(474) Experience To Go
By Andrei Lankov
The early 1980s witnessed a major revolution in the Korean restaurant business. The fast food industry arrived. The pioneering role belonged to Lotteria, a subsidiary of the powerful Lotte group. This group is unusual among Korean conglomerates in many regards, not least because it is closely related to Japan where an entrepreneurial Korean migrant businessman founded it in the 1940s.
By the late 1970s, the Lotteria fast food chain operated throughout Japan, and in 1979 it opened its first outlet in Korea, introducing the fast food business to the country. This ``grand opening'' (with all the usual extravaganza) took place on Oct. 25, 1979 ― as it happened, one day before the assassination of then President Pak Chung-hee, the father of the Korean economic miracle.
The Lotteria experiment proved very successful, and soon it was emulated by other businesses. The big boys of the international fast food market moved in hot on the Lotteria trail. In 1980, Burger King arrived, followed by Wendy's in 1981, KFC in 1984 and, of course, by the ubiquitous MacDonald's in 1986.
The Western-style food was an instant success, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s the fast food chains grew very fast, especially in major cities.
There were two factors, which made their success possible. First, Korea was becoming rich, and this meant that Koreans could afford to spend a larger part of their incomes on eating out.
Until the 1960s, eating out was usually only for affluent people ― common folks ate at home or if this was not possible relied on the dosirak lunchboxes.
Second, Koreans were acquiring new tastes. The older generations could not drink milk and were not very fond of dairy products, including butter and cheese. Tomato ketchup was seen with deep suspicion, too.
Even wheat bread was seen as exotic by Koreans born before 1920. By the late 1980s, this changed, and Koreans were ready to embrace new tastes.
Koreans did not come to the fast food outlet for an intake of cheap calories. They wanted an experience. For young people (and most of the patrons were young) the fast food chains provided a glimpse of America, which, in the 1980s, was still generally admired despite the rising tide of left-wing nationalism.
Actually, even nowadays it is still much emulated, even though political anti-Americanism is becoming increasingly powerful in the country.
Thus, fast food chains sold not only the hamburgers, but also the experience. They understood this well: the interior of their outlets was as "Western'' as possible, and even names of food on their menu were not normally translated into Korean but simply transcribed in hangeul.
The cleanness, the bright interior, the Western pop music as an audio background and many other things deliberately created the impression of a "small piece of America in the middle of Korea.''
Hence, in the Korea of 1990, a fast food outlet came to be seen as a perfectly suitable place for a date or for some kind of special lunch or dinner. Once people came to such places, they stayed there not merely for 10 or 15 minutes, sufficient to swallow a hamburger and Coke, but for a much longer time. This is still the case.
Occasionally, the local chains tried to capitalize on nationalist feelings and included some "Korean items'' on their menu. My favorite (not as a food, of course, but as a marketing trick) is the kimchi burger, which was launched by Lotteria amidst great fanfare and the usual spiel on the special nutritional qualities of Korean food.
However, fast food companies understand only too well that they should not overstate such messages: their customers still largely came for a Western-style experience.
If a Korean wants to make a nationalist-cum-culinary statement, there are places much better suited for this purpose than fast food chains.
I suspect that this perception of a fast food outlet as a "real restaurant,'' rather than a "junk food place'' adversely influenced the fate of most Korean competitors. There have been some attempts to launch Korean copycat chains, but none of them managed to reach the same level of success as famous multinational brands
The local chains fared relatively well in the 1980s, but soon after 1990 the young patrons decisively turned to Western (largely American) chains, which had the glamour of a famous brand name and a clear association with foreign sophistication.
The few local survivors were pushed away from the city centers to the outskirts, or to smaller towns, where they still could compete using cheap pricing. The golden arches and plastic colonels now dominate the downtown areas of major cities.
Unlike many other countries where MacDonald's is seen as an embodiment of fast food, in Korea it is a distant second. Lotteria, which pioneered the fast food business, is still the largest player in this market ― in 2001, 45 percent of all fast food patrons came to Lotteria outlets.
Good old MacDonald's had 20.1 percent of customers, followed by KFC with 16.5 percent. Burger King was fourth, with 7.3 percent of all patrons. In terms of the total sales, proportions were slightly different, but the order was the same: Lotteria followed by MacDonald's and then by KFC.
The success of the hamburger outlets paved the way for the pizzerias and ``family restaurants,'' which appeared around 1990. But that is another story!
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St.Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.