Launched in Taylorsville, Cupbop striving to become America’s first national Korean food chain
Oct 06, 2017 08:55AM
● By Carl Fauver
South Korean natives J Park, J.K. Kim and Jung Song (L-R) started Cupbop in 2013. (Carl Fauver)
“We want to crush Panda Express… uh, maybe you shouldn’t print that… oh, go ahead… that is our long-range goal.”
That’s the word from Jung Song, one of three South Korean immigrants who launched Cupbop, in Taylorsville, just four years ago.
In that time the Korean barbecue style cuisine—served in a cup—has grown from one food trailer to five, along with eight restaurant locations in Utah, two in Idaho and three in Indonesia.
By the end of the year, they will open another in Utah and add a food truck and restaurant in Idaho. On top of all that, you can also buy Doochi Bop, Mandoo, Ugly Pop Bop, Kimchi, KKO KKO Bop or several other unique Cupbop menu items at Rice-Eccles Stadium, LaVell Edwards Stadium and Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Just as the bald eagle is our United States symbol, the animal symbol for China is the Panda, while Koreans champion the tiger.
“Which do you think would win, between a tiger and a panda?” Song adds. “We want to overtake Panda Express just like a tiger would overtake a panda.”
It’s that mixture of self-confidence and humility that has helped launch Cupbop into one of America’s fastest-growing culinary juggernauts, one cup at a time.
Cupbop founders J Park, J.K. Kim and Jung Song were all born in South Korea and each served in the same LDS mission there. After going their separate ways for a time, the three migrated to Utah, in different years, each with very little money, but plenty of big dreams.
“I was the first to come (to Utah) in 2003,” Song said. “J.K. (Kim) came in 2004 and J (Park) in 2010.”
Kim had been a sushi chef in South Korea, while Song had been a restaurant waiter. That was the extent of their culinary experience.
The first notion of Cupbop came when two of the three were going to a meeting at the University of Utah.
“While at the U. for a business meeting (for a different business venture) they saw food trucks for the first time,” said Cupbop Marketing and Public Relations Director Yeiri Kim. “Later they saw more food trucks in downtown Salt Lake. That’s when they got the idea to launch their own truck.”
But with very little start-up cash, the partners needed a break. That came in the form of Brent Taylor, owner of Taylor’s Bike Shop in Taylorsville (3269 West 5400 South). He had a space for lease next to his shop, where a couple of different restaurants had tried and failed. The vacated space still had a good assortment of cooking supplies.
“I was quite reluctant (to rent to Cupbop) at first, because restaurants had not worked in that location,” Taylor said. “But they assured me they only planned to prepare food for their trucks there and not set up a dining area. So I decided to let them give it a try.”
Park says Taylor did much more than that.
“He gave us a great break on rent that first year,” Park said. “I really don’t think there would be a Cupbop if he hadn’t helped us out.”
The food quickly became a hit. The partners say gross sales were about $300,000 in 2013, while this year they are expected to top $10 million, and that does not count revenues from their Indonesian operations.
Cupbop now employs 150 people here in the United States and another 100 overseas.
The partners are also very active in charitable causes, particularly those benefiting education.
“About once each quarter we make arrangements with an area school to show up on their campus with one of our trucks to provide lunch for all the teachers and staff,” Kim said. “We believe if teachers are happy they will be more effective.”
Cupbop also sponsors a University of Utah scholarship. They presented their first $10,000 award to a U. student earlier this year.
Cupbop cuisine features barbecued beef, chicken and pork, along with vegetables, tofu and a variety of spice sauces. Possibly their most unique ingredient is made-from-scratch sweet potato noodles.
The scoreboard shows Panda Express with more than 1,900 locations worldwide, while Cupbop is still under 20. But Panda Express also has a 31-year head start, opening its first restaurant in 1983.
By the way, Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the husband and wife founders of Panda Express, are now worth an estimated $3.1 billion.
Not a bad long-term goal indeed.