February 29, 2024

Cupbop: Spicing Up America, One Cup at a Time

From Finance to Flavor: Dok Kwon's Journey of Passion, Innovation, and Korean BBQ Bliss


Cupbop is shaking things up in the food world, making waves with its bold Korean flavors served up fast, fresh, and fun. Started by Junghun Song back in 2013 from just a single food truck and a dream to share Korean food with everyone, Cupbop has grown big, thanks to its tasty dishes and a side of quirkiness. Dok Kwon, a former finance professional who swapped spreadsheets for spices, is now steering Cupbop's ship, pushing it from a local favorite in Utah to a name known across states. With ambitions as high as "Cupbop to the Moon," this venture is more than just expanding geographically; it's about elevating Korean cuisine to celestial heights in the American food landscape. From serving dishes rated from sweet to "set your mouth on fire" spicy, Cupbop isn't just a place to grab a bite; it's a whole new way to experience the joy and playfulness of Korean cuisine without needing a plane ticket. As we dive into this interview with Dok, we're peeling back the layers of this unique culinary venture to discover the secret sauce behind Cupbop's success and what makes it the go-to spot for a taste of Korea, aiming to reach not just every corner of the nation but symbolically, the moon itself.

Dok Kwon, President and COO at Cupbop


Welcome, Dok. Can you share your journey from finance to leading Cupbop?

Dok Kwon: Absolutely, Chris, and thanks for having me. I'm Dok Kwon, currently serving as the President and COO of Cupbop. My professional journey began in finance right after college. I started at Goldman as an equity research analyst and spent roughly two and a half years there. Following that, I joined Citadel, a hedge fund, where I managed an industrial portfolio for about four and a half years. Those days were incredibly enriching and enjoyable for me.

During my time in finance, I developed a growing desire to explore entrepreneurship. The idea of building a business from scratch was particularly alluring. After spending over seven years in finance, I reached a point where I felt if I didn't pursue this dream now, I might never get another chance. It's a daunting realization, especially as life gets busier with family commitments.

I spent a considerable amount of time, nearly 18 to 24 months, contemplating this career shift. Despite the stable and rewarding nature of my finance job, the urge to embark on a new adventure was persistent. Initially, my search led me to the tech startup scene in New York. I explored opportunities in fintech and SaaS, and received a few offers, but nothing seemed to fit. The potential financial rewards didn't align with my expectations, given the high opportunity costs associated with leaving a position at Citadel.

Then, I revisited an old interest of mine—Cupbop. I've been a fan of this food truck for a long time and was even Facebook friends with the founder. Noticing that Cupbop had expanded to ten locations by 2019, I reached out to discuss the business. Through our conversations, it became clear that Cupbop was at a critical growth stage but struggling with the complexities of scaling. Despite having no prior experience in the food industry, I felt a strong conviction that I could contribute to Cupbop's growth and help navigate these challenges.

After several months of discussions and weighing this significant decision, I decided to make the leap. I moved back to Utah, and joined Cupbop in July 2019, and not long after, we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought its own challenges. But, that's essentially how I transitioned from finance to the food industry, marking the start of an entirely new chapter with Cupbop.

What specifically about Cupbop convinced you this was the right move?

Dok Kwon: Sure. The moment that truly clinched it for me was hearing the founder's vision about making Cupbop the first Korean cuisine brand to go national in the U.S. That concept really resonated with me. It was this incredible opportunity to do something unprecedented. The idea of pioneering in a space where we could celebrate and share our Korean heritage on such a large scale was both exciting and deeply meaningful. It felt like a calling I couldn’t ignore.

On the financial side, the decision made a lot of sense as well. Given Cupbop's early-stage nature, stepping in offered the chance for a significant ownership stake. This opportunity stood in stark contrast to the tech startups I was exploring, where the financial upside seemed contingent on exceedingly rare billion-dollar exits. The path to scaling Cupbop to a $100 million-plus business appeared not just viable but straightforward over a five-year horizon. This wasn’t merely about joining an exciting venture; it represented a sound financial investment.

