If there’s a silver lining to the impact of COVID on the restaurant industry, it can be traced to Wow Bao. The Chicago-based company with its “clean” cooking process of steaming bao buns was able to expand while others were struggling by moving into “dark kitchens.” In the audio clip below, Wow Bao CEO Geoff Alexander tells WGN’s Steve Alexander the brand found “dark” spaces in other restaurants’ kitchens that weren’t being used and could easily accommodate Wow Bao’s steaming equipment. Then, the pandemic hit. Wow Bao became a lifeline for struggling brick and mortars. Wow Bao lit up dark spaces in 170 restaurants from April to December of 2020. In 2021, another 250-300 were added. In the past year, a few hundred more joined in. The following year, it added another 250–300. This year, the number of kitchens that made room for Wow Bao has grown to more than 700. And there’s a new distribution deal coming with Walmart. All told, the company’s first brick and mortar location in the lobby of Chicago’s iconic Water Tower Place will have morphed into more than 7,000 retail locations. Quite a success story for what was first pitched as an appetizer at LEYE’s Big Bowl. Alexander says CEO Rich Melman recognized it could be more than that.
On National Bao Day, Chicago's Wow Bao celebrates 20 years in the business of steaming an ancient Chinese dumpling