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November 8, 2023

Surprise and delight: the key to local marketing

with Geoff Alexander
President & CEO of Wow Bao | Managing Partner at Lettuce Entertain You

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In this episode of The Local Marketing Lab, Justin Ulrich has an engaging discussion with Geoff Alexander, President and CEO of Wow Bao and Managing Partner at Lettuce Entertain You. With over 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry, Geoff provides powerful insights on how to surprise and delight your customers and why that’s the key to local marketing.

The power of “touchpoints.” Geoff emphasizes the importance of local “touchpoints” – interactions that create surprise, delight, and personal connections with customers. Small acts like free samples and handwritten notes foster goodwill and loyalty. Personalization is a cornerstone of effective marketing. Listen to learn effective touchpoint strategies.

Community engagement. Geoff advises brands to be active community members through local partnerships, events, and goodwill efforts. This facilitates two-way dialog and helps restaurants become ingrained locally. Businesses that engage in local marketing not only improve their reputation but often become customers’ preferred choice.

Moments of surprise & delight. Free samples, discounts, and fun promotions create word-of-mouth buzz and memorable “Wow!” moments. Discover tactics to stir up local excitement for your community and your staff.

Discover the key to local marketing and how creating moments of surprise and delight can elevate your restaurant’s success and secure a loyal customer base.

Key Takeaways

Geoff Alexander focuses on the key to local marketing: surprise and delight. Here are some topics discussed in the episode:

  • Local marketing is all about community engagement – make your brand a positive part of the neighborhood.
  • Focus on “touchpoints” – interactions that foster personal connections with customers.
  • Getting your product directly into people’s hands is powerful marketing.
  • Create delightful surprises that drive word-of-mouth.
  • Actively listen and adapt to customer feedback.

Local marketing is about touch. It’s about communication. Whether it’s handing out food samples, dropping off coupons, or being present at local events, it’s all about creating a connection with the community and making a lasting impact.

The Key to Local Marketing: Wow Bao
Image from wowbao.com


Other shout-outs


Justin Ulrich
We are not editing any of this episode.

What’s up everyone, and welcome to the Local Marketing Lab, where you get real-world insights from industry pros to help you drive local revenue and local for growth. This podcast is brought to you by Evocalize – digital marketing tools powered by local data that automatically work where and when your locations need it most. Learn more at evocalize.com.

What’s up and welcome to the Local Marketing Lab. Joining us in the lab today is an awesome guest. Super excited about this one. He’s got over 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry and has been named one of the most influential restaurant CEOs by Nation’s Restaurant News. He’s a spin class instructor, a huge U2 fan, and a managing partner at Lettuce Entertain You, as well as the president and CEO of Wow Bao, Geoff Alexander. Thanks for joining us in a lab, my friend.

Geoff Alexander
Well, you just hyped me up that I better not disappoint.

Justin Ulrich
If you blow this, I’m warning you.

Geoff Alexander
And you made me old. Over 30 years experience. All the young kids, just turn it off already.

Justin Ulrich
Awesome. Well, hey, Geoff, I got to start off by saying hats off to you. You’re everywhere. I see you on the events, on podcasts, your face is all over my feed on LinkedIn. You obviously understand marketing, but one of the things that really made me excited to get you onto the show is your experience both with Wow Bao and with Lettuce Entertain You. 

If you could, real quick, just tee up what your experience has been with both organizations and how Wow Bao came to be, and we’ll go from there.

Geoff Alexander
Sure. So I joined. Lettuce Entertain You in 1993. Lettuce Entertain You is a privately held restaurant group based in Chicago. I’m still a partner with Lettuce. It’s been 30 years this past May. And over my tenure, I’ve worked on a number of different concepts. Lettuce creates anywhere from quick serve fast casual like Wow Boa to very high end fine dining restaurants. 

I’ve done the gamut, I’ve done quick serve, fast casual, family style dining, high end dining, and I just had a great time. And it’s sort of like every two years you get a new job with a new type of cuisine and new type of staff. 

Wow Bao launched in 2003 with Lettuce, and I took it over in ‘09. And under my guidance, we’ve done a lot with technology. We’ve done airports, sports stadiums, music festivals, hot food, vending machines, food trucks. 

Private equity got involved in 2017, Valor Equity Partners took a majority stake in the concept. Lettuce is still involved. They still have some board seats. I’m still a partner in Lettuce, but for the last six years, we’ve operated as our own brand. And coming out of the pandemic, or during the pandemic, we started getting the virtual dining space. 

We’ve done about 700 locations between the US. And Canada in a three year period. We’ve also grown our consumer packaged goods grocery line from 350 grocery stores this time last year to now, we’re in about 6000 grocery stores.