Initially, my wife had reservations aout relocating, especially with our growing family. However, Utah has grown on us, becoming a place we cherish. The prospect of contributing to Cupbop's success, coupled with the lifestyle Utah offers, ultimately felt like the right choice for our family.

Cupbop's stores jumped from 27 in 2022 to 60 now. How did you manage this big jump?

Dok Kwon: Definitely. Expanding 27 to 60 stores marks a pivotal phase in Cupbop's story. A portion of this growth can be attributed to franchising, though it's worth mentioning our approach here has been cautious. Before my tenure, a franchise group was already established, and they've been a big part of our expansion, now owning 23 stores. But the backbone of our growth strategy leans heavily on corporate stores, where we focus most of our energy.

Our philosophy on expansion is not just about ramping up the number of locations. It's more nuanced, focusing on building a solid foundation for each new store and ensuring our existing stores continue to perform well. This mindset stems from viewing location count as a secondary priority to the overall health and operational excellence of our network.

Striking the right balance between introducing new locations and nurturing the success of our current ones is crucial. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of opening new stores, but we prioritize the longevity and stability of our existing outlets. This deliberate approach to growth might slow our pace in terms of sheer numbers, but it strengthens our brand and ensures long-term viability.

We're constantly on the lookout for 'low-hanging fruit'—areas where we can make immediate improvements to enhance our operations and customer experience. While we're proud of our progress, we always believe there's room for improvement, rating ourselves a modest six out of ten. It's this drive to continuously evolve and refine our business that keeps us moving forward, ensuring Cupbop remains a dynamic and thriving player in the food industry.

What challenges did you face with this expansion, and how did you overcome them?

Dok Kwon: Absolutely. The expansion to 60 stores wasn't just about increasing numbers; it was about ensuring each store operates under the same high standards. Over the past 24 months, we've had to bolster our support infrastructure significantly. We established dedicated teams for HR, accounting, operations services, and construction. This was essential because, at a certain point, scaling without a robust support system means you can't maintain consistency. You end up just running around, trying to put out fires.

Key to our strategy has been attracting the right talent and developing comprehensive training and operations manuals. There's a lot that we're still refining in these areas, and honestly, it's an ongoing journey. I'm optimistic about the improvements we're making and the direction we're heading. Given the operational demands of our business, it's a never-ending process of adaptation and enhancement.

Imagine managing 60 units as if they were 60 separate manufacturing plants, each requiring a nuanced approach to ensure product and experience consistency. It's a challenging model, but our commitment to simple, scalable processes keeps us grounded. We're always looking for ways to do better, to streamline our operations, and ensure that even as we grow, we don't lose sight of what makes Cupbop special. It's about constant vigilance and the willingness to evolve, ensuring that our growth is both sustainable and aligned with our core values.

Can you share how Cupbop approaches team building, especially during your expansion?

Dok Kwon: Attracting and retaining top talent is crucial for any business, and it's a challenge we've faced head-on, especially as we can't always offer what larger national brands might, such as tuition reimbursement programs like Chipotle offers. Our strategy has been to focus on organic growth, which means our resources are more limited but also need to be more strategic in how we appeal to potential team members.

The key for us has been to passionately communicate Cupbop's vision and the unique opportunities we offer for growth and development within our company. It's about showing potential hires the long-term value and excitement of joining our journey, even if the immediate benefits might not match those of bigger brands. We emphasize the potential for personal growth, the chance to be part of something genuinely expanding and evolving, and the opportunity to contribute to a brand they can believe in and be proud of.

Finding that "diamond in the rough" who sees the vision and potential of Cupbop and decides to join us is invaluable. We've been fortunate to attract individuals who not only share our enthusiasm for the brand but are committed to living and breathing our culture and values. As we grow, building this team of dedicated individuals has become somewhat easier, creating a momentum that attracts more like-minded people to our brand.

Competing on vision and potential rather than just monetary benefits has been our approach. It's about convincing potential hires of the real, tangible opportunities for growth and success with Cupbop. This strategy has been essential for our expansion, allowing us to build a team that's not just employed by Cupbop but is an integral part of what makes our brand special.

