The time has almost arrived for the official grand opening of Wonder’s new Carnegie Hill restaurant. The company, valued at $3.5 billion, is the mashup of big tech and big food that no one asked for, bringing reheated eats first cooked an hour away in Parsippany, New Jersey, to hungry Upper East Side residents starting February 6th.
As Upper East Site first reported last fall, the big-money startup built a single brand-new restaurant — not the nearly two dozen it claimed — in the former Panera Bread location at 120 East 86th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues, which began fulfilling orders as part of its soft launch last month and whose signage was installed Wednesday.
With its own twist on the sketchy practice of using ‘virtual restaurants‘ — brands that only exist on delivery platforms like Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats, with no physical presence, obscuring the identity of the City- or State- licensed establishment preparing the food — the restaurant’s sub-brands are not marketed as being part of Wonder on delivery-apps.
Wonder boasts 22 menus under mostly new identities while also leveraging the name value of celebrity chefs including Food Network stars Marcus Samuelsson, Michael Symon and Marc Murphy.
“Wonder has partnered with a number of different Michelin star chefs, award-winning chefs, people that hold a lot of weight in terms of their brand image and the food that they would put out in the world,” explained Wonder’s anonymous spokesperson. “Wonder actually worked directly with them to recreate menus that they serve in their own restaurants.”
Bobby Flay Steak, a Wonder menu based on the real Atlantic City restaurant owned by famed Iron Chef Bobby Flay, promises “bold flavors and premium cuts from one of the country’s best chefs.”
What Wonder fails to mention is that your steak will be par-cooked at their commissary, which the company tells Upper East Site is located in Parsippany, New Jersey, then delivered to the Upper East Side, where it will eventually be reheated or ‘finished’ as Wonder calls it, by employees dubbed ‘line cooks’ — who are only required to have one or more “years of experience working in a fast-paced restaurant environment or a related field” — using a TurboChef oven, which blasts food with heated forced air and microwaves.
When asked where the food is prepared, Wonder staff tells customers it is made in-house in their Upper East Side restaurant, never mentioning New Jersey.
“I just asked him [the Wonder staffer] where it was prepared, and he said in the back,” a customer told Upper East Site.
A Wonder spokesperson who communicated with Upper East Site under the condition of anonymity, which is unusual for a company seeking to promote its new restaurant, said that Wonder workers at the Parsippany commissary cooking the steaks sous-vide style — placing the meat in a sealed bag submerged in hot water until cooked to the proper temperature — is no different than a local Upper East Side eatery doing so on-premises, failing to take into account that Wonder’s par-cooked food is driven across state lines.
“A lot of restaurants will do a lot of this par-cooking hours in advance of them actually heating up a meal,” Wonder’s spokesperson explained, ignoring the part about it being done so far away in Parsippany. “Even in New York, [local restaurants] will sous-vide the steaks and then char them and fire them when they’re made to order later that night.”
Upper East Site inquired whether Wonder believed its customers would be as receptive to their ‘Fast-Fine dining’ concept if they knew their food was prepared in New Jersey and reheated using a TurboChef oven, like those used to toast your footlong sub at Subway restaurants, but by Wonder’s own near-minimum wage workers.
The anonymous spokesperson deflected our question and explained that Wonder’s TurboChef ovens were improved over the off-the-shelf product used at all other restaurants by adjusting the hardware and adding software to put the needed sear on its steaks in five minutes.
“They’ve spent years designing and redesigning that oven by tweaking the hardware and actually building software on top of it to the point where they are able to char a pizza, where they are able to create that great-tasting steak.”
Wonder did not provide any evidence to support its claims. TurboChef did not immediately respond to our inquiry about whether their ovens could be modified in such a fashion; however, a customer service representative for the company said it was possible to reprogram their machines.
When we asked why Wonder doesn’t see it as deceptive to list its brands on third-party apps without mentioning they are not actual restaurants, or at the very least, affiliated with Wonder, the anonymous spokesperson compared it to the extensive use of virtual restaurants on other delivery platforms, questioning whether those are misleading as well.
When we told them yes, it was, in fact, deceptive for a deli to present itself as 25 different and unique restaurants; the spokesperson offered no rebuttal and blamed “semantics” over what actually constitutes a restaurant.
Despite describing itself as a ‘new food hall,’ there is no food hall inside 120 East 86th Street, and customers cannot even place an order with the worker stationed inside the restaurant. Instead, the employee is only there to help you place an order on a kiosk or through the company’s app. However, Wonder will accept cash as payment in-store in accordance with New York City law.
There are four small tables with booth and chair seating inside the new Upper East Side restaurant, with a counter and stools against the front window for dining as well.
When Upper East Site asked one customer what he thought about Wonder, his only complaint was that the portion size was too small for the cost of the dishes he received.
When informed that his food was first prepared in New Jersey before arriving on the Upper East Side, the customer was surprised but said, “We want it to be fresh — as long as it tastes fresh.”
Upper East Site requested a tour of Wonder’s Upper East Side kitchen to observe their food operations in the neighborhood. Instead, we were offered the opportunity to sample their food par-cooked in New Jersey and shipped to Carnegie Hill for finishing.
Representatives for Bobby Flay, Michael Symon, Marcus Samuelsson and Marc Murphy did not respond to an inquiry from Upper East Site.