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Wow Bao, a fast casual that has offered self-serve technology since 2009, opened its sixth Chicago restaurant Friday by showcasing what promises to be the next generation of self-serve restaurant technology — a fully automated dining experience.

Customers took pictures of the animation on the cubby display screen.

In addition to allowing guests to place orders via kiosks or mobile app, the new restaurant provides the added convenience of letting guests pick up their orders from cubbies that alert them on the status of their orders, an innovation that Wow Bao offers as the first licensee of Eatsa’s automated technology.

Wow Bao also used its newest restaurant at 1 W. Division St. to introduce its proprietary mobile order app, a key component of the streamlined order experience that Wow Bao has tapped from Eatsa. The app, in combination with cubby order pickup, will allow customers to order and eat even faster than before.

As new and exciting as the customer experience is, much of what Eatsa and now Wow Bao are doing harkens back to the Horn & Hardart Automat of the 1950s — a restaurant where customers picked up meals from wall mounted, coin-operated compartments. Wow Bao and Eatsa take that concept to a new level with self-order kiosks and mobile technology that allow customers to order freshly-made food.

Customers place orders at the kiosks.

For Wow Bao, the 12 pickup cubbies and the mobile app bring a more streamlined customer experience than what the restaurant’s older, self-order kiosks had provided.

“When you ordered from the kiosk before, you’re still dealing with an employee that’s giving you the food,” Geoff Alexander, Wow Bao’s president, told Kiosk Marketplace. “Now you’re getting your food through a cubby. You’re not getting someone who’s frazzled to hand you the food. The hospitality factor has definitely increased.”

By replacing the servers with pickup cubbies, the new technology cuts the front of the store staff from four to two. But for Alexander, the real benefit is a more convenient customer experience.

“The beauty with us now is that cashier no longer has to be a cashier,” he said. “That person is strictly talking to you about you, not talking about ‘what would you like to order.’ It gives us a new level of hospitality.”

The self-order kiosks in Wow Bao’s older restaurants had already cut the customer wait time to less than 50 seconds once the order was placed.

“We’ve always had the self-ordering kiosks, so we’ve always been able to get it to you in under a minute,” Alexander said. “For us, it’s about the hospitality factor.”

Alexander believes the investment in the Eatsa technology has already paid for itself at the new restaurant, largely on account of the free publicity it has garnered. The new restaurant has been featured on several TV stations and has graced the cover of the Chicago Tribune’s business section.

There is always a cost for POS in a restaurant, and the cost for the Eatsa POS is comparable to that of other POS systems, Alexander said.

“You have cost for POS anyway with a new restaurant,” he said.

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A more controlled customer experience

“The technology is cool, it’s fun and it’s delightful,” Tim Young, CEO of Eatsa, told Kiosk Marketplace. “But beyond that, it’s this very precise and controlled experience that customers are really giving us the most feedback on.”

“The platform extends to the back of the house,” Young continued. “We’re managing the entire process behind the scenes. There are systems back there that are guiding that flow. It’s because of that that we’re able to give very precise projections of when food will be ready. Down to the minute.”

The cubbies are positioned close to the kiosks.

More mobile orders expected

With the mobile app, Alexander is hoping to see Wow Bao approach a 40 to 50 percent mobile order rate that Eatsa cites in its restaurants. At Wow Bao restaurants, mobile orders have historically been limited to delivery and pickup orders.

“We’re going to do a marketing push to make it happen,” Alexander said for the new mobile app. There will be a $10 order incentive for downloading and ordering with the app.

While the labor savings isn’t high on Alexander’s list, some of his colleagues will certainly envy his ability to have only two to four employees at peak serving time. The older Wow Bao restaurants have four to seven employees on a shift.

Alexander does not believe the Eatsa technology will draw public criticism over eliminating jobs. In Wow Bao’s case, the company has always used self-order kiosks. The Eatsa technology simply moves two employees from the front of the restaurant to the back.

“At peak times, we’re still running the same,” he said. “We’ve reallocated the staff needs accordingly.”

Improved scalability

Alexander claims the Eatsa technology will allow Wow Bao to expand faster than would have been possible otherwise.

“We’re evolving on a scale that no one else is,” Alexander said. “That’s the first thing it does for us. The second thing is that it allows the consumer a new way of experiencing the restaurant industry.”

Alexander has been a fan of Eatsa’s technology since the company introduced it in 2015 in San Francisco in one of its own restaurants. The system the company is licensing includes the software, the kiosks and the LED digital display screens.

“I knew right away it would be the perfect piece to incorporate into our future locations,” Alexander said.

The kiosk will soon offer an upsell feature, Alexander said.

Looking forward, Alexander wants to see third-party delivery orders integrate with the POS system. In the meantime, the staff will enter those orders manually.

Expansion planned

Alexander plans to use the Eatsa technology in all of his new stores, as he plans to double the existing six Chicago stores over the next 12 months. Existing stores could be retrofitted with the new technology in the future.

“It depends on a number of things,” he said. “It depends on how long we have left on the lease, what the cost will be to do it.”

“Anyone else who brings in this technology is going to get speed of service that they didn’t have before; they’re going to get a labor savings that they didn’t have before,” Alexander said.

Photos courtesy of Wow Bao.
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