If it seems like just yesterday to Dok Kwon, that’s because it practically was just yesterday.
Dok is the young mastermind behind the rapid rise of Cupbop, the “Korean BBQ in a cup” fast-food sensation that began as a food truck in downtown Salt Lake City and is well on its way to becoming a national brand. To date there are 47 Cupbops in six states — Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and Oklahoma. In just the last two months five new stores have been added. Texas is the next state on the horizon.
To find the source of this rapid growth and success, you have to go back just 23 years to the day in 1999 when Dok’s parents dropped Dok and his brother Sam off in Provo and flew back to Korea without them.
Sam was 12, Dok was 11.
“My mom was kind of a tiger mom,” explains Dok. “She and my father wanted us to have a better education. They thought we could get it here in the U.S.”
Through the friend of a friend, the Kwons found a family in Provo that agreed to bring the two Korean boys into their home, and a private school in Springville, the Meridian School, that agreed to enroll them.
To this day, Dok, 34, and the father of two young daughters, admits he “can’t quite fathom what my parents did.”
“One day they got us a Nintendo 64,” he remembers, “the next day they left and I was so busy playing games I was just ‘OK, we’ll see you later.’ I really couldn’t process what was happening. That’s how young I was.”
Soon, he was learning English and diving into his schoolwork. He proved to be a quick learner. When he graduated from Meridian High School he turned down offers from Ivy League schools the likes of Brown and Columbia in favor of next-door BYU, whose offer also included a full-ride academic scholarship. (He was following in his brother Sam’s footsteps, who turned down Stanford in favor of BYU’s generous scholarship).
Four years later, Dok graduated with high honors in accounting — he was given the accounting department outstanding graduate award — and accepted an offer from the investment bank Goldman Sachs in New York.
Prior to going to NYC, he spent a couple of months at the Goldman Sachs office in downtown Salt Lake City.
It was the summer of 2013 and as coincidence had it, a fellow Korean immigrant, Junghun Song, had just opened up a food truck in the Gallivan Center courtyard only steps away from Dok’s office. Song called his restaurant on wheels “Cupbop,” featuring Korean beef with cabbage, noodles and rice.
“I was one of their very first customers,” remember Dok. “I was there every time they’d bring the truck around.”
He loved the food so much, the last thing he did before leaving Salt Lake was eat a ceremonial last meal from Cupbop. His parting shot to Song, “Your food is awesome. Come to New York.”
Dok spent 71⁄2 years on Wall Street, the first three with Goldman Sachs as an investment research analyst, followed by 41⁄2 years as an investment manager with the hedge fund Citadel. By 2019 he was managing $500 million for Citadel investors.
Then, he decided it was time to see how he’d do managing investments of his own.
One night as he was mulling over companies to affiliate with, the “one thing that randomly popped up was Cupbop. So I called Jung.”
His pitch to Jung was twofold: One, he felt confident he could help the business, which had expanded to 10 stores, grow ever larger by implementing planning, processes and procedures that would allow the brand to scale effectively.
Two, he’d come cheap. He agreed to work for a tenth of what he was making at Citadel, in addition to purchasing equity in the company.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy when I resigned from Citadel,” Dok remembers. “But my thinking was very simply, ‘you know what, if this doesn’t work out, I’ll go back. But I gotta try.’”
Another big source of motivation: “I thought, ‘how cool would this be if I’m the very first person to help create a national Korean brand in the United States?’ That’s something nobody’s done, nobody.”
Cupbop has been expanding ever since. An appearance on the TV show “Shark Tank” last May, during which Song and Dok convinced Mark Cuban to agree to invest $1 million in the company, only accelerated the public awareness and the pace.
By design, it’s been a controlled growth. “We’ve been very deliberately dialed in,” says Dok. “We don’t want to grow too fast.”
On yet another front, Cupbop has partnered with investors in Indonesia to open 157 stores there.
“It’s been so fun and this is what’s so inspiring about the United States,” says Dok, “the fact that there’s so many opportunities here, the fact that I could leave Citadel for a 10-store restaurant brand and prove it’s the right choice within a few short years. That’s not possible in almost any other country in the world. You could never do that in Korea.”
To bring the story full circle, Dok is making arrangements for his parents to move to America. In the near future, Young Kil Kwon and his wife Hyeran Joo will join their children — Dok, his brother Sam (he’s a lawyer with the largest law firm in the U.S., Kirkland & Ellis, in New York) and their sister In, who is planning to enter medical school — in the place where they dropped them off 23 years ago, urging them to get an education and see what they could make of themselves.