders in Customer Loyalty, Powered by Loyalty360

Wow Bao: From the Kitchen to the Virtual Space, Wow Bao Delivers Deliciousness to Loyal Customers

July 24, 2023 Loyalty360
Leaders in Customer Loyalty, Powered by Loyalty360
Wow Bao: From the Kitchen to the Virtual Space, Wow Bao Delivers Deliciousness to Loyal Customers
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Wow Bao was founded in 2003 by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) — a privately held restaurant group founded in 1971. Since its inception, about 250 concepts have been created, and the organization has opened a number of restaurant concepts across the U.S. Currently, LEYE operates in 6 states and Washington, D.C., bringing nearly 160 different restaurants representing 62 different concepts to hungry customers.

Wow Bao is a quick-serve, fast-casual Asian brand offering steamed buns, pot stickers, rice and noodle bowls, salads, soups, and more. The brand has grown from solely brick-and-mortar restaurants to establishing locations in sports stadiums, on college campuses, and at music festivals. Wow Bao has also invested in food trucks, creating another opportunity to bring its brand to customers. Additionally, in the last three years, Wow Bao launched an incredible 700 virtual restaurants across the U.S. and Canada, partnering with other restaurant operators to prepare the food and have it delivered to diners through third-party delivery services like Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash.

Mark Johnson, CEO of Loyalty360, spoke with Geoff Alexander, President and CEO of Wow Bao, about transitioning from a strictly rewards-based program to an enhanced customer loyalty program, the brand’s new program featuring Wow Bao CollectaBaos, and how prioritizing hospitality — internally with employees and externally with consumers — creates customer loyalty.

Read the full interview on Loyalty360 here: https://loyalty360.org/content-gallery/in-depth-exclusives/wow-bao-from-the-kitchen-to-the-virtual-space-wow-bao-delivers-deliciousness-to-loyal-customers-en

Mark Johnson:

Good afternoon and good morning. It's Mark Johnson from Loyalty 360. Hope everyone's happy, safe and well. Want to welcome you back to another edition of our Leaders in Customer Loyalty series. In this series we have the privilege of speaking with leading brands about what they are seeing and hearing on the front lines of customer channel and brand loyalty. Today we have the pleasure of speaking Geoff Alexander, who's the president and CEO of Wow Bao. Geoff, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today. Appreciate you having me. Thank you Absolutely, looking forward to the discussion. First off, we'd like to start with a more personal level. I'd love to get to know the person we're speaking with. A little bit about the background. They're kind of work history, so we'd love to know a little bit more about you, what you do at Wow Bao and then also maybe a fun fact or passion you have outside of work.

Geoff Alexander:

Sure. So originally, born and raised in New York City moved Chicago out of college, joined Lettuce Entertain You 1993, Lettuce Entertain You is a privately held restaurant group, 52 years old, it's opened a number of different concepts across the country. In its tenure, about 250 concepts have been created, currently operating six states, about 160 different restaurants among 62 different concepts. In 2003, we created Wow Bao. I took it over in 2008. Wow Bao is a quick serve, fast, casual Asian brand doing steam buns, pot stickers, rice bowls, salads, soups, noodle bowls, and over the tenure that I've been with it we've gone from just brick and mortar to also into sports stadiums, college campuses, music festivals, food trucks, technology with fully automated restaurants. We've done grocery stores and most recently in the last three years we've launched 700 virtual restaurants across the US and Canada with other restaurants selling our food out there, backdoor third party delivery.

Mark Johnson:

Okay, fun fact.

Geoff Alexander:

You got it. I teach a weekly spin class for the last seven years, so indoor cycling teacher.

Mark Johnson:

There you go. That's a fun fact. That's good Cycling. Do you like outdoor riding as well, or just what's that?

Geoff Alexander:

You know what the problem is with outdoor riding you got to get home. That's why I don't like outdoor riding Indoor on the bike. I get on, I get off.

Mark Johnson:

Yeah, I don't cycle, but I have a kind of Peloton bike in the basement and I've had one for probably 15 years so but it's I read run it, read, ride it at a quick pace, ride and read the wall street run every morning with people like do you like to bike outside? I'm like, no, that's hot, there's bugs, there's no, yeah.

Geoff Alexander:

So that's ours.

