Behind fast-casual chain Bibibop's healthy growth

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Alex Witmer works the line at Bibibop's Henderson Road location.

In two short years, Korean chain Bibibop has exploded in the Columbus market. The creators of the fast-casual eatery hope to one day be a household name.

Joe Holbrook's office is stark white. The walls are unadorned and large windows let in plenty of light. Save for his desk and one small table coated with drawings of future Bibibop locations, it looks as if he's just moved in.

As the concept lead for the fast-casual Asian fusion restaurant since its inception in January 2013, Holbrook's more prone to hanging charts on the wall than family photos.

One of the few objects with color in the room is a sheet of paper tacked to the wall with four logos on it, those of Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Apple and Bibibop-an orange seal with the outline of a leafy branch in white striking through the center.

Holbrook nods to them, spewing off admirable facts about each company: Apple offers simplicity. Southwest treats the customer right. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz cares deeply for his employees. And wasn't he on "Charlie Rose"?

"My goal is to be interviewed by Charlie Rose," he says. "When I was younger, that was the epitome of success for me."

To Holbrook, those three companies represent everything Bibibop should be. Their products are beloved, their employees empowered and their customers loyal.

It's the Bibibop dream: to create a culture around the brand, to promote health and wellness and to experience steady, calculated growth. The last goal, especially, doesn't seem too far-fetched for Bibibop with the announcement that by the end of the year it will have 10 locations, five of those opening between July and December 2015. Just a little over two years since it opened its first location in Grandview, Bibibop is on track to match the growth of Piada, which also opened four stores in its first year.

"I can't really put a finger on one thing that's made Bibibop what it is," says Ellie Robinson, marketing and public relations manager. "We just had a really great group of people who really cared about something, were really passionate about it and put their heart into it."

The four-member team that launched this Korean-inspired, build-your-own eatery includes Charley Shin (founder and CEO of Charleys Philly Steaks), Chung Choe, (Shin's sister), Robinson (Choe's daughter), and Holbrook.

They're all grateful for the response to Bibibop. Grateful-but not surprised.

The subs weren't selling, at least not in the standalone Charleys.

Shin, who opened his first restaurant (then called Charleys Steakery) on Ohio State University's campus in 1986, had tried five times over the past 15 years to develop a more sustainable standalone model for his eateries. It's done well in the captive audience market (malls, airports, military bases), and Shin says he's opened roughly 50 Charleys Philly Steaks and Charley's Grilled Subs each year for the past seven years.

But still he was feeling what he describes as a spiritual prodding to create something new. So Shin, a devout Christian, knelt down and prayed. "Lord," he said. "If you don't teach me what to do with Charleys, I'm not going to get up from this place."

After countless pleas, he began to sense he was supposed to start selling rice. "Rice?!" he said, dubiously. "We're a Philly cheesesteak shop. We can't sell rice! Then I realized, 'Oh my gosh, I'm supposed to do another concept.' "

Shin, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea as a teenager, turned to his sister, Choe, for help. She's known in the family for her cooking skills and had worked in research and development at Charleys for years. He looped in Robinson, a recent Ohio State graduate, for her young, fresh perspective, and Holbrook, who, as the former owner of a construction company, had built nearly 150 Charleys restaurants.

Seeing the success of Chipotle and places like it, all four agreed they wanted a build-your-own model with fresh ingredients and healthy options. They hopped on a plane to Washington, D.C., in January 2013 and explored similar Asian-inspired eateries, tossing out Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese before landing on Korean.

"Korean food is very healthy," Shin says. "[It] doesn't use any kind of deep fryer. It doesn't use much oil. It's got a lot of vegetables and beans and rice. That comes down to something called bibimbap."

Literally meaning mixed rice, bibimbap is a traditional Korean dish served with a base of warm white rice underneath a crown of mixed vegetables, chopped meat and a chili pepper sauce called gochujang. It's commonly garnished with a fried egg.

Because it can be easily deconstructed and customized, the dish stood out to them as ideal for build-your-own fare. Choe and Robinson got to work on the menu.

On the bottom floor of Charleys' corporate headquarters in a windowless test kitchen, Robinson scribbled detailed recipes into a black notebook as her mom whipped up sauces, steamed veggies and grilled meat. As a cook but "not a chef," Robinson says Choe had a tendency to intuitively toss ingredients into the pot without stopping to note her quantities.

"Make sure you're measuring," she'd tell Choe, "because everybody needs to make this like you."

Choe had been making bibimbap her whole life. Her own mother opened Japanese Oriental, a Japanese and Korean restaurant just north of Ohio State's campus, which she's since sold. She had bibimbap on her menu (she also called it bibibop, an easier-to-pronounce variation), and Choe was a frequent presence in the kitchen.

But this version would have to be different-easy to replicate in mass quantities and a bit more accessible to American taste buds. They decided against offering spinach, a customary bibimbap topping, and the fried egg couldn't be made to order.

But carrots dressed with sesame oil, pickled daikon and fresh cucumber made the cut, as did a gochujang-inspired Korean Red Sauce. They added corn for a sweet crunch, a mild cheese for creaminess and a julienned cooked egg to the menu-uncommon ingredients in traditional bibimbap. Purple rice, Bibibop's signature violet-hued, nutty-flavored grain, took the place of a brown rice option, and after much deliberation, they decided to offer each order in the form of a bowl, salad or wrap.

"One of our biggest arguments was, 'It's not a burrito,'" Holbrook says. "It's a bibibop rolled in a tortilla shell. It's not a burrito. We went back and forth on that."

The team went through roughly six tastings with panels before finalizing its selection. By August, they were readying their Grandview location to open, and Shin had turned to another Charleys employee, Odidi Odidi, for help with operations. Now the operations lead, Odidi was impressed.

"The moment he opened the door, I went into the [Fifth Avenue] building and thought, 'Oh my,'" Odidi says. "There was something about the concept-a cleanness, a purity. [Customers] were raving about the food. That was the trigger for me that I knew we were on to something."

Shin took note, too, and tapped Holbrook to scout out another location. By March 2014, Upper Arlington was welcoming the second Bibibop. Two more were open before the end of the year.

Holbrook was unfazed. "From day one when we started this venture, it was, let's go do something big," he says. "It isn't just a one-store concept."

The Cincinnati restaurant, scheduled to open October 2015, will be the first outside of the Columbus area. But with the team's big dreams and confidence, Robinson is sure it won't be the last. "I think it's going to be a common household name," she says. "I really hope, anyways."

Holbrook's magic number is 500-500 restaurants, and then maybe Charlie Rose will come calling.

"He'll probably be retired by then," he says. "But you never know."