Justin Ulrich
Very cool. Yeah, those are big news.

Geoff Alexander
You’re supposed to say, wow! 

Justin Ulrich
Wow Bao.

Geoff Alexander
There you go. That’s marketing right there.

Justin Ulrich
Very incredible success in a relatively short time. I think what was really appealing about that, and I appreciate you telling that story is that you’ve got tons of experience that our listeners can glean from so across many brands, not just Wow Bao. You’ve had years of bringing new concepts to market, and a lot of that starts at the local level, which is what we love to give insights around on this show. 

So given your experience, all the testing you’ve done over the years, and maybe you could focus specifically on Wow Bao if you like. What are the things that you feel are most important aspects of local marketing?

Geoff Alexander
The number one thing about local marketing, and I’m not telling anyone anything they don’t know, is being part of the community. And that’s what it’s all about. That is what local marketing is. It’s being a member of the community. 

And I really got involved with marketing back in 1996, we had a concept called Big Bowl still involved today or not Involved, but the restaurant still exists today, multiple locations. And I became the first GM, became the first area director overseeing the GMs. And I had a great mentor at the time, Janice Shannon, who just really pushed about the saying, “everything we do is marketing”. 

And what I mean by that is me talking to you right now is marketing the brand, how I look to you, how my office looks, any aspect that the consumer touches is marketing. And at the time, it was all about growing a brand name. And that’s really where I learned the idea of being part of the community, whether it was doing charity work or when new restaurants or new clubs or new stores and retail open in the neighborhood, sending food to them. 

What we still do to this day in the brands that I’m involved in is during the holiday season, Wow Bao has Location and Water Tower Place Mall here in Chicago. So during the holiday season, when the stores are all busy and the employees cannot go out to eat, we send food around the mall to all the different stores. 

Now, what happens by doing that is not only do the employees of the store appreciate it, they’re going to think of you next time they’re hungry, but when the guest or the client who’s in that store is shopping says, hey, where should I get a bite to eat? You are front of mind at that time. 

So you’ve done something really good, you’ve helped out somebody, and it comes back to you tenfold. And that’s what it’s all about. When you say local marketing, it’s how can you positively impact and influence the community around you?

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, I love that story. Actually, I was listening to the podcast you were on with Jim Taylor and Adam Lamb, the Turning the Table podcast, and you told stories like that, and it’s really cool. And honestly, I have repeated that story on other episodes with other guests because it is so impactful. 

And I love that you say every touch, every possible touch point that you can have is marketing. It all culminates into their experience with what we would refer to as your brand, whether the example you gave on the other show, too. You’re writing handwritten notes on the to-go boxes. You’re delivering the things, you’re delivering the food to people when they first open up a new store within your area for the first week or so, all that stuff. 

Like you said, it gets your stuff in the hands of others as well as gives them a positive experience so that they will refer folks to you because word of mouth is so strong.

Geoff Alexander
But also it feels good. And that’s really the best kind of marketing. I mean, look, anybody can buy the back cover of a magazine. I don’t know if people still read magazines. I still do, right? And it could sit there on a coffee table for months. But that doesn’t have an impact. And marketing is supposed to make an impact. It’s supposed to impact the people who are receiving the message. But there should be some kind of an impact internally of what you’re making. 

We did an event last week, for those of you who are listening, seven months from now in the archives, October of 2023, we did an event for Lynn Sage Breast Cancer, which is a large breast cancer research group here in Chicago. It was 850 people. There were nine restaurants at the event, all with tables giving away food. They raised $1.4 million that night for breast cancer research. And we were there with a table. 

So you said Wow Bao. I know you said wow. You said wow, but we had a table. The team that worked that night donated their time. Well, I paid them, but you know what I mean by that. And we donated the food, but the team got to work an event that night, which is outside the normal four walls of what they do. 

We were able to give to the community. We were able to receive from the community, obviously, the accolades, the word of mouth, the social impact, the signage, people talking about and so on. And you got to give back to the community. 

The old days of if you build it, they will come, don’t exist anymore. It’s now about, let me open my doors, right? If you moved into the neighborhood of the old days, you moved in the neighborhood, and all the neighbors came and brought you a dessert and welcomed you and knocked on the door. And I know that went away X amount of years ago in different parts of the country, but that still is what this country is based on. It’s about embracing one another. 

And local marketing is more than just dropping flyers on the bus and hope someone picks it up. It’s about what do you stand for and how do you want to participate? And that is what people want nowadays. They want to identify. They want to feel good about your brand. They want to feel connected to who you are. 