Mark Johnson:

Yeah, that's it, that's what I, that's what I have a motorcycle for, much easier to use that Anyway. So you're a loyalty program, a very successful program, the Bao bucks reward program. You can give so over the program, how it works, how members engage with it, and you know what are the benefits to the consumer.

Geoff Alexander:

Sure. So we have a in March of 2022, we launched a rewards program. It's not a loyalty program, it was a reward, a rewards program, and the idea of it is it's only available from wowbao. com and we really did it to help grow traffic to all of our virtual partners across the U. S. In Canada Right now, you know, everybody opens up their door dash ask app, their Uber app, grubhub. The problem with those apps is all the customer data is owned by the third party delivery platform and we try to move everyone to go to wow bao. com. Then we own the customer data so we can do better targeting and marketing, we can better interaction with the consumer, we can ensure a better experience for them. So we launched the Bao Bucks program, which is only available if you order from wow bao. com, and the idea of it is for every dollar you spend, you get a point. When you spend $100, you get $7 free. Our check average is roughly $25 to $27 per order on third party delivery. So on your fifth order, you would basically save 30% of your meal. We think that's a pretty good idea and a pretty good way to do it. We've had good success with it and I come from full service dining background and I much rather see a loyalty program than a rewards program. The difference for me is when you go to a restaurant and you're a loyal customer, you're greeted the front door, that they know who you are, you don't have to wait as long for a table, you'll probably get a free dessert and the end all be all great thing is that the chef in their chef whites comes and visits your table. That's loyalty. It's hard to have loyalty when you're in a third party delivery platform. So recently, about three or four weeks ago, we launched a digital collectible membership program and in this one it's a $99 fee. The $99 gets you your own digital collectible. We are staying away from the word NFT because NFTs have a negative connotation now, but you get your own avatar, your own piece of art, and you get discounts on every order from wowbao. com, discounts from our merchandise store, double bow bucks for every order that you place, and more and more benefits will come your way, including the idea down the road. We haven't launched it yet. As you're at home cooking dinner for the family and you have a question on what you're cooking, wouldn't it be great to be able to zoom with our chef and talk about. He's worked in many different restaurants, many styles of cuisine, and now you have that idea of the loyalty of the chef visiting your table.

Mark Johnson:

Yeah, that's awesome. You touched on something that's quite interesting. The NFTs have kind of a negative connotation. What do you mean by that? Just out of curiosity.

Geoff Alexander:

Well, in the crypto space there's been a lot of negativity of crypto with. I'm not gonna get into. We've all read the papers, we all understand, but the idea of owning an NFT is not the same cache that it was, you know, 24 months ago when we started down the road of investigating and trying to learn this space. And then the world has changed at a dramatic rate as far as who wants to buy an NFT, why you want to own an NFT, what the value of an NFT is. So, instead of just going out there and saying Wow Bao is selling NFTs, we're selling a pass to our membership club, which is called the hot buns club, and your pass is your avatar or your digital collectible. We actually call them digital collectabaos. You know they're. They're characters with personalities, they're reminisce of your minions behind you and the idea of it is by you purchasing your $99, you have one of these to do with as you please to you know Reference in when you're making orders, to use it as an avatar to show off to your friends. And the idea again, if you go to loyalty not rewards, but loyalty there's an intrinsic value between you and the guests, between the guest and that entity that they're involved with right. If you're an Apple user, you have the watch, you have the phone, you have the iPad, you have the Mac right, you believe in the brand and if you believe in Wow Bao and order regularly from us, we want you to have this character that is unique and randomly digitized just for you.

Mark Johnson:

That's awesome. Yeah, so it's more gamification focused. You're really looking at ways to personalize the offering, but create some sort of gamification, something unique that speaks to the individual versus, as you mentioned, nfts kind of has that whole crypto currency and kind of that the challenges that are associated with that.

Geoff Alexander:

Yes, and also our membership at our collectibles. You do not need crypto to buy an email and a credit card allows you to purchase. So there they are held on the blockchain, right? I mean, that's where they have to live, but you don't need crypto in order to purchase them. And the gamification you mentioned we have plans down the road, right? We just entered the space now and nobody's in the space I mean, aside from Starbucks, I only know one other restaurant brand. It's a one-unit store out of Ohio that does NFTs or does something in that affect. So we think we can help write the narrative of how Restaurants and consumers interact in the metaverse in web 3, and we have a ton of ideas as we continue to explore the space and go. This is our first step. This is infancy and it we've always been an early adopter of technology. In 2010, we were doing self-ordering kiosks. In 2017, we had a fully automated restaurant with no human interaction. So we believe in technology and when you're early to it, you can help write the narrative of how the world will Utilize and interact with this technology, and we're excited for that.

