How reality TV exposure affected Studio McGee, Cupbop, and Salsa Queen
Can the reality TV spotlight turn up the wattage on business growth? Having recently appeared on the Food Network, “Shark Tank,” and Netflix, these three Utah companies give their take on the ups and downs of stints on the small screen.
Spicing things up
When the owner of Salsa Queen was downtown recently, she was stopped by a passerby for a photo op. She asked if he was a fan of their product and had tried their salsas. He replied, “No, I haven’t, but I saw you on ‘The Great Food Truck Race,’ so can I have a picture?”
While happy to oblige the selfie, SalsaQueen Zapata (her first name and company name are legally one and the same as of a few years ago), the moment was symbolic of the company’s limited ROI on its foray into television.
When Zapata and her husband Jim Birch, general manager of Salsa Queen, decided to join the 2022 cast of Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race,” they thought it would be an exciting opportunity to leverage reality TV for market share growth.
“They reached out to us to be on the show,” Zapata says. “I don’t know how they found us, but they probably felt that I was the perfect fit for what they needed.”
Zapata’s vivacious personality and competitive quips were front and center for a few episodes before the Salsa Queen had to leave the competition for personal reasons.
“You have to remember that it is reality TV. They want the viewers to enjoy the drama and watch what reality TV offers,” Zapata says of her portrayal on the show. “We’re there to entertain. In reality, I’m a kind human that has worked very hard to build an empire to provide for my family and now for other families, too. We have created a lot of jobs.”
Indeed, the company that Zapata founded eight years ago has gone from selling salsa on Facebook and at farmer’s markets to retail space in nearly 1,000 stores in 25 states, as well as online direct-to-consumer sales.
Birch says being on the show has led to increased visibility for the company. “We saw a spike in our web traffic but didn’t see a spike in online sales or a huge spike on Instagram,” he says.
Zapata says she had fun being on the show. “We’re thankful to the Food Network for the opportunity they gave us. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says.
Swimming with the sharks
Cupbop is another Utah company that has recently taken advantage of TV, appearing this spring on NBC’s “Shark Tank.” The fast-casual Korean barbecue restaurant garnered offers from all five judges, with the highest offer from Robert Herjavec at $5 million for 28 percent ownership. Cupbop settled on a $1 million offer from Mark Cuban in exchange for 5 percent ownership and marketing/brand awareness support.
“You have to remember that it is reality TV. They want the viewers to enjoy the drama and watch what reality TV offers."
Cupbop was founded by Junghun Song, a former professional dancer who moved to Utah from Korea in his mid-20s. “I’m [a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints], and my mom actually sent me to Utah. She told me to learn a lot,” Song says.
After attending college and attempting a few other ventures, Song eventually landed on an idea: He could bring his breakdancing energy and cooking skills to his first food truck. Cupbop immediately attracted a loyal following, including former Wall Street investor and now-COO Dok Kwon.
Almost 10 years later, Cupbop has grown to nearly 40 restaurants in six states and more than 100 restaurants in Indonesia—and they’re just getting started. Cupbop’s goal is simple: “To become the first Korean food-based national brand in the US,” Kwon says. “At the very least, that would entail getting into the top 100 quick service brands.”
Kwon and Song applied for “Shark Tank” as a way to catapult their company toward reaching that goal. In the short term, they saw a bump in restaurant sales across their system when the episode aired. As for the long-term, they say final negotiations are still underway with Cuban.
“There’s a lot of back and forth; we don’t want to give up a lot of things,” Kwon says. “In the meantime, he’s giving us pointers, asking, ‘What’s your strategy around this and that?’ We were a much bigger company [than other participants] when we came on ‘Shark Tank.’ We’re an operating business that’s been doubling every year the last couple years. There’s just a lot more we’re asking from our side as well.”
Designing a brighter future
Appearing on televisions, phones, and tablets around the world is another Utah company: Studio McGee. The Netflix show “Dream Home Makeover” follows Shea and Syd McGee as they reimagine living spaces while sharing a bit of their personal lives as the parents of three children and owners of a high-end interior design company.
In the early days of their company, the McGee’s first brush with television came when they were approached by a production company to do a sizzle reel—a short promotional video—to pitch HGTV. “It was a rough experience,” Shea says. “We had not been in business long enough to know to stand up for ourselves. After that, we said we were never doing TV.”
“There’s a lot of back and forth; we don’t want to give up a lot of things. In the meantime, he’s giving us pointers, asking, ‘What’s your strategy around this and that?"
Shea says she and Syd then decided to create video on their own terms. “People weren’t doing self-produced content in the interior design space, so we saw a huge opportunity,” she says. “We started filming small webisodes, short-form concepts, tours, tips, and how-tos. We established a name for ourselves by blending content and design.”
The McGee’s YouTube channel led to a collab with Target called Threshold x Studio McGee, the home decor and furnishings store McGee & Co., the New York Times bestseller “Make Life Beautiful”, and, eventually, their Netflix show.
“We were on the radar for industry insiders, and that’s how we ended up getting the meeting with Netflix,” Shea says. “They saw us, and instead of working with a production company to pitch ourselves, we just took clips from our website to that first meeting.”
The third season of “Dream Home Makeover” debuted this summer (with a fourth already filmed and release dates TBD), with the McGees working as both on-air talent and producers.
“The show is really fun because we get to share our clients’ stories and more of our family,” Shea says. “On social media and YouTube, we are showing design tips and tricks, and our clients aren’t involved in the process. On the show, you get more behind-the-scenes.”
While the show has added to Studio McGee’s visibility and social media following, Shea says its biggest impact is in the doors that have opened up for Shea to have partnerships with big brands.
“I have one I can’t mention until it launches next year, but it’s safe to say that we have been able to partner with brands that have really large distribution capabilities,” she says. “I think that although we have a platform on social, the show has made it much easier to seal the deal for opportunities like that.”
The only downside of television, Shea says, is perhaps the question of how to run multiple businesses and make time for family—“and then add another full-time job on top of it all.”