I think the greatest connection of any restaurant that I’ve ever been in was going back to Big Bowl, right. In 2001 when 9/11 happened and all you wanted at 9/11 was to be around loved ones. And we were an Asian restaurant. And the amount of people and this is back in the days where TVs were like 700 pounds still, right. We didn’t really have flat screen 2001 like we do today. They cost 20 grand at the time, but the amount of people came and sat in our bar to be around one another in front of the TV, that was community. 

We had impacted so many people’s lives about the experience they had in our restaurant from the employees and the food and just the general feeling of warmth that that’s where they wanted to be in that moment of crisis. And I think that’s what is all about. How do you create that?

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, 100%. No, I love that story. I got to say, Geoff, though, you’ve mentioned magazine covers, 700 pound TVs….

Geoff Alexander
30 years in the industry.

Justin Ulrich
30 years in the industry. How old are you? You don’t have to answer that.

Geoff Alexander
I’ve come up with 50 plus is what I say to people. But 50 plus, you said to the listeners that I’m a spin instructor, so I stay young. I have a 24 year old daughter and a 13 year old son, so they not only a keep me young, but they keep me up to date with what’s what in the world? 

So I’m not any old mom. I’m a cool mom, right? For those of you know whatever the movie is not clueless. The other one, I ruined that joke by not even knowing the freaking movie by Tina Fey that I can’t remember the goddamn name of the movie.

Justin Ulrich
We are not editing any of this episode. That’s great. No, I love the examples. You packed a bunch of them in there. Do you have anything that or any folks that..

Geoff Alexander
Mean Girls. Mean Girls. As I sit here and Google the damn name of the movie.

Justin Ulrich
For our listeners who are struggling on a local level. Those are some really good ideas of how you can do some community engagement. But what are some other things that you think that they could do or you could recommend they could do today or this week, to start moving in the right direction, to generate some positive growth?

Geoff Alexander
Yes. Justin, let’s get all serious and back to the point at hand about what are easy things for the listeners. Look, local marketing is strictly about touch, right? If you do a TV ad, you do a radio ad, you do billboards. There’s no touch. Right? That’s one directional marketing. Local marketing is communication. It’s two way. 

You referenced the story about how during COVID we were writing handwritten notes on every order that left the restaurant because people weren’t able to communicate. You could still do that today, right? You could still find – knock on the neighbor’s door and just feed them. Or during baseball season with little leagues or football games in the local community, do a food drop off, or do a discount to that baseball team to come in and have a meal. Or even better, deliver the food to them, right? 

These things do not cost a lot of – here’s how I compare it to – if the back page of a magazine or forget that, because I know no one knows what a magazine is listening. If I want to go and spend money on X, right, let’s just say a billboard ad on a website and it’s $2,000. I’m making up a number right now. It’s two grand, but that’s going to reach 17 million people. 

The ROI is fantastic, but let’s be honest, I’m in Chicago. There’s 3 million people or 5 million people in Chicago. Me reaching 17 million is not Chicago customers. No one is going to buy from Wow Bao. So why don’t I take that $2,000 and I could probably feed 2000 people, give them each a single bao, if not more people. 

And if I put the product in your hand, if you taste my product, trust me when I tell you that will create more, generate more revenue, more sales, more people talking about it than me going out and spending $2,000 on X. And I think what’s important for the restaurant industry is it’s all about the food. And if you can get your food into people’s hands, that’s the win. 

Now, look, if Apple turned around and gave away 2000 iPhones, yeah, I think it would do something because people will create jealousy and a frenzy and it’ll go social and viral and all these things. But that’s expensive. But you can easily, whatever restaurant you are, hamburgers, french fries, sandwiches, whatever it may be. 

I’m not saying you have to make if I was Subway, I don’t need to make a foot long, give everybody a footlong, but I could take that footlong and probably come to six or seven pieces and hand people the food. I’m not saying just walk down the street randomly and saying, here, eat. But we’ve done that too. We’ve gone on our street corners, and when we’ve launched a brand new menu item or new flavor or new breakfast item, right? 

We’ve handed out food. We’ve handed out coffee in the morning to drive people to come in. We’ve handed out coupons when there’s a festival down the block or something new. The Taylor Swift movie launches last week, right? Number one movie in the country for two years straight, and we’re located next door to a movie theater. Don’t think we’re not trying to drive those people either before or after that movie to come into our restaurant. 

Whether it’s dropping off coupons to the people that are walking into the movie, local marketing, just having a presence there, or even as their movie is letting out, handing everybody a dessert bao so that they have something to eat on their way home, so they think of us next time they go to that movie theater. 