Mark Johnson:

That's awesome. When you look at the Kind of the, the Bao Bucks program, for every dollar spent, they were, you know you have a reward opportunity. They earn a point and they earn a hundred points, they get the seven dollars in Bao bucks. You know how do you feel the structure of the program you have now, with kind of the, the basic currency application and also having the collectibles you know is keeping customers engaged. And and then maybe how do you see it evolving in the future.

Geoff Alexander:

Yeah, it's a good question. So the Bao Bucks is a rewards. We've had great success with it. No one's saying it anyway didn't work or I hate to use the word failed, which is why we're changing, we are enhancing that program and that Bao Bucks idea. You know, that's really one-way communication you purchase food, you get points. That's that's not community and that's why I say it's not loyalty, it's rewarding. We much rather prefer to take it and and raise the level right one up what we're already doing and that's why we've now enhanced it with the membership program, where we can actually have communication. Right, you're gonna join our membership club, we're gonna have your email, we're gonna be able to reach out with you and you get double points on every order. So instead of it taking four orders to get seven bucks, you can get seven dollars credit to your account in two or three orders. Now I mean set up the process for you and are able to Communicate with you. That is what I think people want, more than what they've ever wanted. Before coming out of COVID, there was no communication, right, we were all just sitting home and some random guy was dropping food off at the front door and running away. Before we opened the door we want to get back to. You know hospitality. You know a lot of people you talk to. They talk about the food service or the food business or the food industry. Yes, we sell food, but we're in the hospitality business and pre-COVID all of us were in the hospitality industry. During COVID we all lost. The hospitality became the food business. We're trying to get back to hospitality by increasing and giving more to the program that we created a year ago.

Mark Johnson:

That's awesome and when you look at you know employee engagement employee engagements very important, especially with the diverse offering you have, kind of how, how you get you know while out to the market. What does employee engagement mean to your bigger picture? Customer loyalty, customer experience efforts.

Geoff Alexander:

So the loyalty program that we have in the rewards program, they are only available third-party delivery. So the customer interaction for our employees Isn't one-to-one right. We're preparing food and how did? The question becomes is, how do you get interaction with the consumer? So we're interacting on a much higher level than employee Making food, putting in a bag right. This is, this is the brand Communicating to the, to the guests. To get that interaction from the, from the employee, they have to understand their role in the process right. They are furthering the brand. The better they do their job, the more care they put into making sure the food is right, food is consistent, the food gets in the bag, the better the experience for the end user, which creates Return guests, which creates more work, which creates more business, which furthers their own career. I remember during the pandemic, one thing we did, and we had all of our employees doing it we were writing notes on every bag smiley faces have a great day, keep smiling right. Whatever mood you were in, whatever joy you were feeling, you were to communicate that to that guest, to create a connection. That's what I mean about the hospitality business the employees, those front-line, those front-line employees. They are the crux of us giving the best service, the best hospitality possible. Okay.

Mark Johnson:

So from employee emotional loyalty is under area of Germane interest to our audience, growing interest, but how do you get to emotional looking you big challenge. You know what does my emotional loyalty mean for you and for your brand?

Geoff Alexander:

Well, emotional loyalty for the brand has many different facets, but you asked about employees, so I'm gonna focus on that one. In the answer. Right, our number one word. When you open up our employee handbook, the first word that you see when you open the employee handbook is the word care. And that's what people want. They want to be cared for, they want to feel included and they want to feel like they have a voice. So when you talk about loyalty, engagement, from an employee standpoint, it's all about opening you know your business to them, opening your ears to what they have to say, making them feel included and valued. I mean that is what we're supposed to do. Hospitality business doesn't mean you only give hospitality to the guest. The more hospitality and the more care you give to your employees, the more hospitality care translates to the guest and we fully are committed and believe in taking care of our people. And we have employees who Next month, being August 22nd, we will celebrate our 20 year anniversary of Wow Bao. Last month, May 24th, I celebrate 30 years with Lettuce Entertain You, I'm 30 years with the company. And we have employees who are going to celebrate 20 years with the brand because of the underlying oath that we care and that we share, and Let people have their set.