Can you share tips on managing cash flow and financial strategies during business expansion?

Dok Kwon: Being disciplined with capital has been key for us at Cupbop, especially as we've decided against raising capital for now. We've had plenty of interest from VCs and private equity firms, but we've chosen to bootstrap, relying on organic cash flow instead. This approach forces us to be more strategic with our investments, constantly weighing the opportunity cost of every dollar spent. It's challenging but also rewarding, ensuring we stay focused on sustainable growth and maintain control over our direction.

This disciplined approach isn't just about avoiding external funding; it's about building a financial foundation supporting long-term growth and stability. It requires a meticulous plan for where to invest our resources to foster growth without compromising our operational integrity. Staying deeply involved in our finances, from daily cash balances to strategic planning, helps us prioritize our investments and manage our growth responsibly.

Dok Kwon (COO), Junghun Song (CEO) - Cupbop

Leading a company through such growth phases can be demanding. How do you keep yourself motivated and focused?

Dok Kwon: Honestly, I think I got really lucky with Cupbop. I've been a fan of the brand from the start, which makes a huge difference. My passion for what we're building here keeps me going. It doesn't feel like work most days, which is something I never thought I'd say. It's about doing something unique, pushing boundaries, and seeing the tangible impact of our efforts in the market and within our team.

Seeing our brand grow and gain recognition, exploring new markets, and the excitement around potential franchise partnerships keep me motivated. It's rewarding to see how far we've come and to know we're just getting started. There's always something new on the horizon, and that constant drive to improve and expand keeps me engaged and excited about the future.

Moreover, building a culture where our team sees the value in what they're doing, feels connected to the brand, and is motivated by more than just compensation is something I'm proud of. We're creating opportunities for growth, not just for the business but for our people, fostering a sense of ownership and pride in being part of Cupbop's journey.

What advice would you give to someone starting in the food industry?

Dok Kwon: Narrowing it down to a few essential tips is a challenge, given the complexities of the food industry. However, the most crucial piece of advice I can offer is to minimize your risks from the outset. The food industry is notoriously difficult; navigating the initial years successfully is a significant achievement, as many startups in this sector don't survive beyond their early phases.

First and foremost, managing your fixed costs effectively is key. The food industry typically involves high operating leverage, meaning that fixed costs, such as rent and labor, can quickly become a burden. By choosing a smaller space, you can significantly reduce these expenses. This approach not only lowers your rent but also reduces your staffing requirements, directly impacting your bottom line and enhancing your chances of survival and eventual profit.

When selecting a location for your business, it's crucial to weigh each option carefully. Suppose you're considering locations A, B, and C. In that case, it's important to find a balance between affordability and potential customer traffic. Location A might be inexpensive but lacks visibility, whereas Location C offers better exposure but at a higher cost. Location B might represent the ideal middle ground, offering reasonable costs while still attracting a steady flow of customers. Early decisions like these are vital in setting your business on a path to sustainability and growth.

Chris Choi: That's invaluable advice, Dok. Thanks for sharing your insights with us today.

Dok Kwon: Happy to help. Thanks for having me, Chris. Bye!

Key Takeaways

  • Embrace Change for Growth: Dok's leap from finance to the food industry underlines the power of embracing change and pursuing passion, driving Cupbop's growth from a local favorite to a national contender.
  • Innovative Approach to Traditional Cuisine: Cupbop's success highlights the importance of innovation in presenting traditional Korean flavors in a fast, fun, and accessible manner, appealing to a broad audience.
  • Strategic Expansion is Key: Careful and strategic expansion, focusing on both franchising and corporate stores, has been crucial in scaling Cupbop's operations effectively across states.
  • Building a Strong Team Matters: Attracting and retaining the right talent by communicating the brand's vision and offering growth opportunities has been essential for Cupbop's sustained growth and operational excellence.
  • Financial Discipline Drives Sustainability: Dok's financial acumen in managing capital and resisting external funding pressures emphasizes the importance of financial discipline in fostering long-term business sustainability.

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