It’s touch. Local marketing is touch. And at the end of the day, I’ve said this on a number of different places and I believe it. So I repeat, it is pre pandemic, the restaurant industry was the hospitality industry and post pandemic, we are the food industry. And local marketing where I say is touch, that’s hospitality. And I am very passionate about this. I hope my passion is coming through as this is important for our industry and it’s important for small businesses to touch the guest. And what better way than to get your product into their hands?

Justin Ulrich
Exactly. Yeah, it all starts with that’s super important. A lot of marketing dollars are spent on getting someone in the door for the first time. And it seems to me like that’s a really effective way and low cost way to at least get your product in their hand without even bringing them in to then say, oh yeah, this is very good, I want to go in to have an awesome experience. 

And then that’s also another place where the hospitality continues to take over, providing the solid guest experience, following up with them so that you can continue to bring them back in as loyal customers.

Geoff Alexander
The other part of it is that it can’t be missed here is you have to listen to that guest once they’re in. Like if I just create some unbelievable moment to drive people into my business, but no one buys or touches or eats anything I’m not learning, where am I missing, where am I succeeding? What am I doing right?

If you get that product into their hand, you’re going to hear, if you’re willing to listen, what do they like, what do they not like, how to improve, where else you should go. And when you’re successful in local marketing, more opportunities come your way. 

We’re doing right now, we just did last week, we do our annual bao eating contest. It’s how many bao can you chow in two minutes? And we do five different heats and we take the top two winners from each heat. And then we do our national championship where we bring all those ten winners together and they go for the honor and the award of being named the number one Bao champion in the country.

And that championship is on November 4, I believe, this year. But that creates local buz, that creates local excitement, that creates hype opportunity. And by the way, in the restaurant, it’s energy and fun for your team. And that buy in, that opportunity to do something different pays such dividends with your staff that they get excited and they want to talk to people and they want to participate and then you just grow and grow at such an expedient rate you weren’t ready for it. Which is a good thing.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, exactly. And it gets people, I mean, stuff like that is really engaging. Gets people to want to take their own video and post on social, generate a lot of user-generated content and be able to leverage that as well. I mean, it really helps to create that local buzz. I love that.

Geoff Alexander
Well, we haven’t even talked about the whole going viral. Right. Any of these things I mentioned to you about somebody could take it and it just goes at a rate, then that’s free marketing. By you doing these good acts of feeding people, giving away food, being part of the community, so on and so forth, you get all this free marketing on the backside. As a bonus. There’s the huge win.

Justin Ulrich
Exactly. Yeah, a little bit up front generates a lot of return to the backside. That’s great point. I once ate 17 Twinkies in a minute and regretted it for the rest of the day. Like Kobayashi.

Geoff Alexander
Only that one day you regretted it? I went back and tried to make 18, the next day.

Justin Ulrich
I was like Kobayashi. Dipping them in the water. Bad choice.

Geoff Alexander
They do that with the bao during the bao competition. People are dunking the bao. Oh yeah, not me.

Justin Ulrich
So great. Yeah, well, awesome. Who do you think is doing some really cool stuff from a local marketing standpoint? Or who have you seen as being real successful you’d like to give a shout out to?

Geoff Alexander
Yeah, look, I think the mom and pops of the world who want to be part of the community just do a great job and deserve recognition because they don’t get the same acknowledgment as the larger brands do. Because I love the mom and pop retail stores to put signs out on the street and just have fun with the signs. I just think that’s a great way to draw attention. 

Obviously from a chain perspective. sweetgreen does a fantastic thing every time they open up a new location and a new city, their give back that they try to do the community. They are very much embracing the mentality of local from the ingredients they use to being part of the community. 

What’s funny about it, as long as you’re positive at interacting with the community, I don’t think you can have bad local marketing. And I think that that’s the takeaway is just be a positive part of the community. I love the stores that are on Halloween are going to just give away stuff to people when they come into the store and that’s so easy. Go buy a bag of snickers and just, “here a little mini snickers” to everyone who walks in. 

And why people don’t think about doing that is beyond me, you know. When the Chicago Marathon was here, people gave away free items to people who wore their medal. Like, just embrace the moment. Be part of the culture. It’s so powerful and positive and it pays such dividends.

Justin Ulrich
For sure, yeah. Little moments of surprise and delight go a long way in any industry.

Geoff Alexander
Really that’s the takeaway your line right there. You don’t even need me on this podcast. Moments of surprise and delight. There you go. Put it on a shirt.