Mark Johnson:

That's awesome. Hey, employee engagement, something that brands talk about, but a lot of them are challenged to do that. Even from our perspective and our awards category every year it's one that is it seems to get the fewest nominations and some get you know 60-70 nominations and the employee engaged one gets you know five, six, seven. So it's it's. It's great to hear you talk about what you're doing, but also the passion you have for it and just the commitment that you seem to have behind it, which is great.

Geoff Alexander:

Yeah, I look, I appreciate that and what I've learned is whatever's important to the leader, the business will do. If you like clean restaurants, your restaurants will be clean. If cleanliness is number seven on your priority list, you're gonna have dirty restaurants. So when you talk about employee engagement, employee loyalty, the importance of the employee, if it's important to the leader, it's important to everybody Absolutely. Oh, that's what it comes down to. If you don't care about it, no one else is gonna care about there. Your employees are gonna focus on what you care about and deliver on what's important to you. And if you really care about the bottom line, everything else is gonna fall apart just to make the bottom line be successful. You only care about sales. Everyone's gonna not worry about anything else. What we've learned some of it the hard way is the more you give to your employees, the easier the rest of the business becomes and the more money you make and the happier everybody is. And that's the true, the true focus that we have Absolutely.

Mark Johnson:

Yeah, I Can whole heartedly agree with that. I think, yeah, it's something that was a challenge for us going through COVID. Right now, we're very focused on our employees and trying to do cool things and and give them a kind of you know, exciting jobs. At the end of the day, if you have a job that's rewarding and you doing cool things, so it's the best way to keep people around and happy.

Geoff Alexander:

I think rewarding, I'll also say our home office. Pre-covid we had 11 people in the office. Post COVID, we're at 23. We have been in five days a week 8: 30 in the morning to 5" 30 pm In office. Since August of 21. I Personally, have been in the office since June of 20. I only was gone for six weeks working from home. I've always been in the office during the stretch and we've been in the office full-time. And it's different. You know, we humans are social creatures and we have learned. You know, if you're in the restaurant business and you're asking your frontline employees to go to work every day, you better ask your home office staff to go to work every day. And we have found that by doing so, making it an enjoyable place to be, both at store level and at the office level, you get the best out of your people, you get better productivity, you get happier people, you get communication, you get growth. The growth that we have had in the last three years is unprecedented. From April 20 to now, we've done 700 locations virtually in the US and Canada. We've done 4,000 groceries with our freezer section. We've done 1,500 sushi counters with our, with our grocery fresh product and we've launched five airports all in three years during the toughest Point the restaurant business has ever faced, and I attribute that to the team. That has not worked. Geoff Alexander did whatsoever. I'm very honored and humbled to be the voice and the face to get on your show right now, but my team is the one who's working day in and out, and they are working hard, I hope and believe, because they're happy and they feel Respected and taken care of and they are loyal to that.

Mark Johnson:

That's awesome. So when you look at kind of the economy in general right now it's somewhat of a challenging economy. Job growth seems to be Still strong and obviously employment seems to be very strong as well, but inflation is high, coming down a little bit that. You know. How can customer loyalty, that bigger picture, customer loyalty, even on the employee side, be a hedge against some of the economic uncertainty brands are seeing today?

Geoff Alexander:

Well, look, loyalty is about a relationship. If you have a relationship with your guests, they're gonna come back. And when you're talking about Uncertainty, which is, will the guests come back, will your sales grow right? Are you? Do you have enough business to support your employees? If you have a relationship with the consumer, you're ahead of the game. I mean, apple launched in the last week the announcement of a $3,500 virtual VR headset, and all over the internet is I can't believe this thing's $3,500. This is crazy. I'm pretty sure the day they hit the store is there's gonna be lines around the block because people are loyal to Apple. They believe in the product, and they believe in the product because of the way you're treated as you go in there, the way they fix your problems and the quality of the product you're getting. We believe the same thing a while about. We treat people with respect, we give them a great, consistent product, and it's more about just serving food. It's asking how someone's day is, it's recognizing that guests when they come back and thanking them for being there. A lot of you know three of our, the three restaurants we have, the three brick and mortar in Chicago that we have are all in central business districts. We are getting cream in Chicago because we're at 30 or 40% capacity still to this day. We value every single person that walks in the door, every single person, and this idea with our virtual restaurants. On all of our packaging we put QR codes that help you to reheat the food, because you always have leftovers when you order delivery right On the rewards program. Now we launched a membership. It's all about engaging with the consumer. That will allow you to survive and flourish during these uncertain times of the economy.

