Cupbop serves up a winning combo for success in Utah and beyond

Dining out • The company, which started in 2013 with a single food truck, now has several trucks and eight brick-and-mortar locations in Utah (with another on the way), two more in Idaho and three in Jakarta, Indonesia.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erik Robertson, manager of the Cupbop at Fashion Place Mall in Murray, with a Cupbop combo bowl.

Midvale • “Combo!”

“Combo!” chime back the other employees behind the counter.

A manager teases one of the customers for ordering the lowest spice level, calling him Baby Spice and encouraging him to add more kick to his food.

Shouting orders and joking with customers — along with an atmosphere that includes bright yellow walls — are the signatures of Cupbop, a quick-service restaurant that serves Korean barbecue in a bowl.

The style appears to be working.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Cupbop restaurant at Fashion Place Mall in Murray.

The company started in 2013 with a single food truck and brought in $300,000 in revenue. Fast-forward and today the company has five food trucks and eight brick-and-mortar locations in Utah (with another on the way), two more in Idaho and three in Jakarta, Indonesia. The company now brings in $10 million in revenue annually, according to J Park, one of three co-owners.

Park, JK Kim and Jung Song all are originally from Korea. They met while serving an LDS Church mission in Korea, and after they finished, all three moved to Utah. Originally in the business of marketing restaurants, they were able to see what worked and what failed.

They went to a restaurant convention and while there were plenty of choices for quick Chinese, Indian and Japanese food, there weren’t any Korean quick-serve options.

The idea for a food truck came when Park visited the University of Utah and saw a long line at a food truck. He ate at it and was underwhelmed, but recognized the demand for easily portable food.

The trio started with a single truck and quickly found success through social-media marketing. As demand grew, so did their fleet of trucks. Then they opened their first store in Provo. “On the first day, it was just packed,” Park said.

After surveying customers, they opened a second location in West Valley City. They continued to follow demand, opening stores across Salt Lake and Utah counties. A downtown Salt Lake City location is expected to open by the end of 2017, but the owners are keeping the location quiet for now.

Cupbop doesn’t franchise, but the owners have big goals hoping to become the next Panda Express.

That’s good news to fans.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Cupbop combo at Fashion Place Mall in Murray.

Cory Nelson calls himself a Cupbop convert. His husband, Chad, introduced it to him about two years ago, and now he’s a regular at the food trucks, though he has yet to go to one of the physical stores.

He orders a 6 or 7 spice level — on a scale of 10 — and always gets a potsticker on top.

“It’s worth the upgrade. I’m a potsticker nut, and I love the mayo,” said Nelson, who can eat only limited amounts of protein because he has a condition called PKU. The bowls, which include a mix of noodles and rice, work well for his dietary needs. He also loves the lighthearted nature of the Cupbop employees.

“It’s fun and it makes me feel comfortable. I’ve never had a bad experience in terms of service,” Nelson said.

The joking and shouting draw Mary Strong to the trucks, too. The Saratoga Springs resident has driven by the American Fork location many times, but she has yet to stop in. However, she stops at a truck every few months for a level 7 spicy bowl.

“I love it. I love their enthusiasm, whether they’re just doing it to pass the time or whether they do it because they love their job,” Strong said. “But I love having that person-to-person interaction.”

It was that same interaction that drew Frank Torina, the general manager of the Midvale location.

He left a job where he wasn’t particularly happy, and he loved the Cupbop management style.

“The energy of the people was great, they were all just so excited about the company,” said Torina, who started by working on the trucks and was promoted to manager.

And he’s found that people love Cupbop. When he wears a work shirt out, people often come up to him and chat.

“It’s like I’m a celebrity,” he said.

Park is grateful for the popularity his food has gained in Utah, and he shows his appreciation by giving back. Last year, Cupbop donated about $10,000 to the University of Utah for scholarships. This year, it hopes to give $25,000 to various organizations.

They park food trucks at the homeless shelters during the holidays and serve free food, and they also provide food and prizes to teachers at public schools.

“Our company was born in Utah, and without Utah people, we could not build this business like this,” Park said. “We so appreciate the people here, and we want to give back to society.”

Utah Cupbop Locations

  • American Fork, 598 W. Main St.

  • Draper, 593 E. 12300 South Suite #B

  • Murray, Fashion Place Mall, 6191 S. State

  • Midvale, 752 W. Blue Vista Lane, Suite #100

  • Provo, 815 N. 700 East

  • South Jordan, on Soda Row in Daybreak, 11259 Kestrel Rise Road

  • Orem, Utah Valley University, 800 W. University Parkway

  • West Valley, in Valley Fair Mall, 3619 S. 2700 West

Vote for your favorite food truck and more in The Tribune’s Salt Awards

Tribune readers voted Cupbop their favorite food truck in last year’s Salt Awards, which recognize businesses and experiences that enhance life in Utah. Will Cupbop win for a second year? Cast your vote through Sept. 1 at www.tribsalt.com/voting. Other categories include signature burgers, favorite ski resort, music venue, coffee experience and spot for weekend brunch.