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The Bao Movement

AUBURN, Ala (EETV) - Whitley Dykes, the owner of The Irritable Bao on East Magnolia Avenue, has turned his business from a simple restaurant to a community special to Auburn.

AUBURN, Ala (EETV) - Whitley Dykes, the owner of The Irritable Bao on East Magnolia Avenue, has turned his business from a simple restaurant to a community special to Auburn.

Dykes’ wife, Desiree Dykes, owns the restaurant alongside him. They opened The Irritable Bao in 2017. The Irritable Bao was originally a food truck, but due to high demand and long lines, they moved to a building in downtown Auburn. The restaurant serves authentic Chinese food including bao, dumplings, buns, bowls and more. 

The hole-in-the-wall restaurant almost always has a line out the door, and at peak times, the line can wrap down to Toomer’s Corner. Once entering the restaurant, loud music welcomes its’ customers. They have pictures of customers lining the walls as well as neon signs and rustic furniture. Whitley is always running around the restaurant greeting his customers and taking photos of those eating there. 

The restaurant’s mission statement is “committed to empowering local families and impoverished children abroad.” The Irritable Bao puts this statement into action by donating 20% of profits to Empowering Young Warriors Asia, the Women's Hope Foundation and various local charities. Empowering Young Warriors Asia is a nonprofit based in the Philippines that donates money, food and supplies to children and their families to better their lives, and Women's Hope Foundation is a nonprofit that helps single parents, specifically mothers, care for their children. 

“They know the people who run [Empowering Young Warriors Asia] personally, and up until Covid happened back in 2020, they would go every year over to the Philippines to see the children that they are working with,” said Mary Kathryn Oas, manager of The Irritable Bao.

Dykes puts a unique spin on his restaurant, making it different from many other restaurants in the area.

The Irritable Bao is normally open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and offers dinner on Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. 

One unique aspect of the restaurant is that Dykes spotlights his customers on The Irritable Bao’s Instagram. He runs up to a group of customers either eating or waiting in line and asks for their photo for his Instagram.

“I feel like it makes people feel seen and noticed,” said Grace Schlenker, a junior at Auburn University. “It's like [the customers] feel more loyal to the brand, and it makes it more fun to just be in line and have the owner recognize you and like to go up and have a conversation.”

The Irritable Bao has a menu that changes day by day. 

Their authentic menu items include traditional zucchini, egg and glass noodle bao as well as Korean chicken buns, but many menu items have a unique spin that is only found at The Irritable Bao. One of these unique items includes the baozone bao which is coined as “pizza in a bao”. This item has Italian sausage, mozzarella, marinara, basil and onions all wrapped in an authentic bao dough. 

“They've got so many different types of bao and so many different boxes,” said Schlenker. “It's a nice variety. You never really know what to expect.”

They also partner with local restaurants around the Auburn area to create fusion menu items. On Nov. 4th, The Irritable Bao collaborated with The Depot to create a Baja jalapeno salmon belly bao. These collaborations are created by using another restaurant’s menu items, but putting an Asian spin on it to make it unique to The Irritable Bao’s traditional style.

Slade Clyde, a junior at Auburn University, has worked at The Irritable Bao since September of 2021. She enjoys the unique work environment that Dykes and the restaurant create for its’ employees. 

“Over the summer, when I was working, I would hang out with my co-workers almost every single day after work,” said Clyde. “It's definitely like a little community, like we all love each other.”

Dykes cares for his employees both in and outside of the restaurant. Knowing that a majority of his employees are students, he makes a special effort to help them when in need. 

“I was driving home, because I'm from Texas,” said Clyde. “It was 6 a.m., and I got into a car crash. I was like, ‘who's gonna be awake at 6 a.m. who can come get me?’ The first person I called was Whitley and Desiree, and they came immediately to my rescue and picked me up. And they made it clear. They were like, ‘we're your parents here’.”

The Irritable Bao holds giveaways for the customers to enjoy. The winner of a giveaway is usually rewarded with free food or free merchandise. The giveaways are a method of giving back to the customers who keep the business thriving.

“We're also going to give back to our customers who are loyal, who are coming in every day that are spending their money that are helping sponsor helping this overall mission,” said Clyde.

Dykes and his wife had their second child, and this has created a big change for the restaurant. Desiree is almost always in the kitchen helping make the bao, and now that she is on maternity leave, Oas has stepped into the leadership role.

“I think that by Whitley having no choice but to take time off of work to have a baby, they've been able to see that the restaurant can function about both of them there,” said Oas. “Maybe that will give them some peace of mind about expanding the business and possibly opening other locations to see like, ‘this can be successful. We can let go of a little bit of control and let some other people run things’.”