Mark Johnson:

Okay, good point. When you look at other loyalty programs, obviously you guys do a great job from a customer loyalty and a rewards perspective. You know, are there other customer loyalty programs that you admire, that you think are doing a great job, or a good job from a customer loyalty, customer experience perspective? And if so, what do you like about their offering?

Geoff Alexander:

Well, I really like those that have their app. You know, if they have an app sweet green Chipotle you know that you go into one place and the whole thing just works for you, which I think is beautiful and I think is great. You know, I'm one of the few people in the world that still goes to bookstores and I've always been a member of Barnes and Nobles thing, where I pay actually pay $25 every year to get 10% off all the books I've purchased. So for that it does it equate. When you buy a lot of books, it totally works. But look, I love my American Airlines and my United and my Marriott and my Hyatt. Right, Hotels and airports, air travel, been doing this for decades. Have they hit bumps in the road? You know, when you get to the scale of members that they have, of course they have to change their programs and of course no one likes change and misses the perks. Still, the perks are pretty good to have. If you go from not having them or having them to losing them, you miss them. So I think there's a lot to do it right, and I'll end the answer to that question with everybody wants to feel special, Whether special means you get, you know, I remember Jersey, Mike used to have a punch card right and 10 times you do that, then you got your free sandwich. Everybody just wants to feel like they're valued. So if you have a loyalty program, you are doing something to make someone feel valued. Make sure they feel that. And if you don't have a loyalty program, you really should, because value is what's important to people and it doesn't take a lot to make someone feel that they have value to your business.

Mark Johnson:

That's not a good point. I think it's simple things that you spoke to and of that can truly drive unique engagement and customer loyalty. When you look at overall, what can Loyalty 360 do to help you and your team and your customer of loyalty journey?

Geoff Alexander:

Well, I think it's important what you're doing. You're giving A a platform for us to say what we're doing, which we appreciate and thank you, but you're also highlighting what other people are doing and by sharing what other people do, you are allowing us to rethink our own platform. Are we doing enough? What's the best practices? What are things to stay away from? What am I not a member of now that I should go be a member of? So the platform that you're giving us when I say us, me and anyone else is on your show, or you're making visible to others to learn about, that's a great help. Not everyone knows we have a rewards program. Not everyone knows we have a collectible membership program. Not everyone knows that this product is available on a bigger scale. That soapbox you're allowing us to scream from the rooftops is very valuable and we thank you for it.

Mark Johnson:

Geoff, it's been very interesting speaking with you today. Your passion, as I mentioned earlier, is definitely on display for the customers and for your employees, and I think how you're linking customer loyalty and especially as you expand the product offering through different channels is very unique, and a lot of times these interviews aren't as engaging. The passion doesn't come through like it does with you. So thank you very much for the passion you have for the industry and taking the time to talk to us today.

Geoff Alexander:

Thank you. That's very kind of you to say. And look, we all got into the restaurant industry for a reason and we're in it to give right. People surround themselves with food at the time when you're at the worst moment of your life. We bring food right At the celebration of your life. We surround ourselves with food. That is what we're in. So I appreciate you recognizing the passion all of us in this industry had at one point and hopefully still has that passion.

Mark Johnson:

Yeah, absolutely Well. Again, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today and thank you everyone for listening. Make sure you join us back for another edition of our Leaders in Customer Loyalty series. Lovely to have someone as passionate as Geoff coming up soon. Have a wonderful day, Thank you.

Intro
Overview of your rewards program, how it works.
NFTS and gamification
Customer Engagement and Evolving the Rewards Program in the Future
Employee Engagement
What does Emotional Loyalty mean to Wow Bao
How Wow Bao's program can be a hedge against economic uncertainty
Loyalty programs you admire
What can Loyalty360 do to help you