Justin Ulrich
Here we go. So, speaking of surprise and delight, I got a little bit of information on you when I was doing some digging. And not only did I…

Geoff Alexander
Is this my surprise and you get delighted? I can’t wait to hear this.

Justin Ulrich
Yes. So not only did I find out that you were a spin instructor and you love classic rock, U2 is your favorite band. I like to have fun with it and throw it into an AI tool and see what it comes up with. And for you, I kept getting Swayze vibes. Like real 80s.

Geoff Alexander
I love the 80s. My wife gets mad at me because I say to her, if I can go back oh, my God, it’s like Rambo on a spin bike right there. That is horrible. All right, wait. Am I screenshotting this or are you going to send this to me? This is unbelievable right here. For the record, I don’t look like that whatsoever. My arms. I don’t know, man. Maybe it’s real. That’s amazing.

Justin Ulrich
So your wife might not be mad at this picture, so we’ll make sure we’ll get it over to you. But what was funny is I sent this over to Troy Hooper and he said, you think he’ll like this? And he’s like, yeah. He said, but is there any way you can incorporate a little bit of Chicago? Maybe some New York City, maybe some golf? Or is that too much? And I thought it is too much, Troy. But I tried. Last minute dish effort. I threw you teaching this big class at Times Square.

Geoff Alexander
The first one looked like Patrick Swayze meets Rambo. This looks like Squid Games right here that you ripped off for me right there. That’s unbelievable. I’ve taken the first one and I’ve updated my LinkedIn profile photo just for that. 100% shout out to you. That is amazing. I’m gonna get that on the gym’s website and be like, Take my class. You could look like this.

Justin Ulrich
Everyone that came back…so the process is you create a picture and you swap the face. Everyone looked like Patrick Swayze. And so it odly was a really easy swap.

Geoff Alexander
I love the 80s and I tease my wife, I’m like, if I can go back to any moment in my history, I go back to 1984. I was like 14, 15 years old. 10th grade in high school. That was the year of party for me. And you nailed it right there, man. That’s what I look like back in the 80s.

Justin Ulrich
Cobra Kai vibes.

Geoff Alexander
100%. That’s amazing.

Justin Ulrich
Anyways, well, hey, how should listeners follow you? Follow your brand.

Geoff Alexander
Don’t follow me. Follow Wow Bao. It is a team win here on everything we are succeeding, everything we are doing. And I could not be more proud of how this brand has continued to explode and grow and surprise even me with the opportunities we do. So thank you. Appreciate the time.

Justin Ulrich
You bet. Hey, it was a ton of fun having you on the show. If you’re listening and you’re feeling a hankering, stop by Wow Bao. Check it out. They’ve got a lot of really cool stuff. Airports, universities. They’re everywhere. In machines, literally everywhere.

Geoff Alexander
Go to Walmart. Buy it at a Walmart. Get it in your freezer.

Justin Ulrich
There you go. Awesome. Well, hey, Geoff, it was a ton of fun having you to laugh. Thanks for joining.

Geoff Alexander
Thank you. Appreciate it.

Justin Ulrich
You bet.

As always, thanks for joining us in the local marketing lab. This podcast was sponsored by Evocalize. To learn more about how Evocalize can help you grow your business, visit evocalize.com

If you learned something from today’s episode, don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook at evocalize. That’s Evocalize and on X at Evocalize. 

And remember, keep innovating and testing new things. You’ll never know what connects with your customers best unless you try. Until next time. Thanks for listening.

Geoff Alexander

President & CEO of Wow Bao | Managing Partner at Lettuce Entertain You

Meet Geoff Alexander

With over 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry, Geoff Alexander is currently a managing partner at Lettuce Entertain You and serves as the president and CEO of Wow Bao. Not only was he recently named one of the most influential restaurant CEOs by Nation’s Restaurant News, but he’s also a spin class instructor and a huge fan of the 80’s.

His expertise in local marketing and his knack for creating moments of surprise and delight make him a perfect fit for today’s discussion. Get ready to gain valuable insights from Geoff’s wealth of experience and elevate your local marketing efforts in the restaurant industry.

Host of the Local Marketing Lab podcast, Justin Ulrich - Headshot

Justin Ulrich

VP of Marketing at Evocalize

Meet the host

Justin is a seasoned marketing leader known for his creative expertise and innovative go-to-market strategies. With vast experience spanning both B2B and B2C landscapes, Justin has made his mark across a spectrum of industries including software, POS, restaurant, real estate, franchise, home services, telecom, and more.

Justin’s career is steeped in transformative strategies and impactful initiatives. With specialties ranging from channel marketing and brand management to demand generation, his strategic vision and execution have consistently translated into tangible results.

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