In our January issue, we asked: Who will carry the city's torch forward for the next generations? Here, the next chain restaurant visionary
The two Bibibop Asian Grill employees approach Charley Shin sitting in a booth at the Columbus chain's Henderson Road location. It's a Monday morning in late November, about a half an hour before the Korean eatery opens for lunch, and the grinning employees ask Shin to pose for a photo with them. The low-key Shin seems a bit embarrassed as he promises to oblige their request after finishing his interview with a reporter. But Shin might need to get used to this kind of attention. If his business continues to grow at its current clip, the proselytizer of purple rice might find himself encountering more and more starstruck admirers.
Shin opened his first Bibibop in Grandview in 2013. On first blush, the restaurant seemed like a risky venture, with its strange name (it might look like “Betty Boop”—it's actually a derivative of the traditional Korean mixed-rice dish bibimbap) and its bold menu items and fresh ingredients like daikon, fermented cabbage and purple rice. But the Chipotle-style, build-your-own concept was a hit from the start, especially among millennials. In less than four years, Shin and his partners have expanded to 28 stores. Last year, Bibibop's parent company, Gosh Enterprises, which is owned by Shin, bought Chipotle's ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen chain and converted its 15 locations into Bibibops, giving the local entrepreneurs a foothold in such hot markets as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago.
Experts have noticed Bibibop's success. In June, the trade publication Nation's Restaurant News named Bibibop one of its five Hot Concepts for 2017. Editor Jenna Telesca says not only does Bibibop offer trendy, flavorful food desirable to a younger, affluent demographic, but it also benefits from the infrastructure, logistical support and financial backing of its parent company, Gosh Enterprises. Gosh also owns the nearly 600-unit Charleys Philly Steaks chain, which Shin founded in 1986 on High Street across from Ohio State. “They have a lot of things going for them,” Telesca says.
Chain restaurants often collapse in on themselves by expanding too quickly, says Dennis Lombardi, principal of the Central Ohio restaurant advisory firm Insight Dynamics. But Shin's supply-chain and training expertise should help him avoid growing pains, Lombardi says. “They really need to—and it looks like they're doing this—get the model and operating procedures scalable before they start opening in areas where it's harder to control—markets that are more than a three-hour drive time away.”
Columbus, of course, is the birthplace of plenty of national chain restaurants, including Wendy's, Damon's, Max & Erma's and Buffalo Wild Wings. (White Castle was founded in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, but moved its headquarters to Columbus in 1936 and has been here ever since.) Shin drew inspiration from those examples after he immigrated to Columbus from Korea with his family at the age of 13. In fact, not long after he opened his first Charleys, Shin met one of those pioneers, Barry Zacks, the co-founder of Max & Erma's, through a chance encounter at Otani, the now-closed North Side Japanese sushi restaurant. Zacks ended up offering Shin some sage advice: pay taxes (hiding sales from the IRS was a common temptation in the cash-heavy industry back then), cook your food in front of the customer and target “captive audiences,” such as shopping mall visitors. “Those three things really stuck with me, and I kept his advice all these years,” Shin says.
Still, Shin found himself at a crossroads in December 2012. After struggling to find success with Charleys outside of shopping malls, Shin, a devout Christian, decided to kneel and pray in his home office and not get up until God told him what to do with Charleys. Shin emerged from his prayer session with a confusing intuition. “I just really felt that we needed to sell rice,” he says.
How would that work? Frankly, the idea didn't make much sense for Charleys. So Shin formed a team with his sister, his niece and a longtime business associate to explore Asian food concepts, a quest that eventually led them to the customizable rice-based Korean dish bibimbap that Shin's mother used to serve in the restaurant she once owned in the University District.
The timing turned out to be perfect, putting Shin in front of the Korean food craze that seems to be catching on throughout the country. Next year, Shin hopes to open 14 to 18 more Bibibops, expanding his footprint in cities such as Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. How big can Bibibop get? “I think Bibibop can be a really viable challenger to Chipotle,” Shin says. “There's really no fast-casual Asian that is scratch-cooking and made healthy. I think Bibibop could be that.”