This is part of a series at Food Dive of Q&A’s with iconoclasts in the industry doing interesting things and challenging the status quo in the food industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Name: Geoff Alexander
Where do you live: Chicago
Occupation: President/CEO of Wow Bao & Managing Partner, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE)
Geoff Alexander didn’t invent the Bao bun—the pillowy steamed buns were purportedly invented in Northern China way back in the 4th Century—but he has sure made them more accessible to Americans. Wow Bao started as a tiny Chicago storefront, backed by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, and now has three brick and mortar restaurants, 600+ ghost kitchens, seven counter service outlets, and 50 vending machines in stadiums, college campuses and airports, not to mention a serious presence in WalMart’s grocery section.
When Covid hit, the restaurant business was one of the most brutally impacted industries. Instead of tossing in the towel or scaling back, Alexander pivoted, coming up with a plan to sell frozen buns, dumplings and bowls (along with the minimal equipment needed) to suffering restaurants who could then operate as ghost kitchens, with third-party delivery services taking care of the rest. But Alexander and Wow Bao didn’t stop there, ramping up the brand’s CPG offerings and signing a deal with Walmart in 2022.
We sat down with CEO Geoff Alexander to find out what’s next for him and Wow Bao.
FOOD DIVE: What was the first job you ever had?
GEOFF ALEXANDER: I lost my father when I was very young, so it was really just myself and my mother growing up. I’ve always had a drive to work—to be successful. I grew up in New York City with the Yankees and the Giants—you grow up wanting to win and there’s no room for second place. I started working at a grocery store at the age of 13 until I was about 19. It was a town grocery store on Fire Island. I started as a delivery boy, then a bagger at the checkout counter, then I became a stock boy. I was promoted to the dairy counter then went in the back to run the meat department. And then when I went away to college, I worked as a fry cook, moved up to the grill, became a bouncer at the door, became a bartender, and became a manager. But I started off with paper routes, lugging people’s deliveries or groceries or whatever. I’ve basically been working for my entire life.
FOOD DIVE: What inspired you to focus on your current work?
ALEXANDER: During college I would come down to Chicago on weekends to eat and it turned out I was always eating at a Lettuce restaurant without knowing it.
So I applied for a job there and got accepted with them as management, and I’ve been working with them ever since. I’ve worked on everything from very high-end dining restaurants to fast-casual quick-serve places like Wow Bao, and a number of different cuisines— from seafood to pasta to Thai to Chinese to American food. So it’s been a lot of fun.
I started in what we would call “number-four management”—someone working nights without a lot of responsibility. I became a three to get to general manager, then I became an area director, overseeing multiple restaurants and then eventually I became Director of Operations and finally, a partner overseeing multiple restaurants.
So I’d been at the company for a while and I saw an opportunity because there was no partner running Wow Bao. I was able to step in and it was just off to the races. That’s when we got involved in grocery and technology and airports and campuses and stadiums and music festivals and food trucks . . . I just had to find ways to make money as we continue to grow and give opportunity
FOOD DIVE: What is the biggest change you have seen while working your current role?
ALEXANDER: We started the concept as a one-unit restaurant at 384 square feet and now it’s Wow Bao’s 20th birthday. We now have 700 virtual restaurants across the US and Canada and by the end of August we’ll be in over 6000 grocery stores. Some of the biggest changes we’ve made are introducing hot food vending machines. We had self-ordering kiosks since 2010 when nobody else had those.
Bao has been around for thousands of years—we didn’t create them—that comes from China, but there’s not a lot of places to do Bao and even in New York City, a lot of places to that do Bao make it into more of a open-face soft-shell taco. Which is great for high-end chefs because they can add different ingredients to make their food more approachable to other diners.
What we do is a fully encased Bao—almost like a slider right where you bite into this ball of dough with the meat and vegetables inside, which is a lot more traditional.
FOOD DIVE: What was harder than you thought it would be? What was easier?
ALEXANDER: What was harder and what was easier? Well the hardest thing is finding the right people for your business. And the easiest thing is letting them do their job. But even that can be hard. Growing up in the industry, I never had a team. I did everything myself and when you bring people on who are smarter than you or do have different focuses, you have to let them do their job.
It’s hard to let go when you’re opinionated. Managing talent is not easy. And of course we can’t ignore COVID. It changed the entire face of the industry. We created a dark kitchen program, allowing other restaurants to sell our food out their backdoor, third-party delivering platforms from March of 2020. And as of the end of 2022, we’ve done over 700 locations. So we’ve helped a number of restaurants be successful and keep paying their bills, keeping their employees, and keeping their doors open during the hardest time the restaurant industry has ever seen.
But even then we still had our own issues to face and things to figure out. I mean, it was not an enjoyable time for anybody. One thing that we’ve always done is our office. We’ve always been in-office, and we’re still all in office. We’re not remote. We’re not hybrid. We are a team. We work side-by-side every day.
FOOD DIVE: What is a misconception that people have about you when they first meet you?
ALEXANDER: Me, personally? I’m not the one to answer that; that’s for other people to answer, but from what I hear is, I can be intimidating.
Our office is a giant open space. So our youngest, most inexperienced member of the team is sitting side by side with the CEO and president of the company. That can be intimidating. I think I’m also—I’m very quick. I’m a New Yorker at heart and New Yorkers turn off anybody who’s not a New Yorker. Especially here in the Midwest, where everybody’s so nice to each other.
FOOD DIVE: What do you think will be the biggest change in the industry in 10 years?
ALEXANDER: Coming out of COVID, we’ve seen more technological advances in the restaurant industry, whether that’s delivery, robotics, point of sale, drones. At the rate that we’re moving. It’s only going to move much faster. The next two to three years is going to be extremely exciting in the restaurant industry. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.
I think the biggest hurdle to overcome in the restaurant industry, which is going to take some time, is that before the Pandemic, we were in the hospitality industry. Post-pandemic, we are the food industry. It’s important that we get back to hospitality and get back to interacting with our guests and having managers on the floor and making it more of an entertainment experience as opposed to just serving food.
FOOD DIVE: What do you wish someone would have told you about your current role or position when you started?
I think someone should have told me how hard it was gonna be.
FOOD DIVE: What would be the foods of your last meal?
ALEXANDER: It’s obviously going to be New York pizza. Which one? I don’t know. I might do one slice of Artichoke Pizza, one slice of Original Ray’s. There’s nothing better than a slice of New York pizza.
Obviously, I could go with a nice beautiful steak from Chicago because the Chicago cut is a great piece of meat, but I could eat New York Pizza any day, every day. I’d rather hit the corner slice place and give the guy you know, 99 cents or a buck-fifty and walk out with a slice. And as you’re eating it, the oil’s dripping down your arm . . . I want to pick up my slice, fold it in half, and enjoy.