Behind the Scenes: BiBiBop

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There’s a growing trend of fast-casual design-your-own-meal restaurants, Chipotle, Piada and as of August 2013, BiBiBiop is populating the Columbus landscape with four locations across the city in less than a year and a half. The Korean-inspired chain takes a spin on a classic dish, offering a healthy, fast meal that’s appealing to a wide range of customers.

“It’s not a bad thing when people say, ‘Oh so you guys are like the Asian Chipotle,'” says BiBiBop Concept Administrator Ellie Robinson. “I say that too, it’s the easiest way for me to describe our brand to people, so obviously they have helped us tremendously.”

At BiBiBop, customers can build their own bowl, salad or wrap, add  beans, potatoes and/or sprouts, top it off with proteins like spicy chicken or tofu, and a host of other add-ins like corn, carrots and eggs. Sauces like spicy sriracha, yum-yum, teriyaki and Korean red sauce give the dish a bit of kick. What Robinson says sets them apart from other brands is the restaurant’s healthy spin.BiBiBopLogo

“We wanted to kind of bring a new dish to our customers,” she says. “But we also wanted to bring that healthy spin and we also wanted to bring something from our own culture.”

While the restaurant feeds the current demands for healthy, high-quality food fast, the story behind the group of restaurants goes back many years. Robinson’s grandmother and her family moved to the states where her mother, Chung Choe, and uncle, Charley Shin, both attended OSU, rooting the family in Columbus. Her grandmother opened popular North Campus sushi restaurant, Japanese Oriental (although they no longer own the location). One of the most popular dishes there was a traditional Korean bibimbap.

There would be other restaurant ventures before BiBiBop. Shin is the founder of popular eatery Charley’s Grilled Subs. Fast forward to January 2013 and 520 Charely’s locations later, the idea for BiBiBop was born. Shin, Choe and BiBiBop Construction Driector Joe Holbrook came together knowing they wanted to create something new that was healthy and make your own, and quickly decided on a spin on the traditional Korean dish.

Choe and Robinson spent six to seven months perfecting the menu.

“I think our biggest goal was to create something that not just tasted good but was healthy for you,” Robinson says. “We realized that our customers are becoming way more health conscious.”

The financial backing from Charley’s was a catalyst for starting BiBiBop.

“We were really fortunate to have that financial background,” Robinson says. The two chains are also able to share accounting, HR and IT teams. With a good team in place, they were ready to jump into business.

The first BiBiBop location on Fifth Avenue in Grandview opened in August of 2013. An Upper Arlington location opened five months later, a few months after that, Polaris, and last week, a brand new location at Easton.

BiBiBop has their eyes on a fifth location. Although construction hasn’t started, the chain is planning a restaurant at 6977 E Broad St., near L Brands headquarters. The chain is also looking at more Columbus locations (no word on the rumored downtown spot), wanting to grow their local presence before expanding outside the city.

“We want to be at more places and have more brand awareness at home base so that we can feel strong enough to be outside,” Robinson says. “We have four restaurants and we really grew fast, but we still are only one-and-a-half years old as a store.”

When the first BiBiBop opened, the team had a very clear concept of the atmosphere they wanted to create. Robinson describes the inviting, friendly atmosphere the restaurants embody with a clean but not sterile design and layout. They wanted something young and fresh, but approachable.

Altogether it’s a concept that has resonated well with a wide audience. When they first opened, Robinson says they were expecting a clientele of mostly females in the 18 to 35 range.

“Honestly we have 50-50 male female,” Robinson says. The age range was blown out of the water as well.

“You can come in to our store and find a kid who is one year old who can start eating, and then you can see a 90-year-old couple eating the food too,” she says. “We have everybody there. That’s why we say we have food for everyone.”

Another pleasant surprise is the even spread between lunch and dinner, a stray from the expected lunchtime-heavy crowd.

Their biggest challenge lies in finding team members with the same heart and overwhelming passion they have for the food and the concept. They know they are out there, and have incentives in place to take care of employees once they find the right fit.

As her uncle would say, “We’re here to create a successful brand with great food but we’re also here to take care of our employees and make our customers happy,” Robinson says.

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