Charley Shin immigrated to the U.S. Nine years before he founded Charleys Philly Steaks, opening a single store near Ohio State University’s campus in Columbus, Ohio.
As a teen in South Korea, Shin worked at his mother’s restaurant, where he made his fair share of bibimbap, a Korean rice dish with a variety of toppings. The experience sparked his interest in the restaurant industry, and after graduating from Ohio State, Shin convinced his mother to lend him her life savings to open Charleys Philly Steaks.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing at the time besides trying to serve the best Philly cheese steaks I could make, and pretty soon we had a line out the door, and the rest is history,” Shin says. “The second store did better than the first and the third one did better than the second, and it just kept growing.”
Charleys Philly Steaks now numbers 565 units across the country, many of them in malls and other nontraditional locations like university campuses.
Those early years have come full circle for Shin, who in 2013 launched Bibibop, a fast casual centered on the familiar dish of his childhood.
“It was about four years ago, and I was really pondering how we should grow Charleys beyond the mall-based concept,” Shin says. “Because my mother used to own the Korean-Japanese restaurant, I am familiar with bibimbap. I felt it should not be really authentic Korean bibimbap, because I’m not sure that would appeal to the masses; rather, I wanted to create really healthy, affordable food, and that was a core belief behind it.”
Shin and some team members plucked from Charleys Philly Steaks opened the first location in Columbus, and they didn’t wait long to open more.
He says the prevailing wisdom is that founders should wait at least a year to see how a new concept fares before opening more locations. In this case, such caution was unnecessary.
“When we opened the first location, it did well. But you know a businessperson would wait a year to see how well the concept does before opening a second one or third,” Shin says. “I was so comfortable that this is what I’m supposed to do that we opened a second store three months later and the third store four months later, and we kept adding stores to the Columbus market. Now we have 10 very successful Bibibops.”
Bibibop Asian Grill
FOUNDER: Charley Shin
HQ: Columbus, Ohio
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 10
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
The brand is still in growth mode, with two more locations opening by the end of the year and more planned for next year. Eight of the locations are in the Columbus market, while two are in Cincinnati and the surrounding area.
Shin says he plans to open six to eight more restaurants in 2017.
“What’s really important is that we want to build a successful brand … by taking care of our team members and making customers happy,” he says. “If we do that, we achieve success.”
Bibimbap (the word translates to mixed rice) has become increasingly popular with consumers in recent years, as the dish continues to pop up on menus across the country and consumers search for more information online.
According to Google’s Food Trends report, bibimbap has experienced steady growth in queries alongside dishes such as ramen, empanadas, and uncured bacon.
At Bibibop, guests can order a rice bowl, salad, or roll and select a base of bean sprouts, sautéed potatoes, or black beans.
The bowls are then topped with proteins—chicken, spicy chicken, steak, or organic tofu—and four varieties of sauce, including spicy sriracha, Yum Yum, Teriyaki, and Korean Red Sauce.
Finally, customers choose toppings such as cucumber, lettuce, carrot, daikon radish, corn, cheese, and egg to round out the meal. Bibibop also offers sides of edamame, spicy Korean kimchi, and miso soup.
Shin says it took about eight months to finalize all the recipes for the concept, and healthfulness drove menu development.
“Bibimbap is probably one of the healthiest Korean dishes there is. To me, health is very important, and not just serving healthy food; I want everything we do to be good for the customer who comes to visit us,” he says. “It’s not just the food, but it’s a holistic approach [to serve] the customers. Our employees’ wellbeing matters, too.”
He adds that he wanted to provide a wholesome alternative to what’s out there right now, as he doesn’t think the quick-service format has created an environment for healthy food.
Affordability is also an important factor of the concept; the average ticket price is about $8.75 across all locations.
All of the units are company-owned, but Shin says Bibibop has adopted the same mantra he tells the employees and franchisees at Charleys Philly Steaks.
“Don’t chase money, because if we chase money, money will run away,” he says. “I really believe if we do the right thing by taking care of our own people and making customers happy, the success of this business will be there.”