Ghost kitchens bring Chicago’s Wow Bao to West Michigan

WALKER, Mich. (WOOD) — A Chicago-based fast food chain is bringing its Asian street food to West Michigan.

Wow Bao has teamed up with Fazoli’s in Walker, Muskegon, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek to offer its beloved steamed dumplings, potstickers and rice bowls, starting this past weekend. Fans can view the pared down menu online and order through third party delivery services, including DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats and Postmates.

Wow Bao said on Facebook the new locations are part of its delivery-only initiative, which has grown to more than 200 ghost kitchens nationwide. The only Michigan sites are currently in West Michigan, but Wow Bao President and CEO Geoff Alexander said Tuesday he’s in talks to potentially open at least another five ghost kitchens on the east side of the state.

While Wow Bao’s dark kitchen program can help restaurants struggling because of the COVID-19 crisis, Alexander said the company cooked up the business idea well before the pandemic started.

Alexander said Wow Bao created the concept in November 2019 to help businesses with slowdowns, like coffee and ice cream shops.

(An undated photo provided by Wow Bao shows a rice bowl and potstickers from the restaurant.)

Wow Bao’s food is shipped to the ghost kitchens, which steam, fry and cook the dishes before packing them up for delivery.

Wow Bao tested its first ghost kitchen in in January 2020, but the pandemic stalled a wider rollout. The initiative ramped up in April and grew to 150 ghost kitchens nationwide by year’s end, according to Alexander.

He said Wow Bao is on track to open another 98 ghost kitchens by March.

“Growing from zero to 300 in a year, I don’t think anyone has ever done that,” Alexander said.

(An undated photo provided by Wow Bao shows a plate of potstickers from the restaurant.)

Alexander said the added revenue for Wow Bao has “turned a very difficult year for my team into a positive one” by saving and even adding jobs in their home office while bolstering the industry.

While Alexander said it’s possible Wow Bao could grow to include 1,000 ghost kitchens by the end of the year, “the bigger story is the help we can give.”

The Wow Bao CEO said restaurants need only about $300 in equipment and they keep about 40% of the profit after paying for the food and delivery, which could mean the difference between staying in business or shutting down permanently.

“We see this as a way to help restaurants survive,” Alexander said. “What this has turned into: We’ve created jobs, we’ve saved jobs, we’ve paid for rent and put food on the table.”

Even when the pandemic ends, Alexander expects Wow Bao’s ghost kitchens to remain, based on growth of third party delivery services, changing consumer habits and the added revenue for restaurants.

He said there are no current plans to open a brick-and-mortar version of Wow Bao in West Michigan.