What started as a simple food truck trying to bring the flavors of Korea to Salt Lake City has turned into a bona fide restaurant chain with 47 locations across six states and a showcase on Shark Tank.
Cupbop is simple: It’s Korean barbecue in a cup. That means raw cabbage, sweet potato noodles, protein, and a special sauce on top.
When founder Jung Song founded the quick-service concept 10 years ago, he just wanted to introduce Korean cuisine to Utah. He would have never expected to be on Shark Tank with a $1 million offer from Mark Cuban to grow the concept, as well as offers from every shark on the show.
Things weren’t easy going for the concept, however.
It was a difficult transition from food truck to brick-and-mortar, and the reception wasn’t as great as Song had anticipated. But he kept going, eventually making Cupbop a household name in Utah, where there aren’t a lot of Korean immigrants.
Chief operating officer Dok Kwon compared the increase in Korean cuisine across the country to the American invasion of K-pop sensations like BTS and K-dramas.
Cupbop is now franchising, with the goal of expanding to the entire country. The brand already has over 150 stores in Indonesia and, despite having no locations open in Korea, is even more famous there than in the U.S. after a documentary aired about Cupbop.
After a few years into his own tenure, Kwon is ready to take this brand national with his franchising initiative.
“I want to avoid situations where our franchisees put in their hard-earned money and lose money,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that there were enough data points under our belt.”
An analytical businessman, Kwon spent years in finance and investment banking in New York before joining Cupbop after being a loyal customer for years.
“At the end of the day, it's not about store count,” he said. “What's really special is how do these stores perform?”
Cupbop isn’t taking on individual franchisees except for one franchisee who was grandfathered into the new program. That franchisee now has 20 units and recently raised $10 million to help the national expansion of the brand.
The brand is looking for multi-unit franchisees with a portfolio of other restaurants.
Kwon is still using his business mind to help Cupbop.
“What I always thought about when I used to be an investor [was] … what keeps you up at night?” he said.
And for him, it was that someone would copy the concept of Cupbop and grow it to 200 units and become the defacto Korean barbecue concept across the nation. To stop that, Kwon and Song went on Shark Tank.
The pair wanted Cupbop to be the pioneer, not just a brand left behind.
There are no national Korean brands, and the only Asian chain that’s ever gone national was Panda Express. So there’s whitespace for Cupbop to play in the field, especially as a QSR chain.
“What's really exciting and what finally led me to make that final decision to move from a major hedge fund in New York to say, ‘Hey, I'm going to join this brand,’ was the opportunity that I thought we could be the first team to create a national brand out of Korean cuisine, because that's something that's never been done,” Kwon said.
In 2022, the chain opened 10 new restaurants, almost a 25% increase in stores in just one year and, according to the company, saw 26% year-over-year growth.
“I think the Asian category has even a higher demand growth rate than the overall QSR industry,” Kwon said.