Aug 08, 2023

Cupbop After Shark Tank: We Caught Up With The Founder

"Shark Tank" has been the gateway to many revolutionary businesses and products, and Cupbop is one such sensation. The dynamic duo behind this venture, Dok Kwon, the strategic COO, and Jung Song, the visionary CEO and founder, didn't just pitch their restaurant on "Shark Tank" — they owned the stage. The tantalizing aromas and exquisite flavors of their dishes left such a mark on the sharks that not a single shark bowed out of the negotiation. Agreeing to a deal with business magnate Mark Cuban, they secured a whopping $1 million investment for a 5.5% stake in Cupbop.

At Cupbop, it's not just a meal; it's an experience in a bowl. The crowd favorite? The Combo Bop. This delightful dish pairs two distinct proteins, bringing a dance of flavors and textures to your palate. Accompanying the proteins are staples of Korean cuisine: perfectly cooked rice, crunchy cabbage, and delicate sweet potato noodles. But it's the spicy sauce, available in levels from 1 to 10, that truly completes the ensemble. A word to the wise: Even if you pride yourself on your spice tolerance, approach these levels with caution. The heat can sneak up on you.

Intrigued by their journey and the unparalleled success of the show, we sat down with the energetic Dok Kwon. Our conversation delved deep into the roller-coaster of emotions and experiences leading up to, during, and post their memorable "Shark Tank" appearance. Moreover, we explored the delectable offerings of this swiftly rising quick-service gem.

During his Wall Street investing days, COO Dok Kwon often posed a thought-provoking question to management teams: "What keeps you up at night? What's your biggest fear?" When it came to Cupbop, the answer was crystal clear for Kwon. His looming fear was that another brand would rise to stardom, becoming the poster child for Korean BBQ before Cupbop could stake its claim. Discussing his apprehensions with Jung Song, Cupbop's visionary founder, Song's response was both audacious and straightforward: Take the Cupbop story to "Shark Tank."

Embracing this idea, the dynamic duo began a quest to land a spot on the show. To their surprise, they stumbled upon an application form so brief it almost seemed fictitious. Without much ado, they completed the form in May 2021 and with the whirlwind of their day-to-day operations, it soon drifted from their minds. However, a few months later, a call from "Shark Tank" rekindled the flame, setting them on a journey filled with back-to-back meetings, interviews, and video preparations.

By September 2021, they were facing the formidable sharks, pitching their passion and dream. But the "Shark Tank" saga isn't just about the pitch. Even after the cameras stop rolling, there's no guaranteed screen time. Kwon and Song were on pins and needles, anxiously awaiting a verdict. Their patience was rewarded when, in May 2022, Cupbop shined in living rooms across the country, marking another significant chapter in this ever-evolving journey.

Taking the stage on "Shark Tank" is a pulse-racing endeavor. While the show's polished edits paint a composed picture, behind the scenes lies an arena of intense passion. It's not just about cool-headed negotiations; these sharks come alive with fervor. They raise their voices, they challenge one another, and, yes, they occasionally trade verbal blows across the studio. When stakes are high and potentially lucrative deals dangle before them, these sharks are determined to sink their teeth deep and secure the best possible outcome. For Kwon, formally a Wall Street investor, he found it both thrilling and fun to be on the other side of the proverbial table.

Even with his experience, Kwon still found the experience awe-inspiring and nerve-wracking. Facing the sharks' fierce determination and witnessing firsthand the fiery dynamics can be overwhelming. Kwon shared a particularly candid insight into his and Song's experience. Amidst their pitch, there were moments where the sheer intensity of disagreements between the sharks left them taken aback and looking at each other wondering, "Okay, what's going on here." Kwon explains. "It's just so raw when you're actually in there with those guys fighting with each other." It's one thing to prepare for a business pitch, and quite another to stand grounded amidst a storm of high-stakes contention.

Reality T.V. often leaves viewers skeptical, given its reputation for scripted drama and manufactured narratives. But "Shark Tank" is a breed apart, embracing authenticity and spontaneity. Here, sharks swim in unscripted waters, making waves as they please.

Kwon's interaction with Barbara Corcoran is a prime example of this unpredictable nature. Passionate about the franchising potential of Cupbop, Barbara tried to steer the narrative in real-time. In a rather directorial move that didn't make the episode's final cut, she directed Kwon to "look at the camera, and say, 'Hey! We're open for franchising.' Three, two, one, camera!'" But Kwon wasn't about to be scripted. Instead, he chose authenticity, acknowledging that while franchising wasn't on the immediate horizon, it could be a future consideration.

