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(Yonhap Feature) S.Korean food companies set sights on overseas wholesale buyers

By Tammy Quackenbush
Contributing writer
SAN FRANCISCO. Jan. 11 (Yonhap) - Going international with Korean food, or "hansik," has traditionally involved opening Korean restaurants abroad with menu variations developed to appeal to foreign taste buds. Food companies, however, are taking the campaign to a new niche, offering consumers the opportunity to incorporate Korean ingredients into their own dishes.

   This was the catalyst for bringing South Korea's major food companies to San Francisco to directly pitch their products to nearly 100 food writers, chefs, grocery buyers and caterers. Hosted by San Francisco's Korean Consulate and co-sponsored by government agencies, the four-hour long Korean Culinary Camp in October had marketing representatives answer questions and introduce product samples. Some Korean dishes such as "kimchi," a spicy fermented dish usually made with Chinese cabbage and radishes, and "bibimbap," vegetables and meat mixed with steamed rice and hot pepper paste, that have settled into culinary language are more of a finished product.

   The goal of the culinary camp, according to Martin Seo of the consulate, was to introduce Bay Area food experts and wholesale buyers to the major Korean food companies selling basic cuisine ingredients.

   The 18 item on the menus selected were crafted to inspire people to experiment with Korean foods and flavors in their own cuisines, ranging from appetizers and main courses to desserts. Also served were several fusion dishes. One was mero (called Chilean sea bass in the United States) marinaded in "doenjang," Korean fermented soybean paste. Another was pan-fried shrimp with "ssamjang," a mix of gochujang, spicy red pepper paste, and doenjang.

   Pulmuone, one of the big names in Korean food manufacturers, also offered tastes of the bolder products produced by subsidiary Sonoma Cheese, including chipotle- and habanero-flavored Monterey Jack. This unusual corporate marriage brought Sonoma Cheese to Korea, sold in Costco Wholesale stores across the country.

Pulmuone representatives Beom S. Yun (L) and Bradley Tomko at the Korean Culinary Camp held in San Francisco in October. (Courtesy of Tammy Quackenbush)

Park Jong-ran, wife of the Korean consul-general, knows the kind of challenge and the long wait these food companies face. While she and her husband lived in the Washington D.C. suburb of Georgetown in the mid-1980s, she tried to introduce her social circle to "kim," roasted seaweed sheets. Her American acquaintances nicknamed it "black paper" and were too wary to try it.

   More than 20 years later, kim is a popular children's snack, particularly in the San Francisco Bay area. It is more widely known in the U.S., however, by its Japanese name, nori. Whole Foods Market, a large natural foods grocery chain, sells three brands -- Annie Chun's, Sea's Gift and Green Chopsticks -- all made in Korea.

   "Korean food is known for its strong and spicy flavor, just as Korean people are known for their strong and energetic attitude," Consul General Lee Jeong-gwan said. "Once you try Korean food, you will become addicted to it."

   By end of the culinary camp, Pulmuone had received several meaningful sales leads from schools and restaurants, including interest in the company's kimchi and instant noodles from chefs at two University of California campuses. CJ Foods said chefs, food service operators and distributors also expressed interest, particularly those serving in higher education.

   But just as Park experienced, actual contracts will probably take more time to coax initial interest into loyal customer.

   "We are still working with a few potential customers and have not received any large orders yet," said Sean Kim, Pulmuone USA's category manager, when contacted recently. "It will take a few months easily to get tangible results from this kind of event."

   Eric Han, marketing assistant for CJ Foods, said two of the more serious sales leads were for Korean barbecue sauce and gochugaru, spicy red pepper powder.

   "Most of the large-order leads were for food service and industrial sales, and we've learned it takes longer to develop those sales," he said.

   The real value of the culinary camp may be the results of written surveys of attendants. The Korean consulate received comments that were generally favorable on the taste, presentation of menu items and on the information, according to Seo.

   But The constructive critiques contained a surprising revelation.

   "The most common criticism we received was that although the dishes we presented did have authentic Korean ingredients, it was fusion cuisine and not traditional Korean foods," Seo said. "Though one of our goals was to display the versatile applications of Korean ingredients, we will definitely consider presenting more traditional Korean foods if and when we host a similar event in the future."

   Consul General Lee said he hopes to host a similar culinary event next year.

   "Diplomacy is not just a job for diplomats," he said, explaining South Koreans are also diplomats in their circles of influence, including cuisine.

   The budgetary and scheduling feasibility of that will be known in the next few months, according to Seo.