Beyond the negotiations and camera dynamics, there's also the matter of presenting the product at its best. For Kwon and Song, the food trailer adjacent to the set proved to be a perfect solution. Ensuring their offerings were presented at the pinnacle of freshness, they brought food that was as tantalizingly aromatic and delectably warm as they would be straight out of a Cupbop shop. In the world of "Shark Tank," the stakes are real, the drama is unscripted, and the food? Absolutely on point.

Navigating the shark-infested waters of the shark tank requires more than just a compelling product or a flashy presentation. It demands an intricate balance of storytelling, charisma, and, above all, an impeccable command over the company's financial metrics.

As Kwon emphasizes, at the heart of the show lies a panel of seasoned investors. Their appetite isn't merely satiated by a rousing narrative or an innovative product; they hunger for solid financials. These sharks swim in the deep end of the business world, where numbers speak louder than words. Kwon encapsulates this sentiment succinctly: "At the end of the day, these guys are investors." For him, the combination of a riveting story combined with robust financials is the recipe for "Shark Tank" success. Although a compelling narrative might not rescue weak financials, outstanding numbers can often buoy a lukewarm story. Kwon's insights serve as a cautionary tale for aspiring "Shark Tank" businesses: Prioritize your financials. They are the bedrock upon which deals are built.

But it doesn't stop there. Entrepreneurs themselves are under the sharks' microscope. Beyond the spreadsheets and projections, the sharks are betting on the individuals at the helm. It's a two-pronged pitch: one part numbers, one part human element. While the financials lay the foundation, the entrepreneur's passion, conviction, and capability to steer the ship determine if the sharks will bite.

Ultimately, Kwon shares that Cupbop has one goal: "To be the first Korean cuisine-based QSR [quick service restaurant] national brand in the United States." Kwon points out that the only other Asian food in this category is the popular Panda Express, so the space is primed for competition. Kwon envisions a future of Cupbop where it is not just as a brand but as a culinary revolution. The growth trajectory for Cupbop post-"Shark Tank" is nothing short of meteoric. From a humble 22 shops at the time of Cupbop's pitch, they've now catapulted to over 50, marking an impressive expansion rate.

While its roots lie deep in Utah's soil, Cupbop is working on reaching out far and wide. Texas, renowned for its barbecues, is now getting a taste of Korean BBQ, Cupbop style. But the ambitions don't stop at the U.S. borders. The brand's global footprint is expanding, resonating with the vibrant flavors of Indonesia and potentially leaving its mark on the luxury landscapes of Dubai.

It's a testament to the brand's allure and its commitment to offering a unique, mouth-watering experience. As Cupbop continues to scale, its journey reaffirms the belief in the power of passion, innovation, and of course, delectable Korean BBQ served quickly and hot. The future looks bright, and it's flavored with a dash of spice and a whole lot of ambition.

Back in 2013, when Song began Cupbop from lively food trucks in Utah, he was selling more than food: It was an experience. The infectious energy was palpable, with employees dancing to beats and an ambiance that was nothing short of electric.

Fast forward to today, and Cupbop's brick-and-mortar locations are brimming with a unique charm. Staff interactions are anything but mundane. If it's your inaugural visit and the staff gets a whiff of it, brace yourself for an enthusiastic chorus of "extra!" reverberating through the air. As a warm gesture of appreciation, first-time diners are treated to a few extra potstickers called mandoo, also called Mandu, or Korean dumplings.

Choosing a spice level for your sauce is another fun spectacle. Adventurous souls who dare to opt for the level 10 spice — a challenge for even the most seasoned spice aficionados — are greeted with shouts of "buyer in the hole." It's a jovial warning, hinting at the fiery aftermath of such a bold choice.

And as you're ready to step out, the farewell isn't just a routine goodbye. The staff exclaims, "See you tomorrow," a cheeky nod to the mesmerizing nature of their offerings, suggesting that you'd be drawn back to their flavors sooner than you think. These quirky interactions aren't just about theatrics. They're a testament to Cupbop's ethos — blending scrumptious Korean BBQ with an unforgettable dining atmosphere. It's a combination that's hard to resist.